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Floodplain fisheries as natural insurance for the rural poor in tropical forest environments: evidence from Amazonia.

by on November 5, 2011

In “Floodplain fisheries as natural insurance for the rural poor in tropical forest environments: evidence from Amazonia”, how the people who live along or near the rivers in Peru are really dependent on fishing as a means of survival. What Coomes is trying to do is show how important fishing is to the people here and how they are used from everything from commerce to food and even as a fall back plan in case of what he calls shocks. Coomes says that there are two common types of adverse shocks for the people in tropical rain forest environments. The first type is ones that only have an affect on individual households. These shocks include illness or financial loss. The other type of shocks is floods or fires and these ones affect groups of households or entire communities. Coomes says that they deal with such shocks by using what he calls ex ante and ex post. Ex ante are what they do to prepare for these shocks, such as having precautionary savings in food, livestock, and financial assets. Ex post is what happens in response to one of these shocks. What they do in response is comprise labour deployment, such as hunting or fishing, asset liquidation, migration, mutual assistance and access to credit. Though this seems to have little to do with his point of how important fishing is, what Coomes is trying to get across is that they have to go through many things and have other options available to them if something happens.

Coomes then focus on research that was done on communities along the Ucayali and Maranon rivers. These are two formative tributaries of the Amazon river in Peru. The research was done separately in 1993 for the Maranon River and in 2003 for the Ucayali River. First though, what the people along these two rivers mainly did was agriculture or fishing. What was found was that the vast majority of their food and goods that they sell and rely upon came from fishing. Only when the annual flooding did this change as it was harder to fish as the fish were more widely dispersed. Even though it was harder, when there was a flood or illness, what people tended to do to deal with these shocks was to extract resources from the forest as it was also easier to hunt since there was less land during a flood or because it was easier with an illness, put more focus on agriculture, or fishing; the number of people who relied on fishing, even after a flood came to about 43%. Coomes gives a lot of percents of how important certain aspects are, such as agriculture and fishing. Agriculture is almost always around 50%, but fishing is more varied, it can range from 15-89%. These are, again, the two most important resources for them. This is only in communtites though, Coomes says that even in agriculture heavy villages, some households depend on fishing to bring this number to 50% per household that relies on fishing for survival. No matter the type of shock, Coomes says that fishing was always higher that forest extraction, which of course still includes hunting. Most of the income from peasant communities come from fishing, as well as provide a safety net for them in case of a shock. As the water recedes once more, the fish are once again restricted to channels and floodplain lakes. Fishing picks up again, even though it only drops a little. Fishing is always preferred over every other method of resource gather such as from forests or hunting. The only exception would be agriculture; and this is depending on the place, which fishing could still top it, and it usually does. In short, fishing is so important that these people that most of their goods and food comes from fishing and that is what make it a safety net and so important.


  1. I do feel that Coomes repeats himself a lot it this. Though I think he makes it clear how he feels the importance of fishing is in these communities along these two rivers. Does he sound convincing enough to make his case?
  2. Does their reliance on fishing and their locations along or near these rivers make fishing a reliable safety net in case of floods, illness, or other “shocks”? What do you think would be better if you don’t. Does it make sense to rely on fishing if you do.
  3. Coomes talks about how these people deal with the rising water. He mentions that even though the fish are more widely spread out, that a lot of households and communities still fish even though it is easier to hunt as they are trapped on smaller patches of land or attempt to do agriculture. Would you fish in this environment? Or would you attempt to do something else mentioned if you were in their shoes.



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  1. janellekramer permalink

    To answer the third question, it’s hard to know what I would do if I lived on the side of the river. However, it seems that most of these people fish because they learned to fish from their predecessors. Fishing is part of these people’s culture. It doesn’t seem to matter that there are easier ways to get food to the people that Coomes is talking about. If there are more of these shocks, it might make sense for these people to perfect hunting. However, I think that I would fish because fishing is part of the culture.

  2. Megan Powell permalink

    Coomes certainly makes his point about the importance of fishing within the community through the various, somewhat-repetitive facts and percentages he gives (like you mentioned). From a broader perspective though, I think Coomes is emphasizing the connectedness of a given community of people to their environment. This can be seen both with his idea of “shocks” and with the constant reiteration of how much the community relies on fishing for their livelihood. “Shocks” are events or happenings that are external to the family or community and are usually nature-based (i.e. natural disasters). In both these ideas, humans are reacting to nature (“shocks”) or using nature to survive.
    As far as class discussion, Coomes could maybe be seen as on the nature AND people side (connectedness side) of the debate (rather than the nature OR people side — separation side).

  3. Summer Rose W permalink

    I would continue fishing in the environment that you describe because it is something that has always been done in my community and something that I have done for a long time. Starting to do agriculture would be very difficult. It must take years of practice to be able to grow and harvest a plentiful amount of food. Perhaps if the resources were available I would learn to farm, but in general, especially in the way Coomes describes, fishing would be the way to live, because that is how the community would have taught me how to live/survive.

  4. alannadore permalink

    In response to question 3, thought it was very interesting how Coomes describes the people who still choose to fish during flooding even when hunting is considered easier. I felt that this was characteristic of people in this environment probably because they felt that even though hunting could be easier in a flood, they were more comfortable with fishing. I also think that hunting makes more sense to me if the fish are more dispersed, however, agriculture would probably not be my first choice in a flood, as it would seem to be more difficult. I think that this article shows how those who live along the river in Peru have evolved to use nature to the best of their ability. The article shows that Peruvian residents have built up a system of obtaining resources even when “shocks” or other negative occurrences affect their ability to utilize their environment. I was however, slightly confused as to why the percents varied for fishing so much if Coomes made such an emphasis of the importance and large amount of fishing that these people had become accustomed to. I think that Coomes could have done a better job in making his argument if he explained differently or altered his writing on why agriculture was so consistent and fishing varied so much in these communities.

  5. shanewyenn permalink

    I think Coomes’ data was convincing however I did not like the way he wrote it. His statistics were all over the place and extremely varied, which made it difficult for me as a reader to follow his argument. I don’t know about you guys, but I feel like there were far more parentheses, percent symbols, and numbers than actual words. For example, he says “fishing equipment comprised a large proportion of holdings in all villages (22–71%), with 6–67% of households holding one or more large fishing nets” (there was actually no period after the word “nets”). Yes, I get that those statistics show that a large portion of the population owns fishing equipment and actively takes part in fishing, but what about that 6%? That’s not very big, so what does that mean? So in response to your first question, David, at first glance I do not think his evidence was convincing because it was written so strangely, however once you actually look at the numbers, compare it to other numbers, and then look at the table he provided, then you (or at least me) can see that he does make a sound argument.

  6. In response to the third question, I believe that tradition and the emphasis put upon fishing in the communities background is the main reason that they continued to do so. However, I think it would have been more beneficial for them to diversify their food acquisition practices as it is for any community that is dependent upon one natural resource.

  7. Amanda K. permalink

    In tropical rain forest environments, the article mentioned that rural households are faced with two common types of adverse shocks: those that affect individual households (ex. illness or financial loss) and those affecting groups of households or communities (ex. floods or fires). To cope with these type of shocks, rural households employ an array of strategies, both in anticipation of a shock (the ex ante) and the response (ex post).

    Ex ante strategies include forms of saving, such as storage of food, livestock and financial.

    Ex post strategies consists of labor/physical deployment (ex. hunting and fishing).

    Floodplain fisheries provide an important safety net for those in the lowlands because the high waters (flood) enhance opportunities for hunting, forest product extraction, and improving more access by canoes and boats to more remote forest with more fish and other resources they will use and need. However, the high waters would mean carrying away small livestock in their entire communities and reduce mutual assistance, if the lowlands were to focus on agriculture like the highlands. Those in the highlands (higher ground) are secure by the ex ante strategies (forms of saving) by planting agricultural crops to their advantage without deploying much labor. So in a sense, yes. I would take advantage of where I live (highland or lowland). Agriculture provides less energy (thanks to the lowlands flood) and crop storage last longer, while fishing is the total opposite– it requires a lot of energy to hunt and preservation quality is low. Either way, they both are forms of income. It’s just a matter of location and its advantages.

  8. Coomes emphasizes the economics importance of fishing for many individuals residing the on or along the extensive and broad floodplains of the Amazon River (1). For rural households, economically the fisheries can alleviate poverty and provide sustainable food security (2). Although many rural livelihoods depend on fisheries, due to various adverse shocks, studies have noted the importance of using the forest as an additional economic outlook. Upper Amazonian communities, during the normal flood season, have illustrated the importance of the gathering forest products as means to economically survive.
    Coomes attributes three factors that contribute fishing to the success in which the peasant communities are able to economically survive. It provides an important safety net, providing food and income. It is important that these communities rely on fishing as the economic gains through specialization lead to greater prosperity and success of livelihoods. Even though these communities experience flood shocks, which makes fishing temporarily more difficult and less profitable, as the fish disperse through the flooded forest, fishing still proves to be more economically stable. Floodplain communities, during extreme flood levels, have minimal access to local wage opportunities that the lowland communities have access to, and more importantly within both communities “subsidy from nature” is more reliable and preferred for economic security.

  9. 242colleencarey permalink

    Yes he does sound convincing enough. He shows how fishing is used in all parts of life. It’s used when people aren’t adapting to a shock in the environment and when they are adapting to one of these shocks.
    Well, initially I would says that they shouldn’t just rely on fishing as their safety net, but they aren’t. They also look to the forest and hunting. So there is somewhat of a balance; if all the fish were to die off, the people along the river would still survive. It makes sense to rely on fishing while it’s there and working for their survival.
    I would try fishing in this environment because if I was there in their shoes, that is what I would know how to do best. Once this didn’t work, I’d try something new like hunting.
    This article reminds me of Pimm’s idea of resilience. These people have a shock, they find new ways and use their old ways too in order to suvive. Then the environment goes back to the way it used to be; it goes back int equilibirum. But I also think Hollings idea can make a case because an environment will never go back to being completely the same. Each time the environment is changing and evolving.

  10. Sean Butler permalink

    I think it is interesting how the people tended to work more on hunting and agriculture because of the smaller amount of dry land. I’m not sure if I really grasp what point Coomes is trying to make. Is he advocating the heavy use of fishing regardless of floods? It seems to me that fishing is used as ex ante preparations for the floods and agriculture is used as an ex post reaction to the flood causing the fish to be more dispersed. I am confused as to how is almost always around 50% of resources comes from agriculture and fishing varies so much (15-89%). Is that accurate, I would have guessed the fluctuations would go hand in hand during times of flood and drought.

  11. amygraceaustin permalink

    While I agree that this article was very dense in statistical data and difficult to read, I am struck by how relevant I feel this article is. Normally I have no interest whatsoever in anything related to fishing or the economics thereof. However, in this case, I feel that this research is significant because it is actually relevant to the lives of these people.

    In the abstract, Coomes writes, “When faced with adversity, forest people in the Upper Amazon turn more to the floodplain (to fish) than to the rain forest (to hunt or extract forest products) to cope with major shocks. It appears that floodplain fisheries are an important safety net for forest people living along rivers in humid tropical environments.”

    By studying this social process, Coomes is able to gather a better understanding of how the practices of this community impact their economic viability and the influences they have on the environment. This article demonstrates the sheer complexity of influences that people have on environments and how both quantitative and qualitative research is necessary to understand these impacts. To the people of the four communities on the Marañón River, these are daily practices. An outside researcher is able to look at this practice from a perspective that a local participant would never be able to. This makes me wonder what types of cultural practices I partake in that would be interesting and have longstanding ramifications if studied by an outside observer.

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