In 1542 a Spaniard, Francisco de Orellana was the first European to traverse the Amazon River, bringing back home journals and tales of a network of farms, villages and even huge walled cities.
It was half a century later before a further expedition was undertaken. They found no trace or signs of the people and places described by de Orellana. His tales were derided as just a fanciful myth.
Scientists also agreed that although the rainforest may appear productive, it stands in clay soil which is totally unsuited to farming. If the soil cannot support sufficient crops to feed a large number of people, it was argued, then a large population could not have been sustained.
Even modern chemicals and techniques have failed to generate significant food from Amazonian soil in a sustainable way, proving the scientist’s claims.
Then in the 1970’s aerial surveys in Bolivia revealed a network of ancient permanent settlements over thousands of square kilometres, indicating sophisticated agriculture lasting over hundreds, possibly thousands of years.
Attention then moved to the Amazon and ground surveys revealed an astonishing result. In some spots the earth is much darker than the rainforest soil nearby. The soils are the same, but the darker soil contains biological matter, introduced by humans. The Brazilians call this soil Terra Preta. It is renowned for its extremely high productivity.
Covering an area twice the size of the UK it is now believed that this man made soil could have sustained a population of millions of people. De Orellana was almost certainly correct, the population subsequently dying out due to the spread of newly introduced diseases.
But Terra Preta may have a still more remarkable ability. Almost as if alive, it appears to reproduce. Local farmers who began to mine the soil commercially found that, as long as 20cm of Terra Preta is left undisturbed, the bed will regenerate over a period of about 20 years.
Today, scientists are busy searching for the biological cocktail that makes barren earth productive. If they can succeed in recreating the Amazonian Terra Preta, then a legacy more precious than the gold the Conquistadors sought could help feed people across the developing world.
How the Howard-Higgins Horticultural System (HH-2) began
100 years ago Sir Albert Howard CIE. MA. (the “Godfather” of organic farming) found many of the answers to sustainable agriculture from his extensive studies in the Far East – with great similarities to Terra Preta.
His work fell into obscurity due to the advent of the chemical industry until 1995 when Richard Higgins began researching and perfecting the fertility techniques that Sir Albert pioneered.
Howard is now considered the Grandfather of organic farming and his research from the Permanent Agriculture of the east (which is where the term Permaculture was derived), and the growing system that was employed, has formed the foundation of the Howard-Higgins Horticultural System (HH-2) today.
22 years of research by Richard Higgins has proved the remarkable ability of HH-2 to transform the way small and micro scale agriculture can operate. Starting with small scale rural projects in Africa, the ambition of the Good Gardeners International is to introduce the HH-2 system around the world, changing people’s lives with a new approach to sustainable agriculture