Find Ai Weiwei’s iron sculpture in Eden's Rainforest Biome, cast from a giant tree root sourced in Brazil.
People have been living in the Amazon rainforest for 13,000 years. Evidence of their ancient practices can help teach us how to manage the rainforest sustainably today.
Once thought of as pristine forest, it has been discovered that much of the Amazon has been shaped by human practices that reach far back into history. Structures discovered in the earth suggest that the Amazon was home to large, complex societies who used the forest to produce food and shelter. Ancient peoples domesticated plants to grow crops, and these species are still widespread in the Amazon today. They also used systems of polyculture agroforestry, where a variety of crops are grown within the forest, which meant food could be grown as a part of a healthy ecosystem.
Rock art in the region depicts the relationship between people and ancient animals and plants, showing their importance for food, medicine and spiritual purposes. These early artworks highlight the close connection between people and the forest they lived in.
There is also evidence in the soil that points to the careful use of fire within these ancient societies. Certain regions of the rainforest are home to Amazonian Dark Earths – or Terra Preta. These soils were created thousands of years ago from small fires that were lit to partially clear areas of land to grow food or to dispose of waste by burning it underground. In doing so, charcoal was added to the soil, boosting its carbon content and fertility, which is still helping plants to grow today.
More recently, the use of fire is very different in the Amazon. Deforestation and slash and burn are used to remove trees and clear large areas of land, primarily to make way for agriculture and cattle grazing. These unsustainable practices, combined with higher temperatures from climate change, are resulting in more severe fires at rates far greater than what is natural.
Fire was historically used at a small scale in a managed and sustainable way. Now, it is growing in size and frequency, threatening the future of the rainforest and the 30 million people that live and work there.
Eden is working with scientists from the University of Exeter to share their research about ancient practices and historical fire use. Learning more about how the Amazon has been shaped by the past improves our knowledge of how to manage it in the future, highlighting which regions may be more susceptible to fire and which may benefit from its controlled use.
We can also apply the fertility of Terra Preta soils in new biochar initiatives – where organic waste is burned at low oxygen and transformed into carbon-rich charcoal. Once added to the soil, it stores away carbon and can increase food production.
These ancient practices highlight that a sustainable way of living with the rainforest is possible. Different indigenous peoples that live in the Amazon still act as stewards of the rainforest in a way that supports and protects the health of the ecosystem. By supporting them and pushing for recognition of indigenous peoples’ land rights, we can work to make change for those living sustainably in the rainforest.