The biodiversity of forests in the Amazon and around the world is important not only as a refuge for native species or for storing greenhouse gases. It can also be seen as a global breadbasket, with an important role for the planet’s food security, says a pair of Brazilian researchers.
Bernardo Flores and Carolina Levis, from UFSC (Federal University of Santa Catarina), address the topic in an article in this week’s edition of the specialized journal Science, one of the most important in the world. Both base their analysis on interdisciplinary scientific works that have gained critical mass in recent decades, revealing that the variety of plant species in the forest is far from being 100% “natural”.
In fact, according to such studies, human presence has turned many of the rainforests into gigantic orchards, in which it is much easier than one would have expected to find plants useful as food, medicine, or raw material for the homo sapiens.
In the case of the Amazon, this process has meant that 85 plant species (most of which are fruit trees) have been domesticated to a greater or lesser degree. Such plants are much more common than the average species in the region, being present in 70% of the Amazon basin (against 47% in the case of non-domesticated tree species).
All this makes the Amazon basin considered one of the main centers of origin of agriculture in prehistory, with global contributions such as cocoa and cassava. In places like the Tapajós National Forest, for example, there is a clear association between tree species with edible fruits and the presence of ancient indigenous settlements, now abandoned – the number of these species increases in the vicinity of old villages and falls when the visitor leaves from them.
Similar scenarios exist in places like tropical Africa, the island of Borneo and Papua New Guinea, the researchers note. In all these places, the diversity of plants domesticated and managed in the forest is a crucial component for the food security of native populations. The same places, however, are also targeted by commercial agriculture and mass production of one or a few commodities.
Would it be possible to increase the economic competitiveness of “forest orchards” so that they do not continue to be replaced by soy, cattle and oil palm?
“Things are still at the initial stage, but there is enormous potential for this diversity of foods to be integrated into production chains,” says Flores. “Of course, there are already cases such as açaí and Brazil nuts, but it would be important to expand the range of species.”
This is because one of the main strengths of traditional forest diets is precisely the diversity of food sources, which translates into a diversity of nutrients and, therefore, a better quality diet. “With this, you would be able to combine production that maintains the diversity of the forest with healthy eating, which can attract consumers who are concerned about both issues,” says Levis.
For this to work, however, it is essential to take into account the traditional knowledge of native populations, who have a wealth of information and practices on correctly managing the forest. “Food and health systems are not just utilitarian — they involve other values and are an important part of the cultural life of these populations”, explains the researcher.
And, in many cases, the knowledge of useful vegetables stored by these cultural systems is in danger of disappearing. The pair cites another recent study that mapped the relationship between languages of native populations and knowledge of medicinal plants. What happens is that, often, what is known about a certain plant is restricted to just one indigenous language. If this language is no longer spoken — something that is happening with increasing speed in the Amazon and elsewhere — medicinal knowledge tends to disappear along with it.’