Human Ecology

, Volume 35, Issue 6, pp 681–696 | Cite as

Indigenous Shifting Cultivation and the New Amazonia: A Piaroa Example of Economic Articulation

  • Germán N. Freire


This article argues against the idea that indigenous cultural change and knowledge loss are inevitably bonded to one another, with particular reference to agro-productive transformations. This view has not only ignored the potential of these productive systems—well documented in recent decades—but has often threatened them by promoting development policies based on mistaken premises. It is suggested here that some indigenous peoples’ productive responses to market integration may in fact offer alternatives to the paradoxes of development in seemingly fragile tropical environments. This article reports, in particular, on the strategies developed by the Piaroa, from southern Venezuela. Contemporary large and permanent Piaroa communities, which resulted from their involvement in aspects of national society, have been able to sustain the forests on which they depend while satisfying their food and market necessities. This has been possible due to a series of market strategies based on their agroforestal tradition, which have emphasised the commercialization of secondary forest products. The article proposes that these strategies have been underestimated due to the market conditions in which Piaroa farmers are immersed, and from which they have learnt the very principles of “capitalism.” Oil dependent and saturated with corruption, the Venezuelan market hampers their full economic integration, contributing to the idea that their agroforestry system can only produce at subsistence levels.

Key words

Shifting cultivation Market integration Economic change Piaroa Venezuela Amazonia 



I thank Peter Rivière, Stanford Zent, Stephen Nugent, Kay Tarble, Omar Tremont, Laura Martinez, Josep Gari, and Elisabeth Ssenjovu for aid and advice generously given during the realisation of this article or the thesis on which it is based (Freire 2002). The satellite images used in this article were generously provided by the Venezuelan Ministry of Environment, and the research was sponsored by the Fondo Nacional para el Avance de la Ciencia y la Tecnología (Venezuela), the Overseas Research Scheme (UK), and an Oxford University Overseas Bursary (UK).


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ministerio de SaludCaracasVenezuela

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