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High-Tech Help for Amazonian Farmers

by Rick Pickett, Eco-Ola

In our three-years of experience in the Peruvian Amazon we’ve learned that equipment and techniques tried and proven elsewhere often don’t function well here. The combination of primitive infrastructure, intense heat, and high humidity wreaks havoc with equipment. Luckily for us, and the community of Mazán, we have Rick Pickett to apply truly useful technology to our project. (And, thankfully, his technology has yet to fall victim to the jungle.)*

A challenge in building a polyculture/agroforestry system is balancing it so that all plant niches are fully optimized and utilized. With many different varieties of plants, organizing and designing plantings gets complicated. To assist in visualizing and improving the efficiency of our designs, Rick is utilizing 3D-modeling allowing us to quickly test assumptions and ideas.

But, before we can jump into the digital landscape, we’ve got to get our feet muddy and walk the farm. In the first step of observation and design, Rick walks a circuit around and through the farm with a hand-held GPS. Walking each row helps to orientate him with the variations in topography, changes in land quality, and plant health. With these notes and data he then overlays his paths onto a satellite map of the region. Finally, each plant species is added to the terrain model based on its needs, products and species characteristics.

With the general layout and location of plant groupings, we then optimize plant associations in 3D. By depicting each species of plant at mature size we are able to set the spacing and grouping of the plantings with greater confidence.

In addition to using modeling for farm planning, it’s also proved useful for communicating with the workers. Rick is proficient in Spanish, but working in a rural setting often involves large differences in vocabulary. Taking this into account, Rick uses 3D-models to teach construction techniques and animating concepts like companion planting. By modeling the movement of the sun, the relative positions, and sizes of the trees, the farmers can better understand techniques and strategies at use on the farm.

The modeling also plays an important role in our advocacy of the shift away from failing industrial agricultural systems. Unfortunately, most industry trained and sponsored agronomists are dismissive of the potential for polyculture systems.

Using our modeling we are able to better illustrate the Land Equivalency Ratio (LER) of our polyculture system versus conventional monocultures. Using LER is necessary because polyculture calculations derived from simple crop-per-hectare formulas don’t account for other plants in the polyculture that are producing on the same piece of land. By totaling the production from all the interplanted crops we can calculate the equivalent amount of land required to produce the same amount in a monoculture system. An LER of three, for example, means that it would take three-hectares of monoculture to produce as much as one hectare of polyculture! The implications for sustainable economic development and preservation of biodiversity are profound.

Working with Rick has helped us visualize and advance our farm operations, and improve our ability to communicate our vision and goals for the Peruvian Amazon.

*Rick almost lost his iPhone as he was mapping Federico’s farm. But don’t ask Bill how his Garmin GPS is working out for him, it’s a bit of a sensitive subject.


  1. Very interesting, thank you. Can you please provide more details so we can try your techniques? For example, what software did you use? What hardware was OK in the jungle and what failed?

  2. Nice. I like how more people are using Google Sketchup to show shadows and draw trees. You can also draw contours off of Google Sketchup if you don’t want to walk a property to obtain contour lines. I made a video a while back and you can view it here. It’s a bit fuzzy but if you need any feedback on how to do it shoot me an email and I’ll be more than happy to help.

    Landscape Design and Analysis: Draw Contour Lines on Google Sketchup

  3. Hello Greg, I forwarded your question along to Rick Pickett, Eco Ola’s farm manager, and here is response from our correspondence. I hope this helps!

    “I’m using SketchUp for the 3D modeling. The iPhone, with a less robust OtterBox case has withstood two drops in water (once when I was GPS mapping the farm, the other while planting pigeon peas in swales during a torrential downpour), hours sitting in my sweaty pockets while working and numerous three-foot falls. Samsung mobiles have proven durable. Mine ‘swam’ in a puddle in my rain jacket pocket, fully submerged, and I was able to salvage it.

    Regarding computers, I’m a Mac guy and love the lightness and processing power of the new MacBook Air 13.3″. I have it protected with an iPearl plastic shell and store it in a padded Viper case. I also bought AppleCare to extend its warranty (highly worth the cost!).

    A one-year-old Garmin GPS bought the farm when the batteries inside melted, so be careful with those.

    A must-have is a Leatherman Wave multi-tool with the accessory bits. I use it daily, but be careful. It can slip out of your pockets easily if you don’t use the included case.

    We use a variety of cameras, but mine, Canon Powershot, jammed with grit in the lens and now won’t open.”

    Also, here is the link to our Facebook page so you can visualize our activities.

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