The Amazon and the River People

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The Amazon and the River People

The inhabitants along the riverbanks in Amazonia are known as ribereños and consist of a mélange of ethnic groups that includes detribalized natives, mestizos, and those of European descent. They are transitional communities, which have neither the benefits of a traditional tribal community with its medicine man nor the benefits of modern civilization with its available medical care, except for annual immunizations and elementary schooling. They live on a rich floodplain that annually undergoes drastic environmental change. Ribereños characteristically respond to extreme natural processes and boom and bust market cycles with remarkable social, economic and environmental resilience and adaptability. These are the people who we see almost every day on our Amazon cruise as we travel on the Marañón, Ucayali and Amazon Rivers.

Ribereños are generally Spanish-speakers who live in small towns, villages or individual farms in the Amazon lowlands. The river is their life and is used for washing, bathing and fishing, and the water for cooking. Since there are no roads in the forest, the rivers are the roads and highways. Everyone travels by dugout canoes and even young children know how to paddle a canoe at an early age. Children attend schools in villages along the rivers, sometimes traveling long distances to reach the one-room building where one teacher teaches students in many grades.

The subsistence-farming methods of the ribereños inhabiting the shores of white-water rivers are relatively uniform. Farming is the major focus, but fishing, hunting, extraction of forest products, and waged labor are also integral economic pursuits of the river people. The primary dietary staples are sweet manioc and plantains although over sixty other plants are raised, including maize, rice, beans, and a number of fruits and vegetables. The ribereños recognize a large number of ecological niches in their environment and each is managed simultaneously, each producing a number of differing crops. Despite almost five centuries of European cultural and biological intermixing the outlook of the people and their methods of managing the resources appear not to have changed much and remain essentially native in origin.

Near Iquitos, the primary city of 500,000 people, the floodplain measures between 15 and 25 km (9-15 mi) in width. The low-lying terrain is composed of fine sediments eroded and transported from the recently uplifted Andean mountains, and the slightly higher land that rises 5-40 metres (16-130 feet) above the water level forms the floodplain borders or levees. The ecosystem in this floodplain consists of varied landforms and bodies of water sculpted by the river covered with diverse vegetation that ranges from palm forests and floodforests to grasses and aquatic plants. These all provide rich habitats for wildlife.

Hunting

Hunting, along with fishing, constitutes an integral part of ribereño livelihood and the bulk of their animal protein and a portion of their cash income derive from the two activities. Game is preferred to fish, especially large mammals like tapir, deer, peccaries and rodents such as capybara. However, scarcity due to over-hunting in the past and uncertain seasonal availability cause the inhabitants to seek the more dependable and abundant fish.

Interestingly however, the ribereño practice of agroforestry also attracts a large number of fauna, and in the low but dense shrubs and trees around human inhabited areas offer protective cover, nesting dens, and abundant smaller animals for food; armadillos, agouti, paca, opossum, and small rodents comprise the main sources of animal proteins. These animals, however, also show fluctuations in their populations according to seasons and peak harvests occur during the high-water season when land is scarce. The capture of these small animals has been overlooked in the literature and this largely invisible activity is carried out by women and children, and contributes significantly to ribereño household protein intake.

Fishing

The floodplains of Amazonia have supported a large and dense human population since prehistoric times. High demographic density was enabled by the rich soils and by the abundant fisheries. To this day, the ribereños rely on fish to fulfill most of their amino acid needs. On the floodplains, fishing plays a role comparable to farming. As in agriculture, it supplies one of the vital ingredients of food intake, and it also contributes to producing cash. As such, every household is engaged in the activity during most of the year, and on our Amazon cruise we often see the ribereños in their dugouts or on shore, with line, harpoon or net involved with their practice of fishing.

As with farming, there are a number of cultural controls in ribereño tradition that influences the exploitation rates, harvest and fish consumption. In certain areas, supernatural beings were thought to discourage fishing with nets and canoes in specific locations at specific times. Later developed into taboos, these beliefs assured the local inhabitants a sustainable supply of fish. Some of these culturally conditioned avoidances have led to the exclusion of the atinga (Symbrancus marmuratus), electric eel (Electrophorus electricus), canero (Cetopsis spp.), carachama maman (Hemiancystrus arenarius), and Amazon pink river dolphin (Inia geofrensis) from the household menu.

Among ribereños, although women sometimes fish with poles, the task of procuring fish has been predominantly a man's activity. Touching or crossing over the fishing equipment and canoes by women, especially those in menstruation, are thought to bring bad luck. Ritual purification of the fisherman's body, tools, and canoes, as well as other practices, has traditionally played important roles in ribereño fishing. Solitary fishing is possible when using projectiles like gigs and harpoons, but the use of nets and trotlines is commonly done in pairs. Larger groups, consisting of five to six members, are common during periods of fish migration. These groupings fulfill not only an economic objective but also social needs. As the fishing does not take place continuously, the moments in between are spent in socialization. Seasonal concentration of people offers opportunities to re-establish contacts with people from neighboring villages. Household fish is not continuously available because of fluctuating day-to-day yields and the demands of other chores do not allow daily fishing. Since fish is a desirable item, the product is continuously exchanged between households and serves to maintain social bonding. Fishing, then, does much more than provide income and a balanced diet to the dwellers. It is an integral element of ribereño livelihood.

Fishing sites are to a large degree determined by the water level in the Amazon. For example, in late March when the floodplain depressions become connected with the main river, the fish migrations begin. For the next seven or eight weeks, as different schools of migrating fish move out from the floodplain, fishermen capture their prey with nets cast at the edge of the main channel and tie gill nets to the floodforest trees nearby. Interestingly enough, although market prices for fish are depressed during the season because of oversupply, the returns on labor are so rewarding that the activity is still attractive (although a lack of alternate work on account of flooding is also a factor).

By the end of May, the river starts returning to its main channel and the location for fishing becomes the river banks. Here, fishing is not efficient because the water volume is still large and the fish are dispersed in the river. As sand and mud bars and low levees are gradually uncovered, alternative work (farming) awaits the ribereños and fishing becomes relegated to young boys. If adults participate, it is done in the early morning hours or in between farming chores.

The continuously diminishing flow of water by July exposes an increasingly large proportion of land and the choice of multiple aquatic niches implies a variety of fish, so that the ribereños to a certain degree can select the desired species. For example, the acarahuazu (Oscar) are caught in the oxbow lakes, while the palometas (Pygocentrus palometa, a species of piranha and prized for the fat stored in their undersides) are fished in the Amazon; the carachamas (armored catfish) are caught in streams, while to add diversity to the diet, river turtles like taricaya (yellow-spotted river turtle) or charapa (Giant South American turtle) and their eggs, laid on the sandy beaches, are often harvested.

The period of greatest fish scarcity occurs between late December and March. As the river swells and gradually engulfs the floodplain, the fish disperse into the floodforests. Most of the low-lying terrain is submerged and hunting for mammals is no longer worth while. At this time, some venture three to four hours out from the village into lakes where they use fish toxins made from rainforest plants like barbasco (Lonchocarpus nicou), sacha barbasco (Lonchocarpus spp.), huaca (Clibadium silvestre), and catáhua (Hura crepitans). It is illegal yet still practiced in portions of the floodplain streams and oxbow lakes.

Fishing along the Amazon by ribereños is a well defined activity. To ensure a continuous supply the people have to have a detailed knowledge of fishing behavior and the floodplain ecosystem. To gain such a familiarity, individuals are initiated into the various fisheries activities by the age of five or six, when they begin to accompany their elders in local fishing outings. Between 65% and 75% of the catch is consumed locally and plays a major role in the diet of the riverine people. Although every household keeps between ten and thirty chickens, they are raised mainly for sale, and wild game is insufficient to meet all the animal protein needs on a year-round basis.

Ethnobotany

Ribereños, like Amazonian Indians, have great knowledge of forest plants and the forests themselves reflect the ethnicity of the people because of the way they select and utilize wild species. There is a multitude of rituals that must be followed for harvesting plant material used for medicinal purposes. Lunar cycles are an important consideration in this process and in the cultivation and harvesting of crops.

Some beliefs apply specifically to men about when and how to cultivate or use certain plants, but most of these gender-specific beliefs often to apply only to women. Particularly during menstruation and pregnancy, women are restricted in where they go, what they do and when. During these times women must avoid entering gardens, avoid certain types of harvests, and sometimes climbing fruit trees should be avoided by young girls. In urban areas today, where many rural people have moved to the big city, many women will still avoid watering plants during menstruation. The female reproductive cycle has a strong influence on the use of plants by women in ribereño culture.

Ribereños have always had a strong tradition of using medicinal plants from the rainforest, and even those who have moved to urban environments will often combine traditional plant remedies with modern medicines purchased in stores or pharmacies.

There are a number of publications that describe the ethnobotany of medicinal plants in the upper Amazon. Richard Evans Schultes was a pioneer in this field and his brilliant works, including Schultes and Raffauf’s “The Healing Forest: Medicinal and toxic plants of the northwest Amazon”, continue to be major sources of information and inspiration for recent publications.

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