Historical Ecology and Dark Earths in Whitewater and Blackwater Landscapes: Comparing the Middle Madeira and Lower Negro Rivers

This chapter explores how the recent historical ecology of two distinct riverine settings in Central Amazonia has shaped the contemporary use (and non-use) of Amazonian Dark Earths1 (ADE). Drawing on ethnography and oral histories from ongoing fieldwork on the Middle Madeira and Lower Negro rivers it asserts that patterns of land use on ADE by the Amazonian peasantries and Indigenous groups resident in each region are conditioned by divergent agro-ecological histories. The correspondence of life histories and particular configurations of agro-extractivist activity amongst informants suggests wider trends in the relation of livelihood to ADE. The distinctive processes of kinship and sedentary or mobile settlement encountered in each region are shown to be contingent on different patterns of social and economic history within and between the two great rivers. Kinship ties, permanency of residence and social networks are identified as being critical factors in enabling the practice of agriculture. The chapter reconstructs the divergent agro-ecological trajectories that have engendered the widespread practice of agriculture on the Middle Madeira, and the prevalence of extractivism in livelihood trajectories on the Lower Negro, until recent (1950 and onwards) migrants from the more agricultural regions of the Solimões and Upper Negro Rivers have begun to forge a local agricultural tradition. It argues that these current patterns of land-use — rather than being ‘adaptive’ strategies in response to certain static environmental constraints (Moran 1993) — have emerged vis-à-vis landscapes shaped by the interaction of historical and environmental factors over time (Baleé and Erickson 2006).

The historical ecology of the Lower Negro is shown to have constrained agriculture. People successfully farming ADE there are those who have migrated from regions where agriculture is more prevalent. In contrast, the historical ecology of the Middle Madeira is shown to have enabled agriculture. This implies that the longer-term trajectory of agriculture on the Middle Madeira (and for those families on the Negro from agricultural backgrounds) should have allowed the evolution of a greater repertoire of local knowledge related to ADE. The cultivation of ADE and awareness of its anthropogenic origins are examples of how local knowledge and ethnobiological perceptions are contingent on historical ecology. The chapter demonstrates the utility of comparative historical ecology in understanding contemporary agriculture on ADE in different regions. It concludes that further comparative research is important in order to explore the significance of manioc (Manihot escu- lenta) agriculture on ADE and how local understandings of the cultivation, management and creation of ADE could be incorporated into the creation of Terra Preta Nova.

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© Springer Science + Business Media B.V 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology, Arts C126University of SussexFalmerUK
  2. 2.Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da AmazôniaLaboratório de Etnoepidemiologia e Etnoecologia Indígena, Programa de Pós-Graduação em EcologiaBrazil
  3. 3.INPA/CPCA/Solos e Nutrição de PlantasManausBrazil

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