The Amazon: a natural landscape?*

Hugh Raffles

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AMAZONIA has a special place in the popular imagination. Since the early days of European exploration, reports have circulated throughout the world of its astonishing and overwhelming nature. Above all else, more even than the tales of headhunting natives and fearless women warriors, it has been the unrelenting vastness and the brute physicality of tropical Amazonian nature that has impressed the traveler. Visitors as diverse as Lope de Aguirrre, Sir Walter Ralegh, Alexander von Humboldt, and Teddy Roosevelt have responded with the ambivalent superlatives that betray both intimidation and wonderment (Raffles, in press).

In recent decades, this powerful ability of the region to signify nature at its most primal has facilitated the adoption of Amazonia by the conservation movement, and its ascension to its current status as the key symbol of threatened biodiversity and fragile ecosystems. Driving much of this modern rhetoric is an assumption of the pristineness of the region’s nature, and a narrative of an unsullied Eden corrupted by the taint of civilization (Slater 1996). In these accounts, there are two radically opposed roles available to local people: they are either the guardians of the forest or its destroyers. They either protect and nurture the region’s wonders, or they desecrate its treasures. Increasingly, however, it is becoming clear that people have long interacted with this area in other, more complex ways, and that they have dramatically influenced and managed a landscape that outsiders stubbornly persist in calling a wilderness.

One morning in 1961, a group of villagers from the small community I call Igarapé Guariba set off from their houses with machetes and hoes, rounding up a not always obliging herd of water-buffalo on the way. They were working to cut a canal about two miles long, the first of many leading across fields thick with tall papyrus grass and into dense tropical rain forest. Today that narrow canal and the stream that flowed into it have formed a full-fledged river more than six hundred yards wide at its mouth, and the landscape in this part of the northern Brazilian state of Amapá has been dramatically transformed.1

Igarapé Guariba is on the northern channel of the Amazon estuary, a vast island-filled delta with mouths that stretch nearly three hundred miles from coast to coast. The village is a hundred miles inland from the ocean, and here the waters can rise more than twelve feet with the twice-daily tides, leaving sheer banks and thigh-deep mud in its wake. In winter, when the heavy rains swell the rivers all the way to Peru, the tidal variation is at its greatest and the estuary changes in another way, filling with large floating islands of grass that have descended with small animals and clouds of insects from who-knows-where, possibly hundreds of miles upstream.



When the four founding families of Igarapé Guariba arrived in the late 1950s, the river from which the community takes its name was, as one long-time resident put it, a ‘besteira’ (a silly little thing). Wadeable by children at low tide, more a stream than a river, it ran for only a mile, narrowing from about a hundred yards at its junction with the Amazon to less than fifteen at its terminus in a shallow waterfall. Soon after the arrival of these founders, Manoel Viega, the landowner in the area, built a sawmill in Igarapé Guariba and contracted workers in the town of Macapá to come out and work for him. The original families were sent into the forest to collect timber for sale at the mill. The wood they brought out was recorded in personal notebooks and exchanged for merchandise in the white-painted company store that sat on a low bluff at the mouth of the river.

It wasn’t long before the valuable trees in the immediate area had been cut and sold. Viega began to look to the distant forest, extending mile after mile beyond the grassy fields behind the waterfall. The timber was there but it was all but inaccessible. To reach it collectors had to push and drag their canoes for hour after hour opening tall papyrus grass that closed behind them as they went forward. But Viega wasn’t the only one with his eye on that forest: the collectors he employed looked too and saw good quality land with abundant fish, game, and forest fruits. What followed was a collaboration of sorts which ended, after Viega’s death 13 years ago, with the community gaining access to a large area of Amazonian rain forest and the landscape changing almost beyond recognition.

When Waldir Gomes da Souza took me on a tour of Igarapé Guariba, where he has lived since he arrived as a child in the late 1950s, he had difficulty convincing me that the complex network of streams, rivers, and lakes in the area was less than 35 years old. ‘No, you couldn’t even get a canoe through here’, he shouted above the noise of the outboard motor as we bounced over the choppy surface of a lake more than a mile and a half mile wide. ‘Before we opened this up, we’d go hunting in the forest back there,’ pointing into the distance, ‘and we’d have to salt the meat and bring it home on our backs...the sweat, and the salt, and the heat of the sun, walking all day long... really, it was terrible!’



It was a dizzying story. Every time we passed a stream winding its way into the forest I would ask the same question: ‘Is that one natural?’ And nearly every time, the same answer: ‘We opened that one. Me, and my brothers, my father, João Grande, Luiz...,’ many still living in Igarapé Guariba, others dead, others who had moved away. ‘We cut and uprooted the plants, we dug out a pathway, then we drove the buffalo through; the tides did the rest.’ And he described the dangers they had faced from crocodiles, snakes, candiru – the ‘orifice fish,’ – sting rays, and jaguars, the clouds of mosquitoes and tiny blackfly, and the timber, seeds, fruit, and animals they had brought out of the forest to eat and sell.



There are 25 families now living on the Rio Guariba, a tributary near the mouth of the Amazon, northeast of Macapá. This river doesn’t appear on any except the most recent maps of the area for the simple reason that it wasn’t there 25 years ago – at least, not in any significant form. Streams shift their beds, lakes form, islands disappear or migrate, and the Amazon river system undergoes both daily and seasonal change and renewal. With such violent natural processes dominating our perception of the region, is it surprising that only recently have researchers begun recognizing the ways local people have harnessed this power to their own ends?

Yet in Igarapé Guariba, these interventions have had a major impact on the local ecosystem. A large area of seasonally flooded grassland is now a permanent lake; forest, houses, and gardens at the river margins fall as the main stream continues to expand; low-lying fields have become subject to periodic inundation, forcing variation in the repertoire of appropriate crops. The fluvial vegetation has changed too, as plants, like the aggressive aturiá, that are well-adapted to water-borne dispersal and seem to have a greater capacity to prevent erosion, outcompete established grasses and sedges. As its architects intended, the altered landscape has enabled increased human activity. People in Igarapé Guariba now fish and hunt over a much larger area than was previously possible. Local stocks of certain animals – such as the howler monkey, paca, and river turtle – are said to have been drastically reduced, whereas populations of others, shrimp and capybara for instance, are thought to have grown.



With a greater human presence on previously remote land, the species composition of large areas of the forest has changed: new tracts of miriti palm and bamboo dominate areas disturbed by timber extraction, and the distinctive pau mulato tree sprouts from abandoned fields. Responding to careful management, densities of the graceful açaí palm increase, producing more of the nutritious berry-like fruit that eastern Amazonians eat daily as a purple liquid thickened with roasted manioc flour. Ranchers in the area have responded to the new environment by reducing their cattle herds and bringing in more buffalo – powerful swimmers but also greedy eaters that consume twice as much vegetation as their bovine relatives. Land in Igarapé Guariba is abundant at present, but, with growing families and unstable ecological conditions, people are thinking of their future. As in many other communities in the region, the residents of Igarapé Guariba are developing long term plans to manage their forest and fluvial resources.

Igarapé Guariba is one place in Amazonia where people have intervened in nature to change rivers and streams with dramatic results. There are, as I suggested in the opening paragraph, many more throughout the region. The famous British naturalists Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace sailed through a canal close to the town of Igarapé-Miri in 1848. Archival materials tell us that it had been dug out by slaves, many of whom died when the dam protecting them from the waters of the Rio Mojú suddenly collapsed (Bates 1863: 58, Lobato 1985). Indeed, once we are sensitized to human intervention in the fluvial landscape and begin looking for signs of the management of streams, canals, and rivers, there is an abundance of documentary and anecdotal evidence. Occasionally, it is cartographic, as in the 1808 map of Amapá on which a river is marked Obstruido, with the explanatory note: ‘Furo Araguarí blocked off on the orders of Conde de Va Flor.’

Now and again – rarely – we might stumble on an ethnographic description as in Erland Norden-skiold’s eyewitness accounts of 1916 of canals and moats on the llanos de Mojos in Bolivia (reported in Métraux 1948; also see Denevan 1970, Macedo and Anderson 1993, WinklerPrins 1997). Sometimes it is in a chance conversation, as with the elderly bar owner in the village of Santo Antonio de Pedreira who invited me in for lunch and started talking about the improvements he planned for his land, improvements that included a fish trap 15 yards wide and a 150 yards long, dug out mechanically in an extended ‘L’ parallel to the river, where he will raise fish and river-turtles.



And sometimes it might pop up in a conversation on an entirely different topic. Discussing buffalo with a friend whose father owned a ranch on Ilha Caviana near Macapá, I found out that he had worked off and on for six months in 1992 with his brothers and a group of hired workers to dig a mile long channel to drain winter pasture: ‘It rots the buffaloes’ hooves to stand too long in water’, he explained.

Researchers are today finding more and more evidence that what is still often described as the largest area of ‘wilderness’ on the planet, is in fact a constantly changing landscape, profoundly influenced by human management.2 I have focused here on interventions in the river system, but much of the most exciting work in recent years has looked at the ways local residents have influenced terrestrial environments: changing soil properties, altering the species composition and density of forest and savanna, managing varied landscapes in transformative ways (see Posey 1985, Balée 1989, 1993, Hecht and Posey 1990, Padoch and Pinedo-Vásquez 1999).



The importance of such research is quite clear: it provides a powerful corrective to long-standing popular and academic understandings of Amazonia as a place in which local populations are hostage to the all-powerful forces of nature. Whether this nature has been figured in positive or negative terms, it has nearly always been transcendent, and Amazonia consistently portrayed first and foremost as an environment, not a society. Instead, recent studies understand the Amazonian landscape as biocultural, rather than simply natural, and explain the historical invisibility of local interventions by reference to the continual reproduction of Euro-American mythologies. In this way, they help reinstate some creative agency in the hands and minds of Amazonian people, and open up the possibility of non-coercive conservation and development strategies driven by local expertise and experience.



* An earlier version of this article appeared in Natural History. We thank the American Museum of Natural History for permission to use a modified version of that piece.



1. For a more detailed account of these events, see Raffles 1999.

2. For a parallel argument made in relation to the United States, see Cronon 1996.




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