Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

The tropical garden as a sustainable food system: A comparison of Indians and Settlers in Northern Colombia

Florence Pinton, International Centre for Environmental Research and Development (CIRED), Paris


Development efforts directed at shifting cultivation economies throughout the world have often been based on premise that shifting cultivators regularly suffer months food shortages and consequently severe periodic malnutrition. In addition, since shifting cultivation is based on all-scale subsistence-oriented exploitation of garden-like Ids with mixed cropping and an abundance of different species growing vertically as well as horizontally, it has not been taken seriously or understood by field agriculture-oriented governments.

Sequentially, official efforts are made to restrict the movement of shifting cultivators in order better to incorporate m into national societies and economies. These efforts rally go hand-in-hand with government-supported colonization by agriculturists, reducing the land area available to shifting cultivators. The result of thus disrupting a traditional production system can soon be periodic or permanent underproduction and underprovision

At the same time, open-field agricultural exploitation strategies can destroy the precarious tropical forest biological balance, rendering cultivation uneconomical per a short period of diminishing production with increasing inputs. The end effects are two disrupted societies, culturally and economically, and a tropical forest set on a downward spiral.

This article describes the situation in Colombia's province North Santander, where native American Indian populations are faced with a changing life-style due to colonization-efforts promoted by the Colombian Government the Bari Indians' traditional food production system is compared with: (i) their present deteriorating economic (i) nutritional situation, (ii) the agricultural system introduced by settlers, and, (iii) the case of more successful adaptation by a neighbouring Indian population. In conclusion, suggestions applicable to similar situations in other tropical regions are offered for the improvement of the nutritional and social situations of both the Bari and the settlers.


The tropical forest region of Catatumbo in north-eastern Colombia is presently characterized by two distinct societies: the colonos (settlers), landless peasants who entered the jungle region following the 1960s agrarian reform, and the native Bari Indians. These two groups perceive and relate differently to the same environment, representing two opposing techno-economies: field agriculture and semi-nomadic shifting cultivation.

Around 1772, the Bari came into contact with missionaries, who adopted the indigenous cultivation system, introducing some plant species and domesticated animals. Early descriptions by missionaries mention plantains, sugar cane, cassava, pineapple, cotton, and chillies being cultivated in Indian "tropical kitchen gardens."

By the time of independence and the expulsion of the missionaries, however, the Bari had adopted only a few Spanish words and tools to facilitate their traditional way of life. They continued a communal life-style centred around small family groups of 50 to 80 individuals sharing collective houses. Each extended family controlled its own "fire" and garden, although labour-intensive tasks were performed collectively (e.g. clearing of new forest land and hunting and fishing). The collective house was located in the centre of the horticulturally exploited area, and each house controlled a region of up to three kilometres in radius. Depending on soil fertility, the house and community moved every 12 to 15 years to a new location within the larger area inhabited by the Bari.

New contact with non-selvatic populations ensued with the 1910 oil explorations, which also brought settlement and agricultural exploitation to the jungle. During the 1960s, colonization was intensified, and the physical and cultural demise of the Bari accelerated because of the restriction of their food production system, epidemics, and forced settlement in nucleated villages.

The settler approach to economic and social survival in the jungle was totally different from that of the Indian. Being of peasant origin from higher altitudes, settlers had a mentality of exploitation rather than of long-term colonization of the tropical forest, which was perceived by them as inexhaustible. Coming from different ethnic backgrounds, settlers failed to form coherent social units with reciprocal relationships. Settler families have continued to trade with a far-off national society and economy; they depend on outside markets for the sale of their products and the purchase of agricultural inputs, as well as for food to supplement cassava and maize, which they need because they never learned to balance their diet with locally available species.


The basis of the Bari economy is the forest garden worked mainly by women. Men in traditional Bari society are responsible for fish and meat procurement, as well as the more energetic agricultural tasks. The collective house is surrounded by a strip of ground devoid of vegetation, followed by a fringe with climbers and creepers, sweet potato, and barbasco. Along this cultivation belt are cotton, sugar cane, and chillies, followed by manioc fields inter-cropped with numerous minor cultigens. Banana clusters occupy the exterior margins, marking the tropical forest border.

Thus a gradual change in the size of the vegetation can be observed between the house location in the centre of the cultivated area and the surrounding jungle. The plot exploited by each family is an extension of their part of the collective house. However, one family's gardens do not appear to be separated from those of other families. Less than one hectare in size, the garden assures each family unit permanent economic equilibrium.

Garden space is selected in areas of primary forest. The plots (chacras) around the houses are divided up in such a way that intermediary zones of virgin forest remain between the individual parcels. The plots are small and dispersed, which makes them less vulnerable to ants and predators. These patches of virgin tall forest also provide shade, which keeps the soil temperature relatively low and thus helps to retard bacterial and fungal growth. The gardens in each bohio (settlement) are proportionate to the number of adult women and the productivity of the soil, which depends in part on the altitude. Cutting, clearing, and burning are done collectively by the community, while cultivation and harvesting are mainly carried out by women and children.

The Bari spread their production over three successive fields at two-year intervals. When a parcel returns to secondary forest, the perennials planted previously continue to be harvested. A Bari cultivator can thus find himself in any one of three food-producing situations:

- collecting residual perennial species from a former garden now lying fallow;
- harvesting the parcel under production;
- preparing a new parcel.

Each parcel has a productive period of four to five years, followed by a short fallow period of three years. Then a second cycle begins, after which the area is abandoned and the collective house moved to a new region with primary forest.

The main food items produced and consumed are cassava and plantain. Cassava covers around 80 per cent of a cultivated area. However, cassava fields are inter-cropped throughout with other roots - sweet potato and yam (Dioscorea trifida) - and sugar cane, peppers, and cotton along the margins. Finally, there are some pineapples and watermelons. The transition from shifting garden to field is thus gradual; the Bari do not perceive the two as separate.

About once a week, according to family needs, women harvest cassava, which is usually eaten boiled. A daily consumption of 1.8 kg is estimated per person. Members of the Musa family are collected green and stored in the house until ripe. Five varieties of Muse are cultivated: two types of cooking bananas and three sweet varieties, which are eaten between meals. The average consumption varies between 0.5 and 6 kg per capita, depending on availability and total food choice. Qualitatively important is the cultivation of associated minor crops (chillies, sugar cane, sweet potato, and squash).

In addition to cultivated species, a wide range of collected plant and animal foods is added. Of these, approximately 15 species of palm are the most important. The most frequently consumed animal foods are crustaceans, molluscs, reptiles, frogs, and larvae. Collecting activities, although seemingly insignificant, add a considerable source of regular protein to the Bari diet, and also provide a certain security in times of low yield from cultivated plots. Likewise, as hunting and fishing are seasonal activities, gathering of protein-rich plant and animal food sources helps bridge the seasonal gap in dietary protein supply. Protein is perceived as an important dietary ingredient and the Bari, like shifting cultivators in other parts of the world [61, will temporarily abandon other activities in order to obtain extra protein.

The key to successful adaptation and sustained exploitation of the tropical forest ecosystem is the diversification of resources. Bari society has achieved a food production technology and food procurement strategies that are fully compatible with their environment while providing balanced nutrition and utilitarian household items. It is difficult, therefore, to support the thesis that the Bari suffer months of acute food shortages. The research done for this study indicates that, although varying in composition, the traditional Bari diet is balanced and sufficient throughout the year.

The shifting garden is a place for food production as well as social interaction and collaboration. Integrated perfectly into the sylvigenetic cycle, the forest garden appears to give a high return on energy [1]. Daily energy intake is derived mainly from tuber crops and starchy fruits. The need to gather, hunt, and fish to supplement the diet is not indicative of limitations within the shifting cultivation system but rather symptomatic of a general weakness of agricultural production, which fails to supply all essential nutrients.


The settler society centres on small-scale agriculture, oriented toward market production of commercial crops. Settlers utilize simple technology - such as the slash-and-burn method and hoe cultivation -to transform the natural ecosystem. In contrast to the native population, settlers live and work in isolated family units and depend on hired help for labour-intensive tasks. Settler families find themselves on the margins of the national economy and the labour market, while depending on both. Meanwhile, their means of production are greatly weakened by the absence of both appropriate production technology and an immediate frame of social reference and co-operation. In contrast to Bari society, settler society has a strict sexual division of labour that places the burden of agricultural production, as well as the marketing and fishing activities, mainly on the men, while women are in charge of domestic tasks.

The agricultural system of the settlers has brought about a systematic deforestation and destruction of the natural ecosystem. As population pressure is high, the production area available to each family is insufficient to allow a fallow period during which secondary forest can become reestablished. Holdings are divided between space for home consumption (0.5 to 10 hectares) and market production (0 to 80 hectares). The size the cultivated surface depends on socio-economic factors, on the extent of production for the market, and on the labour force available. Food production for home consumption is considered an "act of survival." With the progressively lower yields due to soil depletion and erosion, labour becomes increasingly intensive and prohibits the achievement of a favourable balance between energy expenditure and return.

Settler subsistence agriculture is limited largely to cassava, cooking bananas, and sugar cane produced in monocultures. Small livestock poultry and pigs - furnishes eggs and meat on an irregular basis. Despite poor pastures, livestock production along with cocoa are market-oriented enterprises supported by the Colombian Government. Other than basic subsistence foods and market products, the production of minor cultigens capable of providing a balanced diet is neglected. Kitchen gardens, traditionally kept by settler women in their places of origin, have disappeared in the jungle, although women are conscious of the danger of malnutrition, especially to children. Not knowing how to supplement their children's diet through locally grown species and tied to seasonal income from their cash crops and processed foods, they are forced to wait until their husbands provide funds for purchased dietary supplements.

Theoretically, substitution of market production for subsistence production should enable the settlers to provide a balanced family diet through the purchase of foods. In this case, however, there are infrastructural deficiencies in the marketing and transport systems which fail to supply remote areas regularly and at prices affordable to farmers, who face a continuing decrease of productive potential and thus of purchasing power.

A number of adverse factors have worked against the settler families, placing many of them in a situation of poverty. Prominent among these factors has been a limited understanding of the ecology of the tropical forest in terms of crop production. Settlers have intensified their labour efforts without a higher return, in the face of a deteriorating environment. They live in isolated family units dependent on often unaffordable or unavailable wage labour for agricultural chores while women remain underproductive. Nutritionally, they are growing dependent on irregular and expensive external food supplies owing to lack of knowledge about how to balance their diet with locally available plant and animal species; at the same time they are depleting their valuable natural resources. In comparison to the Bari, who traditionally obtain their food from various sources as much as possible, settler families have minimized their chances of survival in a delicate forest ecosystem, tied as they are to a remote market economy of which they are only marginally a part.

Paradoxically, the Colombian development project for the Bari (INDEC/INCORA) is aimed at involving them in field agriculture, participation in the market economy and resettlement in villages. As a result, the Bari have become dependent on a cash economy, and their nutritional balance has suffered.


Some relatively isolated indigenous populations have escaped the destruction of their social and agricultural traditions and also managed to incorporate, to their advantage, certain traits of modernization into their culture. The Birinkaira, for example, have been able to add marketable species to their traditional cropping list while continuing to harvest forest, fallow perennials, and garden. They have successfully integrated maize, cocoa, and beans into their layered forest gardens. No substitution or interruption has taken place, as this cash crop production has remained on a small-scale.

Also, by introducing these new crops into the family garden, women are not excluded from their production, although men take care of the marketing. The family group is in charge of its own production, while collective tasks are still carried out communally by the bohio, thus preserving basic community structure. The forest garden remains an important place for subsistence food production from a variety of species; subsistence remains the major focus of production, although the sale of some products allows access to manufactured items.


Today, both Indians and settlers face the same problem: reduced fallow which does not permit maintenance of soil fertility. Still, a crucial difference between the agricultural systems of the two societies remains. The indigenous method of exploiting the tropical ecosystem through the household garden and associated multi-cropped shifting fields can be classified as a food production system that is self-supportive and capable, within limits, of adaptation to new economic environments. The colonist approach, however, cannot be regarded as a starting-point for a long-term food production strategy. It must be seen as a negative example with no future.


1. S. Bekerman, "The Cultural Energies of the Bari of Northern Colombia," thesis (Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, 1975).

2. W. Hoedl and J. Gasche, "Indian Agriculture as Exemplified by a Secoya Village on the Rio Yubineto in Peru," Appl. Geogr. Dev, 20: 20-31 (1982).

3. H. Martinez, "El saqueo y la destrucción de los ecosistemas selváticos del Perú," Amazonia Peruana, 1 (2): 7-8 (n.d.).

4. B. J. Meggers, Amazonia. Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise (AIdine, Chicago, 1971).

5. H. Ruthenberg, Farming Systems in the Tropics (Clarendon, Oxford, 1971).

6. R. A. Rappaport, Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1968).


Contents - Previous - Next