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Year : 2005  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 461-478

Nature Makes them Lazy: Contested Perceptions of Place and Knowledge in the Lower Amazon Floodplain of Brazil

Department of Social Anthropology, University of St. Andrews, St Andrews, Fife KY16 9AL, United Kingdom

Correspondence Address:
Mark Harris
Department of Social Anthropology, University of St. Andrews, St Andrews, Fife KY16 9AL
United Kingdom
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Date of Web Publication11-Jul-2009


This article considers how fisherpeople, who live on the Lower Amazonian floodplain, perceive their environment. It contrasts their views with those of elite townspeople and attempts to put these differences in a brief historical context. If these perceptions are historical and part of an estab­lished tradition of local knowledge, what role should they play in the conser­vation of the floodplain? My aim in this article is to show how the floodplain is a multilayered place requiring skilled knowledge to survive. It is made by human labour, as well as the river and its movements. This kind of knowledge is a key resource for environmental management. By focusing on 'local knowledge' I am trying to complement the work of NGOs who are dedicated to community forms of management. My intention is to show the horizons that conservationists should be aware of if recent anthropological understandings of human-environmental relatedness are to be taken seriously. For all the la­bels and models used to describe floodplain residents and their work we can­not really know them until we know what they know and how they come to know. This perspective complements the expert and specialised knowledge of outsiders.

Keywords: Brazilian Amazon, floodplain, ribeirinhos, fieldwork, tradition, environmental knowledge

How to cite this article:
Harris M. Nature Makes them Lazy: Contested Perceptions of Place and Knowledge in the Lower Amazon Floodplain of Brazil. Conservat Soc 2005;3:461-78

How to cite this URL:
Harris M. Nature Makes them Lazy: Contested Perceptions of Place and Knowledge in the Lower Amazon Floodplain of Brazil. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2005 [cited 2020 Apr 2];3:461-78. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2005/3/2/461/49322

   Introduction Top

THE FLOODPLAIN of the Amazon region (v d rzea) is a forested environment of the whitewater rivers-waters with a high level of sediment [Figure 1]. The land is flooded seasonally due to rainfall and the melting snows of the Andes. The floodplain is so variable over its extent from Peru to the mouth of the great river that it is impossible to generalise and description must be limited to a micro region. The v d rzea comprises about 2% of the Brazilian Amazon and 12% of the Peruvian Amazon. At the mouth of the Amazon, the flood­plain is affected by tidal movement, as well as seasonal fluctuations. In the Lower Amazon of Brazil [1] - the focus for this article-there is no significant tide, and the area is immensely flat, characterised by large shallow lakes, grasslands, forests, and a maze of channels and streams. What is fascinating about this environment is that people, animals and plants have adapted to the annual floods which cover the entire landscape with water for several months each year; up to ten metres in some places. At high water or during the rainy season, their riverside houses, built on stilts, are islands against a vast flooded horizon; during the low water, the land is farmed. During the floods, cattle are kept on raised platforms and grass is brought to them. Fish move into the in­undated forest and live on a diet of nuts and berries falling from the trees.

Until recently, the floodplain of the main Amazon river attracted little at­tention from scholars and research scientists. It covers a very small percentage of the area of the region, has little forest and appears to be a risky place to live given the uncertainty of the river's seasonal changes. What is more, it is in­habited mostly by mixed-blood poor peasants who held a marginal interest for anthropologists. In short, it seemed not to be threatened and relatively insig­nificant compared to larger scale schemes and concerns, such as road-building projects, land grabbing, Amerindian disease, forest loss, gold mining, etc. (Hecht and Cockburn 1989). However, from the 1980s, this situation dramati­cally changed. There are now a number of scholarly studies and reviews and three important research-oriented sustainable development projects dedicated exclusively to the floodplain environment (Mamiraua, IBAMA's Provarzea, and IPAM's Projecto Varzea, see websites in references). The reasons for this reversal in fortune are multiple. The research environment has opened up due to a paradigm shift which has given the role of the floodplain in prehistory much greater importance. The floodplain has been identified as an important part of contemporary regional development. An increase in fish exports fol­lowing the fall of other floodplain products has brought attention to the poli­tics and science of its resources and management strategies (McGrath et al. 1993). Various conflicts have resulted between locals and outsiders due to the intensification of fisheries and animal husbandry. The lack of legal recogni­tion of floodplain dwellers' land ownership has forced a reconsideration of how to conceive of land which is flooded for half the year-whose property is it? In all, the floodplain of the Amazon has generated much scientific, gov­ernmental and civil society interest in the last twenty or so years. And at the centre are arguments about conservation and development. [2]

This article is concerned with the people who live on the floodplain, who are known as ribeirinhos in Portuguese, and are sometimes involved in these arguments. What role should their local knowledge of the floodplain play in these developments and conservation of the environment? The issue here is that this knowledge is not something that can be discovered through question and answer sessions and marked down with numbers and times and weights, though these measurements are an expression of it. It is rather a knowledge that is embedded in what people do and learn by repeated practice, such as how to throw a hand cast net. With long-term familiarity of the context and observation and imitation, understanding can be gained by a sympathetic out­sider. Anthropologists are very well placed to make this contribution, since they spend long periods with the people they work with. This knowledge is taken for granted or the 'what goes without saying' of everyday life (Bourdieu 1977) and which is nevertheless constituted by power relations. I have looked elsewhere at how these matters are internally stratified in terms of gender and age (Harris 2005). My aim in this article is to show how the floodplain is a multilayered place requiring skilled knowledge to survive. It is made by human labour, as well as the river and its movements. This kind of knowledge is a key for resource management. My intention is to show the horizons that conservationists should be aware of, if recent anthropological understandings of human-environmental relatedness are to be taken seriously.

The need arises because of the urgency given to environmental dilemmas by governmental and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In the case of the Amazon, there appears to be a perpetual crisis or state of emergency with regard to the future of the environment. Each crisis produces another which has a human impact. One does not doubt the significance of increased road paving, soya farming and illegal logging, to give three current examples. These activities are having huge effects on the region (e.g. Watts 2005). However, the discourse of crisis and ongoing devastation legitimates expert knowledge rather than local knowledge, and external intervention rather than local em­powerment. The perceived urgency given to environmental problems is asso­ciated with global discourses of nature and development. Surely it is for this reason that there has been a considerable growth in NGOs in the Amazon with finance from North America and Europe (Buclet 2004). Most of the NGOs pro­pose innovative models of development, stress local management of resources and the importance of conservation. However, Buclet (2004) has shown how they are nevertheless embedded in a social system that is imbued with tradi­tional forms of domination and older paradigms of socio-ecological develop­ment. This context limits the full impact of their policies. While local knowledge does not have to be at odds with expert knowledge, it often is, given the local political realities in which the project takes place.

By focusing on 'local knowledge', I am trying to complement the work of NGOs who are dedicated to community forms of management, 'based on small holder practices, which optimise local resource production while main­taining the integrity of local ecological processes' (McGrath et al. 2005: 3). It is critical to place local knowledge in history (Harris 2000; De Castro 2002). Presentism, as a manifestation of urgency, is combated in a longer term per­spective: the reconfiguration of the past to fit the concerns of the present. If we can see the here and now as but one present, rather than the present, then it is possible to have an enlarged understanding of how Amazonia's resources have been exploited by different classes for different markets over time. Ama­zonia has been a managed and human-made environment since well before conquest (Roosevelt 1980; Raffles 2002). Nugent (2000) argues that the his­torical realities of the region are undercut by global eco-politics agendas. The fact that nature is treated as a global resource means it is abstracted from con­crete situations and local knowledge, effacing the inequalities between core and peripheral countries in the world system. Locating knowledge in ethno­graphically meaningful histories helps bring together the 'dwelt' (Ingold 2000) in environmental and political structures.

History and Knowledge

A subsequent problem is the disparity between historically constituted prac­tices and skills (i.e. embedded knowledge), such as fishing or cattle raising, and the context which gives them a value or not. This value could be assigned by the market or by a development project. The importance of an activity or a kind of people can change with the influence of new possibilities and dis­courses. In an excellent critical review of recent developmentalist work in the Brazilian Amazon, Carneiro da Cunha and Almeida (2000) make a poignant argument in this regard. They see 'two major current misunderstandings' (Carneiro da Cunha and Almeida 2000: 315) in the way developers have por­trayed local people: (1) that traditional people are committed to conservation, as determined by Western concerns (2) that 'foreign' NGOs are responsible for the connection made between conservation of biological diversity and tra­ditional people of the Amazon; making for an odd alliance between first­world activists and third-world leaders and left-wingers who share this belief (Carneiro da Cunha and Almeida 2000: 315). The result of NGO involvement and outside discourse in local communities, they point out, is to make local folk neo-conservationist or neo-traditional (Carneiro da Cunha and Almeida 2000: 335). 'Traditional populations' take on board the rhetoric of conserva­tion and adapt their behaviour to fit in. There should be little surprise here. If a window of opportunity is opened, people are likely climb through. This may not mean they change what they were doing before.

In the Brazilian Amazon there have been developmental programmes from the beginning of European conquest in the early 17 th century (see De Castro 2002 for a complete account). First, missions had a charter to civilise Indians and make them into Christian vassals for the Portuguese Crown, but their world­wide organisations were dependent on local labour and production to finan­cially support their orders. All this was controlled by royal charters and missionary regulations. A more explicit form of economic development was introduced in the 1750s after the expulsion of the financially powerful Jesuits. The Portuguese wanted tax revenue so they nationalised the means of commerce and instituted villages to be administered by a colonist and Indian chiefs. This failed, so by the early 19 th century, the control of labour was the only means by which development could be achieved, therefore gangs of workers were set up. However, instead of working for the common good, they served the pri­vate interests of the elite. During the later part of the 19 th century, the region was sold as a great paradise, healthy and with rich soils for farming and cat­tle-raising. But the rubber boom was dominant and it attracted poor labourers to tap the trees instead. The 20 th century then saw these developments on a much larger scale with a series of half-hearted attempts to bring more settlers to the region and stimulate the economy, including the creation of one of the largest bauxite mines in the world in Porto Trombetas. Although this is a brief outline, it shows that projects of conservation take place in a well-trampled world of governmental, foreign and non-governmental initiatives. It is there­fore not surprising that local folk have adapted their practices at various junc­tures in order to fit in with the prevailing orthodoxy.

Floodplain dwellers in the Lower Amazon have survived over this period because they have constantly adapted both to economic and ecological changes (Harris 2000, see also Lima and Alencar 2001). This does not mean they merely respond to external pressures and have no internal identity. Rather, they are able to hold on to who they are only by accommodating and adapting. I want to show that their capacity to do this has important implications for a dialogue between anthropology and conservation.

These comments have set up the significance of local knowledge in the Lower Amazon. This way of knowing is context-dependent but can be used in different contexts and has a range of applications. And yet, it is this knowledge of the world which allows these people to reproduce, and its successful learn­ing is critical. In other words, what counts as knowledge and for whom? And what kind of knowledge gives you what rights and can be represented by law­yers in a court of law or chamber of debating politicians? This article is nei­ther about 'Traditional Ecological Knowledge' nor development; nevertheless some of these issues impinge on its subject matter. What right do the people of the floodplain, and others like them, have to be where they are? They do not have titles to their land and could, in theory, be expelled by someone who is able to force legal ownership through the courts. In the call for closer atten­tion to skilled and embedded knowledge produced in certain historical reali­ties and political relations, this article aims to show its relevance in mounting a defence of riverine dwellers' rights. A landscape belongs to those who know it.

Amazonia and Contested Natures

The following ethnographic material derives from my fieldwork in the Brazil­ian Amazon which I have conducted since 1992 over a total of 33 months in five periods. The principal location of this fieldwork is a floodplain area known as Par - 6 in the Lower Amazon where about 900 people live; it is about half a day's journey in a motorised boat from the town of Obidos.

Conflicts over resources, most importantly land, have a long history in the Amazon (Hecht and Cockburn 1989). Social resistance continues to have me­dia attention, as seen in the landless peoples' movement (Movimento dos Sem­Terra) and land invasions (see Stedile 2002). The focus of such conflicts has been the drive for modernisation and progress. Money, tax breaks, massive land grants, etc. have all been used to attract colonists to the region, often bringing them into direct confrontation with either indigenous people or peas­ant small holders whose system of land holding (based on usufruct rights) dif­fers markedly from the bureaucratic state's recognition of ownership. On the floodplain of the Amazon, these conflicts have been less dramatic than elsewhere, but still significant. In recent times, there have been two kinds of dis­putes: over access to the productive lake fisheries and over land for cattle­raising (see McGrath et al. 1993 for a review). McGrath and his colleagues' argument is that these conflicts on the floodplain have two possible outcomes. Either the floodplain dwellers will succeed in collectively controlling local re­sources (for example in the creation of an extractive reserve such as Mamirarua, see Lima 1999a), or else they will fail and be pushed out by their inability to reproduce under such conditions and migrate to towns, leaving the land and lakes for large-scale cattle ranching and fishing.

The relevance of these conflicts to my discussion is to introduce the class based character of the contestation of resources and local knowledge. The phrase 'nature makes them lazy' should be understood within the context of different perceptions of the Amazon by those who wish to defend their control and access to resources, in this case, peasant fisherpeople, and those who wish to develop them in the name of progress, i.e. local elites. These differences have histories dating back to the first conquest of the region, and have been successively revived at key moments such as during the rounding up of Indi­ans into mission villages (MacLachlan 1973), or during the rubber boom (see Nery 1981), and then during the military dictatorship (see Hecht and Cock­burn 1989). What is significant is that these discourses all critically concern 'nature', understood as a diverse set of resources, what to do with it and who should do it. Not surprisingly, each class at different historical junctures has a different way of relating to nature. In other words, the developmentalist atten­tion fails to appreciate the historical and cultural situatedness of labour. For this reason, responsible management strategies cannot be imposed simplisti­cally upon complex historical realities (Nugent 1993, 2000).

The local history of Par - 6 has been written about elsewhere (Harris 2000)- essentially it is made up of various migrations of people, mostly detribalised and missionary Indians dating from the mid-eighteenth century, a few North­eastern Brazilians who came to tap rubber from the mid-nineteenth century, and Italian farmers and traders who came at the beginning of the twentieth century. Within the twentieth century, there has been much regional move­ment as a result of marriage and search for land for growing jute. In other words, Pare is a heterogenous community, economically and socially differen­tiated.

I shall now present some representative anecdotes of my experiences of the middle class view of the floodplain dwellers in the region which happen to come from the town of Obidos, a town of colonial origin on the river in the Lower Amazon. The term has been traditionally used to refer to people from rural areas is caboclo, one which locally has pejorative overtones of back­wardness, ineptitude and laziness (Lima 1999b). The elite view derives from a longstanding discourse on nature in Amazonia which essentially is imposed from the outside and concerns development and modernisation. In the rest of the article, I will develop the floodplain peasant view by way of contrast.

Obidos is situated at the narrowest part of the Amazon river, about a mile across, and has a population of about 40,000, evenly divided in the 2001 cen­sus between urban and rural areas. Its main export products are Brazil nuts, cattle and fish. A hundred years ago it used to be among the most important towns on the river but in the twenty first century, its fortunes have deterio­rated with the decline in river traffic. Few, if any, urban middle class people in the town of Obidos understood why I wanted to live on the floodplain. Worse still, with those 'caboclos of the countryside'. They thought they knew all about the life of the caboclo on the floodplain. When they talked about caboclo life, they referred to the milk that flowed endlessly from cows, and to the fish, only waiting to be caught. In short, they spoke of the easy and lan­guid life of the caboclo in the interior. For the elite in Obidos, and here I de­liberately turn to the present tense, the interior has a life totally different from their own, one that demands nothing; and thus the caboclo is lazy and unam­bitious, inferior and passive. They are poor, so the tune goes, and they are happy to be so, they know no better. This discourse is similar to the one used against indigenous Amazonians, because caboclos are the heirs of the Amer­indian environment (Ramos 1991).

Soon after I arrived in Obidos, I introduced myself to the people who ran a small museum, which held a collection of artefacts, some imported from Europe in the nineteenth century and some locally made. I talked with two la­dies from rich Obidense families. Having explained that I had returned from the floodplain that morning, they said how lovely it was during the dry sea­son. I then explained my research and my intentions. This declaration was met with disdain. They commented that 'there is no need to help os caboclos, be­cause nature helps them. 'Look here,' the lady went on, 'the laziness of the caboclo of the region is a result of nature helping them too much and being too kind to them, the fish and birds are free. And because nature helps them, they don't need to work.'

Another incident with a lawyer further attests to the link between back­wardness and the countryside. We talked in the small hotel in Obidos. He asked me what I was doing. When I said I was living in the interior and doing fieldwork, he launched into an attack on the caboclo. 'The caboclo is lazy, with no desire for social mobility. All they do is catch fish enough to fill their stomach and then they are satisfied.' He went on to blame many of the re­gion's problems, such as its lack of development compared to the rest of Bra­zil, on the caboclo's idleness. 'It is too easy to live here, and this lack of ambition is our biggest obstacle to development'. These are, in brief, middle class views and I present them also as subject positions just as real and em­bodied as the ribeirinhos.

Images linking abundance and indolence were echoed in many other con­versations in the Lower Amazon. The perception that there is a profusion of natural resources means people do not have to work. For this reason, devel­opment cannot occur because there is no incentive for change, nothing to strive for. This idea of the 'Garden of Paradise' was also expressed by many of the nineteenth century commentators who travelled to the area, such as Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russell Wallace (Cleary 2001).

Not surprisingly, these views contrast with those of the people being re­ferred to. In the following ethnography, a counterpart is created in opposition to the perceived laziness. The skills needed to survive and reproduce on the floodplain are carefully cultivated amongst groups of kinspeople. If such skills are not taught successfully then the means of life are put at stake. Be­fore turning to this topic, let me deal with how the floodplain dwellers I know counteract the elites' representations of them as lazy and living off nature. This is a large and vague topic so I shall consider two elements: environ­mental legislation and ownership of resources. Though there is no resistance involved, there is a sense of holding firm against an unwanted force. A small example: the Brazilian environmental agency (IBAMA) has banned the sale of fish less than a certain size. The bosses who buy the fish in the processing fac­tories have to enforce this regulation otherwise they would be fined (if found to have bought too young fish). Also certain predatory fishing methods (e.g. the seine technique and more dramatically dynamite) are prohibited. The re­sponse of the floodplain dwellers is to say that these people know nothing of how fish live and reproduce or the other ways fishermen conserve fish stocks. 'How can they know when they do not fish themselves, all they have are their instruments and books' is how one man put it to me. It is not that this man was denying the overall decline in fish stocks but doubted the elite's attempts to check the fall. From the floodplain perspective, a superior vantage point is afforded from their 'working' knowledge. Indeed the general antipathy they feel for a gente fina, well to do people, relates to the latter's lack of produc­tion; they live off others, making money out of their goods and getting them to do the hard work. How dare they talk of laziness when they do not work the land and the water, peasants might well say. Work, for them is measured in terms of physical effort (see Harris 2000).

This resonates with the peasant's tradition of ownership, especially land and other resources (see Harris 2000; Lima 2004). Work creates ownership which is conceived in terms of rights to use. A person has usufruct rights to a plot of land if it is cleared, planted and harvested. If it is left fallow for more than five years it belongs to no one; in fact it returns to the ultimate 'owner', or creator (dono) of all life-God, according to floodplain dwellers. Owner­ship is not based in fixed rights and relations (secured through financial power), which is the model of the elites, but in continuous use and skilled ac­tivity. So a farmer does not own the land per se but its fruits. As long as the floodplain peasants remain on the land they maintain control of the natural re­sources. If they move off, they lose everything and the bosses and their large contingents of cattle and buffalo will move in. The topic of ownership of the floodplain and its complex legal conceptualisation is being tackled by Jose Benatti (2003).

Before continuing with the ethnographic exposition of local knowledge, it is necessary to give a framework for the perspective outlined here. The em­phasis on local knowledge derives from work in ecological anthropology and developmental studies (Little 1999; Pottier et al. 2003). In many ways, the term local knowledge is deceptive because it appears to be opposed to 'global knowledge'. I have argued elsewhere that the skills of the floodplain people are hybrids of local and global influences, mixtures of the new techniques from the outside and local innovation of them (Harris 2005). Raffles (2002) has argued convincingly that the Amazon is made and unmade as a special place precisely because it has a complex configuration of outsider and insider discourses and practices over time. On a more general level, Bicker et al. (2004) have shown that indigenous knowledge of the environment is flexible, complex and variable. Thus, conservation and development projects which at­tempt to incorporate community-based management systems are in a difficult position since it may be hard to pin down what people know without adequate understanding and training. [3]

'Re-placing nature' entails taking into account the ways in which humans generate and engage with their environments through historically specifiable skills. For humans learn how to dwell in environments through a process of maturation that involves the somatic work of the individual in a field of rela­tions. As Merleau-Ponty puts it 'The world is not what I think, but what I live through' (1964: xvi-ii). This phenomenological perspective insists that living and knowing, and thus interpersonal relationships, are part of the same his­torical process (see also Toren 1993). Knowledge, in this sense is relational (like the French connaitre or German kennen; and can be distinguished from factual information, savoir or wissen). I want to suggest the difficulty in bringing together the 'dwelling perspective' (Ingold 2000) and political reali­ties fall away if a distinction between local and global history is not made (see Ingold's epilogue). Jakob Meloe has referred to skilled ways of knowing as a 'form of life' (drawing on Wittgenstein), 'forms of activities or practices, each with a history of its own' (n.d. 3). The form of life is not a foundation from which life proceeds but a flow, within which practices are situated. For Meloe at the heart of a form of life (n.d. 5), is a 'life of work', the physical effort of transforming resources for distribution and consumption.

An Exposition of Skilled Knowledge

Elsewhere (Harris 1998), I have argued that seasonal variations on the flood­plain should be seen as part of the creative movement of daily life. In this sense, annual environmental changes, such as the rising and falling of the river, fish migrations and plant growth and decay, do not determine social life. Instead, seasonality is constituted by the movements of people and the rhythmic structure of their activities, which resonate with and respond to peri­odic changes in the floodplain environment.

I shall develop this argument by looking at the perception and knowledge of seasonal changes, focusing on skill-based knowledge. Let me give a con­crete example. Every few days, a member from each house that is stationed on the banks of the lower middle Amazon has to rebuild their port. This port con­sists of a number of planks of wood supported by cross bars and legs. It goes from land over the mud at the edge of the water, into the river itself. About five to seven metres long, it is an essential part of domestic life. Women wash clothes and pots on it, children clean fish on it, canoes are tied to it, every­body washes on it and incoming boats go up to it to drop people off and load them on. The port needs to be rebuilt every few days, or at most every week, in accordance with the rise and fall of the river. Nobody can have a port that is not properly functional, providing a safe and dry passage from river to land and back again. The men, who have to move the port by going waist deep in water and digging up the supports and then replacing them, have to be con­stantly aware of the changing river levels. And so does everyone else. There is then an ongoing perception and attention to changes in the river with the ad­justment of the port and consequently people's lives. Even when people are not physically working on the port they remain connected to the river, regis­tering its movement and any associated animal, fish and plant changes. The experience is embodied in practice, functioning as a permanent part of the self, creating an enduring connection between human and environment. It is possible, in this sense, to speak of perception and skills as 'pre-objective' (not pre-cultural), and emerging in a process of individual life development in a historically specific social and natural environment.

Building the port uses the senses to understand movement and change in the river. The sensual monitoring allows a person to know when and where to make the next move. This is a small, but significant example. The same con­nection between environment, activity and perception can be made for a range of other situations: reaping crops, where to fish, when to clear a field, and in hunting expeditions. And sometimes people get it wrong, the senses are not always reliable and the environmental changes not always predictable.

The ongoing perception of changes in the river level implies the active par­ticipation of the person in their monitoring. This kind of perception is an ac­tivity taking place between the world, the body and the head (Ingold 2000). In this way it is the interaction between aspects of the environment, perceptual monitoring and cognitive interpretation of this information which translates back into behaviour, creating a kind of continuous loop. As people move around information is actively sought. The point is that skilled practitioners consult the world-what they perceive-simultaneously as they do their men­tal representations and beliefs.

The passing of time is experienced as the passing of definite activities. Each season, or part of a season, is known by the way people engage with en­vironmental processes: what fish is migrating past the village, what food is available, what work needs to be done, who is available for work, who is working where, what techniques to use, what fish is selling well at the market and so on. People are stronger and healthier in the summer time. In winter, they get thinner and complain of being trapped in their houses as the floodwaters close in.

Similarly, the river is more than an object or a geographic aspect of this world. It expresses not just place but change. The river is a period of move­ment between one place and another and one time and another. It ploughs on downstream and rises and falls, it extends and endures. In the example of moving the house port, the river is not an object in the mind of the perceiving person but a subject in a continuous exchange between the body and the envi­ronment. The actions of rebuilding a house port are the result of the attention to river level changes, involving a whole bodily and collective re-adjustment of life. The river is a subject in the sense that a person sees with it, according to it, if you like (Ingold 2000).

Simultaneously, the individual person is positioned in a web of relation­ships with other people, which has its own dynamic. Moving from seasonal engagement to the learning of skills, I follow Chaitlin and Lave's argument that 'there is no such thing as learning sui generis, but only changing partici­pation in the culturally designed settings of everyday life' (Chaitlin and Lave 1996: 6).

Indeed I discovered that this corresponds well to Amazon floodplain dwellers' understanding of how practical knowledge is reproduced. On one occasion I was watching some teenagers lassoing a young bull. They offered me the rope and invited me to try. After many attempts I was unable to get the loop around the neck of the bull. I pleaded with a man to give me some advice. But he was not forthcoming, saying that he was not a schoolteacher and I had to watch them some more and carry on practising. He was quite deliberate in his phras­ing. Following this advice, I was then compelled to observe closely the whole complex of interactions between parents and children to understand the proc­esses of education and communication. In the mornings the children were given orders to get water, clean this or that, fetch something from a neighbour, etc. These were the only times children were given instructions.

On the other hand, they were never taught formally how to fish, wash clothes, gut a fish or take the bones out of a fish, caulk a canoe, milk a cow, and so on. These activities were learnt by observation of elder kin and neighbours, and practice over and over again. In fact, when I asked whether these types of activi­ties needed to be taught they were bemused by the idea. I understand now why children used to sit around, eyes huge and faces blank; that is when they were not playing with my pencil and paper. They might have appeared passive, but through the process of observing adult interactions and work, they were ac­tively participating in their own development. Obviously, some things needed to be taught, such as asking for blessing from elders, as a mark of respect.

How to work in a team is another skill that is not taught on the floodplain of Pare. And yet on a daily basis men and women work together in activities such as fishing, rounding up cattle, etc. Co-operation is fundamental to the completion of the task and ultimately to survival and social reproduction. This means being constantly aware of what other people are doing, showing re­spect for individual autonomy and maintaining an ongoing adjustment of what one is doing in relation to the movements of others. Aside from the overall plan of a fishing expedition, rarely did I observe men discuss the division of labour or actual implementation of a task. They seemed to read into the ac­tions and postures of each other and work in silent co-operation and commu­nication. When I questioned men about how they thought such harmony was achieved, they replied that it was only possible after a period of working to­gether. Sometimes you did fall out with a work partner if you did not get on well, in which case you would have to find another. This kind of communica­tive silence is a good illustration of what Csordas means by a somatic mode of attention (Csordas 1993).

It is then not surprising that I could not be taught how to lasso or that my informants considered my way of paddling inferior to their own. Parnaros complain constantly that even though they would not substitute their flood­plain way of life for the luxuries of urban dwelling, their lives are hard and harsh. They get all manner of diseases and suffer greatly in the flood time. Their way of life takes getting used to, acostumado. This habituation is borne of being there and having kin who live near you. It is an at-homeness, a being in the world, which is inter-subjective. It gives rise to an identity which is lo­cated in the life-world rather its transcendence, as is the case when identity becomes abstracted to be associated with culture and politics. This form is eminently social, and it is part of the ordinary world, before it is fetishised, objectified or monopolised or controlled.

Acostumado also implies that it is possible to fall out of a field of skilled practitioners, such as when a person migrates to town and becomes involved in other relationships and activities. Thus the knowledge that people have of their environment, and the skills to exploit it, emerge from being in place; they are emplaced. This does not mean they cannot be transferred or ab­stracted to other places. They are learnt and acquired in place in a series of re­lationships. To be used to floodplain life means to enjoy the good life, as it is seen by people who live there.

For Parnaros, skills and practical knowledge are synonymous with control of one's personal life. Pariaros refer to this knowledge as 'nossa intelligen­cia', which loosely translates as 'our intelligence', but could also indicate a particular attitude. The phrase was used countless times in answer to my ques­tions about why floodplain dwellers do this and that in such a way. There was no verbal explanation as to 'why cousins keep kin together', as they say, for example. Just a shrug of the shoulders and the statement 'nossa intelligencia'. Following Bloch (1998), we can say this kind of pronouncement reveals the difference between implicit, non-linearly encoded knowledge and verbal, lin­ear knowledge that is easily expressed in language. Intelligencia refers to a certain understanding that is embodied in what people do and how they act. The ethnographer's perception of such local knowledge can only be arrived at through participation in the daily lives of the people concerned.

   Conclusion Top

I have discussed the anthropological significance of the kind of knowledge that develops from living and being in a specific place and learning the skills necessary to survive. I have emphasised that much of this knowledge is just as much about the environment as social, political and economic life. I have tried to show how a historically contextualised and politically sensitive study is at the heart of this project. There is an autonomy in day to day decision making which has permitted a degree of freedom for rurally based floodplain peasant lives. In this space dwell the peasant skills and knowledge encountered in this paper.

As lacking in ambition or desire for progress as these floodplain people ap­pear to developers, they are nevertheless carrying out a massive historical mission. Put simply, this task is the continued employment of skills which al­low for reproduction from one generation to another, representing hard won positions arising from specific social situations in the flow of historical activ­ity. The apparent effortless employment of these skills should not be mistaken for laziness, as the Amazonian elites have done and still do. Rather it is the precise maintenance of order and reproduction in a world of chaos and change that is their achievement.

The overall point is illustrated by a recent comparative study of manioc cul­tivation by Stocker (2005) in the North and Northeast of Brazil. Manioc is a staple food of many people in Brazil; being economically significant, its work and products, are embedded in a cultural repertoire of food preferences, folk­lore and history. Stocker (2005) focuses on in situ maintenance of agrobiodi­versity through an analysis of local knowledge and management techniques. Following ethnobotanical criteria, she categorised 214 varieties of manioc, which differed according to their growing times, the quality of the flour pro­duced, where the plant came from and aesthetic aspects of the plant. She jux­taposes this material with the knowledge of extension workers and research scientists who are either employed by the government or NGOs. The knowl­edge of these people is directed to encouraging modern practices and high­yielding varieties. Consequently they only recognise less than a handful of species of manioc and only deal with the technical aspects of growing crops. Stocker argues that the developers and extension workers are trained to in­crease production and the efficiency of marketing and distribution of a prod­uct, integrating the changes with ecological processes. They are not trained to dignify local use of manioc by respecting local preferences, protecting the prices, minimise crop infestations or securing ownership of land. Without tak­ing into account practical knowledge of these small scale farmers, agrobiodiversity and conservation is undermined. A change in thinking then is needed if small-scale farmers' and ribeirinhos' conservation practices are not reduced to a series of technical strategies for product improvement and modernisation. The baseline in the manioc farmers and floodplain communities is the inter­generational skills which have helped them reproduce with little or no exter­nal intervention in the past few hundred years (De Castro 2002).

Nature has not made ribeirinhos, and others like them, lazy, but has pro­vided them with the conditions and resources to develop the skills and forms of livelihood to survive in successive epochs of an unequal world. Under­standing those skills and how they are connected to social life and affected by history is the starting point for appreciating how they have managed life on the floodplain. Ribeirinho resilience is their great practical offering for con­servation of the region.


This paper is based in fieldwork carried out from 1992 to the present, funded by the British Academy, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Uni­versity St Andrews and the Leverhulme Trust. The ideas were first formulated during a postdoctoral fellowship awarded by the British Academy held at the University of Manchester. Apart from thanking these institutions for their support I also thank Ben Campbell for his editorial patience, astuteness and generosity, and the reviewers of this journal for their suggestions.[47]

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