Agricultural expansion in the Ecuadorian Amazon is carried out predominantly by small-scale farming systems, yet the impacts of smallholders on the ecosystem and social fabric are not fully understood. In this paper, we use the societal metabolism approach to operationalize the analytical concepts of complexity theory put forward by agro-ecology analysis. We define a typology of farming systems and assess the impact of different trends, such as population growth, the emergence of new farming practices and the implementation of policies aimed at increasing agricultural production, on (i) the livelihood of smallholders; (ii) the national economy; and (iii) deforestation and biodiversity loss. Our findings indicate that smallholders find themselves in a subsistence trap, in which intensification of agriculture does not lead to an improvement in income, exacerbates social inequalities, negatively affects the ecosystem and has negligible benefits for the national economy.
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