Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Seasonal Floodplain-Upland Migration along the Lower Amazon River *

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Seasonal Floodplain-Upland Migration along the Lower Amazon River *

Article excerpt

Descriptions of lifeways in the Amazon Basin frequently focus on people who live either in the varzea (floodplain) (1) or on the uplands (Meggers 1996). To date, seasonal migration between the two ecosystems has received little sustained attention. Notions that the movement of Amazon residents is limited are being challenged by recent research that indicates a more integrated manner of living, which historically involved--and still involves--utilization of resources from both lowland and upland environments (Denevan 1996; Roosevelt and others 1996; Heckenberger, Petersen, and Neves 1999; Smith 1999).

References to present-day seasonal migration are plentiful in the literature but habitually appear only in passing (see, for example, Barrow 1985,117; Carneiro 1995, 57-58; Eden 1990, 129; Gentil 1988, 143-144 and passim; Junk 1989, 319; and Smith 1999, 30, 113, and passim). Stephen Nugent discusses seasonal migration between the floodplain, uplands, and urban areas at length in his book on the Caboclos, (2) or peasantry, of Santarem (1993). He claims that the increasingly migratory habits of residents of Santarem are but the expansion of what was already an underlying component of the "caboclo petty commodity complex," which refers to a repertoire of sites of production (pp. 179-183). This complex includes extensive barter arrangements between kindred at various sites and individuals who move fluidly between locations. The patterns of seasonal migration I discuss in this article can be interpreted as part of the same Caboclo complex.


My research was conducted on Ituqui, a 21,000-hectare floodplain island in the Amazon River about 30 kilometers downstream from the city of Santarem, the fourth largest city in the Brazilian Amazon (Figure 1). The region experiences a tropical monsoon climate and is located in a "dry" corridor within the Amazon Basin where total annual precipitation is significantly lower, averaging between 1,750 and 2,000 millimeters per year, than in the regions to the west and east (Ratisbona 1976, 274). The area is characterized by a distinct dry regime from July through December and a rainy season from December though June. Only 20 percent of the annual precipitation falls during the dry period, which coincides the cropping season (WinklerPrins 1999, 40).

The Amazon River rises and falls with the annual influx of water from its headwaters in the Andes and its numerous tributaries. Around Santarem the annual river-flood cycle is offset from the rain cycle by at least several weeks. The crest of the flood at Santarem is usually in May; its low point, in November. The flux is on the order of 7 to 10 meters. The annual flood is an anticipated yet anxiety-provoking event because residents do not know how high the water will rise, how long the flood will last, or the speed with which it will build and recede. As one Amazonianist noted," [t]he major constraints in this ecosystem are the variability and unpredictability of water levels and flooding" (Moran 1995, 76). Most households on Ituqui endure inundation of their fields and house lots every two or three years (Figure 2) (WinklerPrins 1999, 48--60).

With onset of the dry season the river recedes to within its banks. Levees on the island are exposed, and interior lakes are defined. As the dry season progresses some of these lakes partially dry up and become natural grasslands on which cattle graze. Other lakes remain and become important for fishing.

As soon as the levees are exposed, islanders plant subsistence and market-oriented crops. Flood-related variability makes cropping a risky venture. The growing season is already short--six months at most--and the late recession of one flood and early arrival of the next can make a major difference in the vulnerability of households. Residents in other parts of floodplain Amazonia face similar challenges (Denevan 1984; Hiraoka 1986,1989, 1992; Chibnik 1994; Coomes 1998). …

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