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Local and national food crops in the Andean Amazon

Small farmers tend to grow foodstuffs for domestic markets, including manihot. Credit: © guentermanaus /

  • Mongabay has begun publishing a new edition of the book, “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon,” in short installments and in three languages: Spanish, English and Portuguese.
  • Author Timothy J. Killeen is an academic and expert who, since the 1980s, has studied the rainforests of Brazil and Bolivia, where he lived for more than 35 years.
  • Chronicling the efforts of nine Amazonian countries to curb deforestation, this edition provides an overview of the topics most relevant to the conservation of the region’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and Indigenous cultures, as well as a description of the conventional and sustainable development models that are vying for space within the regional economy.
  • Click the “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” link atop this page to see chapters 1-13 as they are published during 2023 and 2024.

Many of our staple food products are highly dependent on industrial agriculture and global supply chains, but small farmers in the Amazon continue to produce foodstuffs for their families, local communities and national markets. This is particularly true in the Andean nations where poverty and a strong cultural tradition of subsistence farming influence both land use and food production.

Most of the small farmers in the Andean Amazon are migrants from the Andean highlands where landholdings are often extremely small.

An economic production system based on small farms accompanied these migrant communities to the Amazon lowlands; although holdings are small, typically between ten and fifty hectares, they are an order of magnitude larger than what migrants were accustomed to in the villages of the High Andes. The opportunity to acquire land and grow food is the primary driver of deforestation in Andean countries; in all these countries, legal systems exist that allow individuals to homestead public lands and acquire tenure if they occupy and work the land. For many families, this is one of few viable pathways out of poverty.

This rice field in San Martin (Peru) is one of the favorite foods for domestic markets. Image by Olga Kot Photo/

Small farmers in the Andean Amazon grow a diversity of crops for household consumption and for sale to local, national and global markets. The use of technology varies but, like small farmers across the globe, they depend on family labor. This includes clearing the land, preparing the soil, sowing seeds or transplanting individual plants, weeding and pest control, as well as harvest and post-harvest activities. Some crops have labor-intensive stages when the family may contract outside labor, especially successful small farmers who have consolidated multiple small plots into a larger family landholding.

Many food crops are annual species planted immediately after forest clearing, which may be natural forest on forest frontiers or second-growth forest in areas with a longer history of settlement. Common annual species are rice, cassava, maize, yams, beans and peanuts; farmers also plant fast-growing perennial crops such as sugar cane, plantains, bananas and papaya, while investing in longer-lived tree species such as mangoes, avocados and citrus. Sometimes these are planted simultaneously with perennial cash crops targeted at overseas markets, such as cacao, coffee and oil palm.

Over the short term, food crops produce essential resources that families need to survive, but it requires a constant effort to maintain production using the slash-and-burn/forest-fallow system. In contrast, perennial plantations produce for ten to twenty years, or longer, although they require up to five years to start producing revenue. Importantly, neither the perennial nor annual production models are profitable without the benefit of family labor.

Tropical fruits are part of the local food basket throughout Latin America and Pan Amazonia is no exception. This is why it is widely cultivated by small farmers. Image by Sven Schermer/

For a recent arrival to the frontier, land clearing provides a positive cash flow from the production of food crops that can be consumed and/or sold into national or local markets. Maize production may be used to raise swine and poultry, which adds value to the farmer’s primary production while contributing protein to the family diet. The effort to create a long-term cash flow from cacao, coffee or palm oil is cost-effective, but these will not turn cash-flow positive until the fourth or fifth year.

More importantly, perennial plantations generate a windfall if they are producing during a periodic price spike, which tends to occur in decade-scale intervals. Established farmers have greater flexibility than migrants because they can discount the capital costs of land acquisition and deforestation as ‘sunk costs’, which makes the perennial production models more attractive on long-established landholdings.

Moreover, an established farmer can use contract labor to expand his or her landholdings, since the return from an annual food crop will largely offset the cost of expansion. The most logical option is to pursue both strategies: invest in existing properties via perennial cash crops while growing food crops by expanding into unoccupied or inexpensive land. Combining family labor with contract labor can maintain a positive cash flow over the short term while acquiring a real estate asset that will accrue value over time. This includes more land, cleared land and land with a perennial production system.

For both the recent arrivals and the long-established small farmer, speculation in land represents the primary means for generating wealth. More wealth is created via perennial production systems when compared to annual crops, but annual crops initiate the cycle by allowing new immigrants the opportunity to acquire land, while providing established farmers the opportunity to expand their holdings. This logic and cycle hold true in most of the major smallholding landscapes in the Andean Amazon, although the relative mix of annual and perennial crops varies among geographies.

“A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” is a book by Timothy Killeen and contains the author’s viewpoints and analysis. The second edition was published by The White Horse in 2021, under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0 license).

Read the other excerpted portions of chapter 3 here:

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