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Caboclo Horticulture and Amazonian Dark Earths along the Middle Madeira River, Brazil

Abstract

This article examines the relationship between Amazonian Dark Earths (ADE) and Caboclo horticultural knowledge and practice along the middle Madeira River (the biggest whitewater tributary of the Amazon) in the municipality of Manicoré, Amazonas State, Brazil. ADE are fertile anthropogenic (human-made) soils that are found in many areas of the Amazon region. The formation of ADE is a legacy of Amerindian settlement patterns, mostly during the late pre-Columbian period (2000–500 bp). The primary users of ADE in the Central Amazon today are Caboclos, traditional Amazonian people of heterogeneous origins. The multi-sited ethnography presented here demonstrates that Caboclos have developed a repertoire of local knowledge surrounding the cultivation of their staple crop, bitter manioc, in these soils. This revolves around a local theory of “weakness” and “strength” used to describe different sets of bitter manioc landrace traits and their responses to planting in different kinds of soil and fallow ages. This local theory has developed in the context of a regional historical ecology that has enabled the conservation and generation of such horticultural knowledge. I conclude that these notions of strength and weakness shape divergent loci of bitter manioc genetic traits and co-evolutionary dynamics between people and plants in the cultivation of bitter manioc in different soil types.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    The majority of inhabitants living traditional lifeways in the Central Amazon are Caboclos, not Indians, who constitute less than 5% of modern Amazonians (Harris 1998).

  2. 2.

    While the term ‘cassava’ is often used in English, ‘manioc’ is a more suitable name, as it is closer both to the scientific term Manihot and the Brazilian term mandioca. Its roots lie in the Tupi word maniot. The term ‘cassava’ comes from casaba, an Arawak word that refers to manioc bread, rather than the plant itself (Gade 2002).

  3. 3.

    Recent research has confirmed that both sweet and bitter manioc evolved from a single domestication event of the wild species Manihot esculenta spp. Flabellifolia in Southwestern Amazonia (Olsen 2002; Olsen and Schaal 2006)

  4. 4.

    Despite this, rubber extraction did alter social relations and land management schemes over time. Rubber bosses and their foremen subordinated these people to a particular working regime and also introduced new crops and management practices.

  5. 5.

    And, to a lesser degree, some are also of African descent with some of their practices and beliefs stemming from this origin

  6. 6.

    Also because some varieties are only mildly toxic and do not require soaking to detoxify them, as the toasting process suffices.

  7. 7.

    “Landraces” are local crop varieties that are highly diverse, an outcome of an interplay of cultural and natural selective pressures in different environments over time (Harlan 1992; Zeven 1998).

  8. 8.

    While the terms themselves are first described in relation to bitter manioc here, regional scholars do recognise the existence of the two distinct sets of landraces to which these terms refer: fast maturing floodplain adapted varieties, and slow matuing terra firme adapted varieties (e.g., Smith 1999). In one of the earliest definitions of the word landrace, botanist Jack Harlan noted peasants used the terms strong and weak to refer to soils and landraces adapted to them (1992:148).

  9. 9.

    Local farmers claim that the tuberous roots of mature seedlings tend to grow straight down, rather than sideways as with clonally propagated manioc plants.

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Acknowledgements

This paper draws on my doctoral research, funded by the Leverhulme Trust (Grant F/00 230/W), under the auspices of a scientific expedition (EXC 022/05) granted by the Brazilian National Research Council (CNPQ). This paper has benefited from discussions with Charles R. Clement and André B. Junqueira. I thank Evan Killick, Roy Ellen, Nick Kawa, Phillip Compton and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticism of previous drafts.

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Fraser, J.A. Caboclo Horticulture and Amazonian Dark Earths along the Middle Madeira River, Brazil. Hum Ecol 38, 651–662 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-010-9338-y

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Keywords

  • Bitter manioc
  • Swidden
  • Shifting cultivation
  • Historical ecology
  • Brazil