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Smith- Human Society in the Varzea

by on November 5, 2011

Richard Smith recounts four people’s ideas of why life is changing for the people of the Amazon.  In particular, the people of Varzea.  Harris brings up the first point.  He says that change in settlement patterns had stemmed from the colonial order and continues with the globalization of the marketplace.  “Transformations in the local economy and property relations introduced during the colonial period produced a split between the two zones” (4).  Smith goes on to document two important changes that took place in the Lower Amazon: the government took away a special legislation that protected the land and high demand for cacao in Europe caused the floodplain to be overused and overpopulated.
The second point is brought up by Benatti.  He points out that the laws regarding who owns the floodplain are shoddy and unclear.  “Because of its seasonal flooding, the varzea is not a straightforward case of land ownership and tilting.  Benatti stresses that Brazilian law clearly separates the dominion over a resource from use rights over the same resource.  For the varzea, therefore, the central issue is the definition of dominion over the land area that is annually flooded: who has power over those lands, and can that power be alienated to a third party?” (5).
The third point, from Alencar, looks at the impact of 4 underlying factors that are affecting the settlement patterns in the upper Solimoes varzea.  The first is “changes in the systems of economic production,” the second, “the impact of state policies regarding the occupation of the region,” the third, “the growing urbanization process, especially in the context of the creation of new municipalities,” and fourth, “the impact of certain public policies, especially recent policies seeking to guarantee sustainable livelihoods” (6).  Alencar says that these policies have caused urbanization in the Amazon and the draw of the urban setting pulled in people from other areas.
Finally, Silva looks at how the seasonal ecological changes as well as social economic changes have affected the health of the people in the floodplain.  All of these points bring us to the conclusion that the people of varzea need biological diversity.
I honestly feel that this article is poorly written.  I think it i hard to follow and the author does a mediocre job at explaining any background to who he is getting information from.  He hardly introduces his 4 sources and then goes on to mention “the book” in the abstract and in the introduction but fails to explain what book he is talking about.  I also thought it lacked continuity.  It seemed to me, and I digress, I could be completely misunderstanding him, that he was listing random problems of the Varzea people.

-Hannah Gundersen


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  1. I thought Smith’s approach was interesting listing all the different variables that should be looked at to help understand the livelihood of the Varzea residents and their environment. Looking at the bigger picture from every angle through different external and internal factors and through spatial awareness provides insight on areas affected most from certain variables. Just like Smith argues, these variables are unpredictable and constantly changing and “must be seen as an historical process over a long period of time” and to understand their dynamic adaptations to constant change (9).

  2. Megan Powell permalink

    I agree with Kristen in that Smith’s approach attempts to be broader than others, involving many different fields and factors of potential influence of the livelihood of the Varzea people. Like the Coomes article, Smith (and various authors mentioned) stress the people’s dependence on the happening in nature that surround them. For example, in the section titled ‘The Big Picture’ Smith states, “As many authors have pointed out, the flooding pattern is the most important environmental factor influencing this riverscape and the livelihood strategies of its inhabitants (Goulding et al. 1996; Hiraoka 1985; McGrath et al. 2008). Within this pattern, significant variations exist within and between years in the intensity, timing, and duration of the floods, influencing enormously the success or failure of the ribereño’s choice of livelihood strategies for that year (Smith et al. 2001).” (7)

  3. Frederick Reisen permalink

    When reading the article and the blog post I could not help but be drawn to the bigger picture of the current land use issues in the Varzea ad elsewhere in the world. As Smith mentions when speaking over who has controlled over the area “it is the state, through its dominion over water resources, that exercises dominion over the várzea and that has the power to determine use rights” (Smith 8). This situation of confusion is not unlike that of the vertical vs horizontal spheres of power in China called the Tiao vs Kuai creating difficulties in land use policy, environmental policy, and law enforcement. The vertical component of power are the power structure are the federal bureaus and the the horizontal are local municipalities and it seems as though in this case it is an inability for the two different axis’s to communicate causing many of the issues. Another problem Smith cites for the specific issues in the Varzea is that it is an area unlike many others in the world and trying to apply inflexible laws from existing political structures may not be the correct mode of action. I would like to believe this region must be governed with a system that is unlike any that can be found in current government regimes and most definitely needs special attention due to its sensitivity in regards to biological diversity.

  4. alannadore permalink

    When reading this article I did also feel like it was lacking in continuity because it was hard for me to follow clearly the 4 different people’s ideas for amazonian evolution. I was initially extremely interested in learning about differing viewpoints as to why amazonian life has undergone the change it has, particularly in the Varzea, but I became less and less able to separate and fully interpret the four people’s viewpoints. However, the article was actually extremely interesting to me in the sense that it allowed me to see how property rights issues played a role in development and evolution. It was very interesting to me how different this was from the property rights I have been familiar with in my own landscape- where they are fully defined. The fact that property rights revolved around power or other factors because of the uniqueness of the landscape was very different than most landscapes I know today, and definitely made me want to learn more about this issue in the amazon. I would like to find out if this is a common problem today which affects nature-culture interactions and the ability for evolution to occur in a positive way.

  5. Amanda K. permalink

    The fertile soils and abundance fish of the floodplain have sustained local people for generations, and are vital to the economy of the Amazon region. In fact, it is mainly their form of income (including trade) and food. However, due to the high demands of their goods (cacao, coffee, fish, etc.), the natural systems of the floodplain (varzea) have experienced huge changes throughout time — such as climate changes, mining, deforestation, overfishing (fish is expected to be extinct) and great commercial agriculture. But what can they, the Amazonians, do? Who has the power over the land? With this in mind, maybe the majority of people in developed countries stopped thinking about global problems since they don’t have the power to change nor the power to fight against business enterprise. We know the danger, but who’s going to stop this?


    • Amanda,
      Your question about “Who has power over the land?” reminded me of an interesting situation that I encountered when I studied abroad in Ecuador. I went to the Amazon for about three weeks total, where we encountered many instances of power struggles through economic incentives to exploit natural resources. American oil companies pulled out of this particular region in order to conserve the Amazon. Many scholars who contributed to this decision believe that the remains of this region of the Amazon should be conserved, as it has had minimal human impact relative to the rest of the world; there are three indigenous tribes that still haven’t had any contact with modern societies. The Ecuadorian government on the other hand believes that it, along with every other country who has done it in the past, has the right to utilize the natural resources available for means of economic gains. Since, the Ecuadorian government has made negotiations with other countries to extract that oil, heavily impacting the environment and surrounding communities, which are opposed to the agreements. The question then arises, who is going to stop this? Do you think that America, or other powerful countries have the right to determine how other developing countries will uses or conserve their resources?
      I don’t think that developing countries have stopped thinking about global problems at all. I think that some governments within developing countries believe that they should be given the same opportunity that other countries have already taken advantage of. Utilizing these resource will benefit their country economically just as it has benefited other countries. Take Saudi Arabia for instance. Their country was able to establish infrastructure by gaining capital through their natural resource of oil, which then funded projects through companies such as the bin Laden Construction Company.
      The question is, does the international community have the moral obligation to preserve these areas rich in biodiversity or should the local government retain total power?

  6. In Smith’s article, Introduction: Human Society in the Várzea: A History of Change and Adaptation to Contextual Uncertainties, Smith analyses the variables that determine the inhabitants’ adaptation to the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.
    The article cites Harris, who illustrates the historical perspective, concluding that “long-term livelihood resilience among the Várzea’s residens is directly linked to their capacity to manage both its diversity and uncertainties…much of this resilience is dependent on an
    ability to occupy floodplain land without fear of land grabbers, and to have access to nonvalorized resources” (3).
    The Várzea land composition makes it very difficult to assert, land ownership or favorable legislation, due to the flooding. The flooding creates uncertainty of who, by law, dominates the land. The state (in this case Peru), legally exercises power over water, as it is a public resource and in some cases can take precedence over land rights. In Brazil, even though the land is temporarily flooded the state dominates, under public policies, water, as it is considered a limited resource and therefore a high governmental priority of control. Another underlying factor that is contributing to these public policies is the process of urbanization occurring all over Latin America, which doesn’t favor rural areas but rather explains the allocation of the government’s resources to provide services for urban areas.
    This article ties the Várzea resilience to political and economic factors, which arise from their environmental surroundings. The flooding creates both political and economic uncertainties, in which the Várzea must dynamically adapt. As the Peruvian society is changing, influencing political and economic factors will challenge the inhabitants’ long-term livelihood. The outcomes of these dynamic power struggles will determine their existence in an ever-growing urbanized society, forcing these communities to rely on non-vallorized resources.

  7. 242colleencarey permalink

    I agree, this article could have gone into the points Smith highlighted a bit more, but that also could have been the intention, to just give a broad basis for the problems in Varzea. I think these problems are legitimate though. When is comes to third world, or poor countries, problems like these arise constantly, especially within the government. The government and the law should be more willing to regulate land and the flooding situations.
    As for the case of urbanization. I think this is a natural phenomena in most areas of the world today. Globalization is occurring rapidly and this affects settlement patterns, economic systems and will also affect the health of people in the floodplain like Alencar said. I think this is inevitable in the society we live in today and if it hasn’t happened to a culture, it will.
    I do agree that this article was hard to follow, it was kind of all over the place and I wish it went into more depth about the issues it highlighter. But I think Hannah did a great job summing up the points and conveying them.

  8. amygraceaustin permalink

    Taylor posed the question: “does the international community have the moral obligation to preserve these areas rich in biodiversity or should the local government retain total power?” My argument is no, the local government should have the capacity to retain total power and jurisdiction over the land. The United States has arguably destroyed much of our biological diversity as well, but we would never accept an intervention by foreign powers to stop development projects on our land. We should not expect to be welcome in the matters of other countries. We should instead focus on doing the best we can with what we have until someone asks for our assistance.

    However, Smith illustrates that my perspective is very ideal. He states that “often political decisions, cultural perceptions, economic interests and other social factors well beyond the local community may influence or even determine the outcomes of household and community initiatives.” Much to my chagrin this statement illustrates the inescapable effects of globalization. Because these outside forces are present and limit the local agency, I think that’s where the argument for foreign intervention stems from. However, I’m still not convinced it’s the most ethical alternative and it certainly does not have a moral ground, in my opinion. What do other people think about this?

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