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Farming Goes High-Tech In The Amazon

The secret to carving out agriculture from the jungle–while preserving the environment and biodiversity–turns out to be combining new technology with old farming practices.

Farming Goes High-Tech In The Amazon
tr3gin/Shutterstock

In the Amazon, technology can be difficult. The high heat and humidity prevents many machines from working.

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“To be honest, anything above a combustion engine is ‘technologically advanced’ in the area of Peru we’re working in,” said Rick Pickett, a volunteer with Eco Ola, a company trying to promote and sell Amazonian super-foods while maintaining biodiversity and helping local farmers.

Eco Ola has nine hectares of land, on which they are using sustainable farming techniques like polycultures (using more than one plant species in the same area), alley cropping (growing an agricultural crop simultaneously with a long-term tree crop to provide annual income while the tree crop matures), and rotating crops.

Most farmers in the Loreto region of Peru practice simple agriculture. They plant cassava, plantains, and papaya. In low areas with higher fertility, or in slash-burn areas, they’ll also plant rice or corn. The concepts of soil maintenance and creation are virtually non-existent, says Pickett.

Pickett says that the land can’t hold up to such heavy use. “They exhaust the fertility and life of the soil and then move on to new forest for clearing, due to the inherent fragility of the nutrient cycle in the humid tropics,” he said. Ninety-percent of the organic matter lives in the leaf litter and biomass of the forest, with the remaining 10% residing in the soil. With slashing-and-burning, followed by heavy nutrient feeding crops, the soil’s nutrients are quickly absorbed and leached by the heat and high rainfall.

With such a fragile infrastructure and environment, the company has taken on a wide variety of land management strategies to keep the land use sustainable. Pickett uses three-dimensional modeling software to diagram natural features such as marshes or water catchment formations. He also uses GPS to mark out the land features and crop placements to get an accurate projection of production and identify weak areas for organic fertilizer treatment. He said the technology can project shading patterns, which helps with plant organization, especially for shade-loving trees.

Pickett walked around the farm with a hand-held GPS, inputting information about plant health, changes in topography, and land quality. The map was then overlaid with satellite information, and each type of plant was added to the terrain model based on its needs–creating a three-dimensional farm map.

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Many of the neighboring farms have started to work with Eco Ola to lease the use of their land with new methods and technology. “The benefit to the farmers is that we offer fair and consistent pricing for production, access to global markets, and education about sustainable agricultural practices and technologies,” said Pickett. Modeling offers the benefit of examining root interactions, shade cover, and maturation sizes among plant groupings. Every farming site needs to take into account the site specifics, but developing model groupings and associations can work for multiple sites within similar environments.

Technology doesn’t always have to be silicon-based for it to be high-tech and beneficial to the farmers and the company. “One of the best things I’ve re-introduced was the whiteboard,” said Pickett.

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