“This is barbasco, a suicide plant,” Edmundo Salazar says. He motions to the young leafy bush in front of him. The leaves are elongated and a vibrant green.
For centuries, the plant Lonchocarpus urucu was commonly used by indigenous tribes in South America for fishing. When ground into a paste, it’s a particularly potent substance that can stun fish in stagnant pools or slow-flowing streams.
It’s also used to commit suicide; three kids in Salazar’s small town of Rukullacta had killed themselves with the plant over the holidays.
“Because of love sickness,” Salazar says, touching the leaves of the plant, briefly pausing, remembering.
Soon the moment is over and we move on. After all, the barbasco is just one plant in Salazar’s garden of plenty. All around, there’s an abundance of edibles and medicinal foliage. For food, there’s yucca roots and leaves, mushrooms, cocoa, edible ferns, and Amazonian cinnamon, vanilla, and grapes. There’s also taro, various citruses, bananas, green plantains, and toquilla palms—whose leaves are used to make hats and whose young hearts are edible. (Hearts of palm, after all, come from palm trees.) There are herbs that act as natural antibiotics or insect repellants. Some plants act as seasonings, others are just food for the birds.
The entire garden spans 3.7 acres. This is Salazar’s lifeline. It’s not just a garden, it’s the main source of food for his family and it’s been like this for centuries.
These gardens are called chacras, a Kichwa term that refers to a food garden in the midst of the jungle. Edmundo Salazar himself is full-blooded Kichwa and runs an activist group called Wayru Churis, whose purpose is to spread the cultural and musical traditions of the Kichwa people.
An indigenous group that spans South America, the Kichwas have had a major presence in the Amazon Rainforest for thousands of years. Here in the Napo Province in Ecuador, the rainforest is their home. The Kichwas make up the majority of the populace.
Nearly all the families have their own chacra. It is their source of food, medicine and, at one time, hardwood. The average chacra size is two to four acres and structurally speaking, it’s a far cry from the mono-crop operations typical of North American farms.
“It’s a super regenerative piece of land,” says Carlos Calapucha, a Kichwa tour guide at La Casa del Suizo, an Amazonian resort and lodge. “It provides our families our basic food. Without a chacra, we cannot live.”
An agroforestry system which mimics the diversity and natural layers of the rainforest, the chacra is formed by burning out a section of the jungle. When nutrients derived from the ash are exhausted, the garden is retired to the jungle and a new garden is created. The chacra is entirely organic; pesticides and fertilizers are not used.
While it may not be as productive as mono-crop farming, the plants benefit from the diversity. According to a 2015 study done in Brazil, agroforestry systems in the Amazon have around ten to 12 species in the average home-garden plots. It’s far greater than an average agricultural parcel, which typically just has one species.
“Conventional farming requires outside inputs like pesticides and fertilizers, while an agroforestry system allows for the natural recycling of nutrients that is adapted to the Amazonian climate and geo-physical conditions that protect native species from pests, disease, and other stressors commonly found in conventional agriculture,” Sydney Nilan, program officer at the Runa Foundation, says. The Runa Foundation is a non-profit organization in Ecuador dedicated to creating value for tropical forests while benefiting the forest ecosystem.
The chacra is an extremely low-maintenance operation. Salazar says he only needs to tend to his farm two times a week and that pests have never been a problem for him. Additionally, being located in the rainforest means plenty of water for the crops.
Salazar shows me a pond where he’s cultivating tilapia. Introduced to the Amazon a decade ago, tilapia is a widely popular source of protein for locals. They are easy to raise and the cultivation of the fish has taken considerable pressure off the local river systems.
“We can’t say how much more a chacra system produces than a conventional system, but it does reduce inputs that farmers have to buy and the risk they have to assume, as well as negative environmental impacts which affects other environmental services and natural resources that communities depend on,” Nilan says.
To the untrained eye, Salazar’s farm may look like just any part of the jungle. But every part of it has a function—even the decaying trees.
At the end of the tour, we head over to a mound of dead palm trees. There’s a pungent odor in the air—the smell of rot. These trees are Chonta palms (or Juania australis). He takes a machete and starts hacking away at the bark, looking for a beetle larvae known as chontacuro.
Traditionally grilled, chontacuro is a culinary delicacy throughout the region. The larvae only develop after the palms die, hatching and burrowing themselves deep inside the structure of the tree and taking two months to reach the ideal harvest-size.
It’s a marvelous source of protein, but even more than that, a demonstration of the resourcefulness of the Kichwas. All throughout the chacra, there is life to be found in death and it is with that philosophy that these people have been able to live off of the rainforest for centuries without depleting its resources.
“With the exception of salt and oil, I don’t have to buy anything from the market,” Salazar says. “The forest provides us with what we need.”