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8. Land-use dynamics on the Amazon flood plain

An aquatic breadbasket
The collapse of jute and the emergence of market gardening
Flood-plain orchards
Livestock in conflict with crops and fisheries
Setting the stage

The extensive flood plains of alluvium-rich rivers in northern South America represent one of the last major frontiers for expanding food production in Latin America. Currently, the cerrados of central Brazil are being developed more intensively to become important granaries. Although more gains are expected from cultivating these seasonally dry areas, the sinuous flood plains of the Amazon and Orinoco river basins have been largely neglected by researchers and development planners (Goulding, Smith, and Mahar in press.).

The flood plains of silt-laden rivers have historically been the most productive farming environments in Amazonia. Although flood plains account for less than 4 per cent of the region, they have traditionally provided most of the food for rural and urban inhabitants of the Amazon. The most fertile flood plains are along "white water" rivers, such as the Amazon and Madeira, which occupy some 190,000 km2, an area bigger than many countries. Clear and black water rivers, such as the Tapajós and Negro, respectively, are much less propitious for agricultural development because their waters contain little sediment and their flood plains are mostly porous sand. The flood plains of black and clear water rivers are best left in forest, to provide food and refuge for resident and migratory fishes.

Crop production holds particular promise on the flood plains (várzeas) of turbid, white water rivers. Annual rejuvenation of these flood-plain soils permits much higher yields than is typically achieved on upland sites. Yearly floods also destroy weeds and permit a fresh beginning for each cropping season. Water transportation is also cheaper than hauling cargo by truck, bus, or pickup on the uplands.

Annual crop production in upland areas poses many more problems (Fearnside 1987). Soils are generally too poor for sustained annual cropping without the use of fertilizers and weed control. Organic mulches are usually expensive to acquire and apply. Currently, the only annual crops that justify the use of fertilizers are vegetables when planted close to urban areas. Many upland sites are steep and prone to soil erosion, in contrast to the relatively flat flood plains.

An aquatic breadbasket

Manioc (Manihot esculenta), a basic staple in Amazonia, is grown extensively along the Amazon flood plain as well as on other alluvial soils. Varieties have been selected that can be harvested within 6-8 months, before rising waters inundate fields. Although the growing season is shorter than on the uplands, yields are often better than in interfluvial areas because of the generally superior soils. Manioc yields on várzea soils are in the 16-40 tons/ha range (Pickles 1942), which is appreciably higher than on uplands where yields are usually between 10 and 20 tons/ha.

Although manioc harvests on the várzea are generally bountiful, diseases sometimes depress yields. As in the case of uplands, several fungi attack manioc roots, particularly species of Diplodia, Scytalidium, Fusarium, and Phytophthora. Moist conditions in flood-plain environments foster the development of fungi. Collaborative research between CIAT (Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical), the Centre for Research on Manioc and Beans (CNPMF - Centro Nacional de Pesquisas de Mandhioca e Fruticultura) in Bahia, and the EMBRAPA stations in Belém and Manaus has identified 12 root rotresistant clones, two of which were released to varzea farmers in 1990 ("Mae Joana" and "Zolhudinha"), and a third (EMBRAPA-8) in 1992 (CIAT 1992).

Even without fertilizer, rice (Oryza saliva) yields on the Amazon flood plain average 3,000 kg/ha (Camargo 1948), whereas they tarely reach much more than 1,000 kg/ha on the uplands. Some of the deep-water rice varieties selected by farmers in parts of Thailand might be appropriate for the Amazon flood plain, thereby permitting two crops of the nutritious cereal a year.

In spite of the higher yields of annual food crops on the flood plain, scope still exists for further boosting yields through more productive varieties and improved management. Disease and pest resistance would be a high priority, in order to reduce the need for pesticides that could enter aquatic food-chains.

For some time now, people have talked about the enormous potential of the Amazon flood plain for increased food production, but this promise is still largely unrealized. Most of the food consumed in the large cities of the Amazon, such as Belém Manaus, and Santarém comes from central and southern Brazil and, to a lesser degree, upland sites in Amazonia. The main crops grown on the Amazon flood plain in Brazil are manioc, maize, beans, squashes, and some vegetables. Much of the agricultural production is for domestic consumption; limited quantities of manioc, flour, maize, and vegetables are sold in nearby towns and villages.

The apparent lack of an agricultural "boom" on the Amazon flood plain is perplexing, but is probably due to a combination of factors. The flood plains have been largely neglected by fiscal incentives and rural extension. Electricity is still a rarity, thus impeding the development of agro-industry. Although riverine transportation is cheaper, flood-plain farmers often do not have access to a regular boat service to sizeable markets. In spite of such drawbacks, a few interesting developments are under way along the middle Amazon that provide glimpses of what might be possible for the future development of this last great agricultural frontier of South America.

An important lesson that can readily be drawn from agricultural experiments under way along the Amazon flood plain is that it is important to start on a small scale and monitor progress and possible environmental problems. Jari attempted a large-scale mechanized and irrigated rice operation on the Amazon flood plain that failed. Although yields were higher than with traditional methods, costs were much higher, owing in part to the expense of pumping to control water levels in the rice fields. The Jari rice operation included aircraft and large combine harvesters, an enormous investment with high upkeep costs in the Amazon. In the end, rice prices were not high enough to sustain the operation. Jari's rice experiment lasted only about a decade.

A cereal merchant in Santarém has been experimenting with mechanized rice production on the Amazon flood plain since the early 1990s, but with much more modest inputs. About 800 ha of the flood plain near Alenquer were prepared by tractor for rice in 1994; although floods came early that year, thereby destroying some of the crop, yields average 6 tons/ha, about twice those achieved by resource-poor farmers on the Amazon. The increased yield was made possible by combining modern varieties and NPK fertilizer applied at the relatively low rate of 70 kg/ha. The cereal merchant, a native of Ceará in the Brazilian North-east region, markets his flood-plain rice in Fortaleza, the capital of his native state, and plans to expand production.

Although this cereal merchant is likely to face future setbacks, he may well succeed. He runs a profitable cereal-drying and warehousing operation in rapidly growing Santarém He has the financial resources to withstand the trialand-error period of this new venture. Besides, a precedent for successful mechanized rice production on white water flood plains in Amazonia has already been set in Roraima. In this northern state, farmers from Rio Grande do Sul have mechanized and irrigated parts of the Rio Branco flood plain, another silt-laden river. Produce is marketed in the boom town of Boa Vista. Interestingly, it is outsiders who are experimenting with higher-input rice production in Amazonia.

Efforts to mechanize maize production on the Amazon flood plain have not been as successful. A Belém-based rancher with a 5,000 ha property on Ilha do Ituqui near Santarém was attracted to the idea of becoming a maize farmer because of a sizeable poultry operation in Santarém Wisely, the rancher in question started on a small scale rather than risk too many of his resources or squander fiscal incentives. A total of 70 ha of flood plain were prepared with a tractor and planted to an open-pollinated variety of maize (BR 5107) at Fazenda São Sebastião in 1992. A floating barge was used to pump river water on to the crop while it was growing. The irrigation schedule was set at twice a week during the first 20 days, and about every 8 days from the 20th day until the plants started flowering, when irrigation was halted. No herbicides or pesticides were used, but small amounts of K fertilizer were applied. The owner of this ranch obtained financial support from the Banco da Amazonia for equipment purchases, and yields were expected to be about 8 tons/ha.

The maize harvest on Fazenda São Sebastião in early 1993 was only 3 tons/ha, not nearly as bountiful as expected. A proliferation of weeds, such as matapasto (Senna reticulate), and slack adherence to the watering schedule were deemed responsible for the lacklustre yields. For future growing seasons at low water, the rancher plans to deploy herbicides to control weeds. If this practice proves economically feasible, the rancher plans to expand the honed "technological package" to neighbouring small farmers. The rancher will prepare fields and loan irrigation equipment in exchange for a percentage of the harvest.

Although cereal yields might be relatively high on modern farms, several resource management issues arise from the intensification of cereal production on the Amazon flood plain. First, weeds may increase with continuous cultivation. Even with annual floods that generally destroy most herbs, weed populations could proliferate. The extent to which large-scale herbicides can adversely affect aquatic food-chains is unknown at this time. It might make more sense to adopt some of the tall, traditional maize varieties on the Amazon flood plain, which usually outpace weeds and rising floods, at least until the harvest is completed. Second, soil structure could change without a fallow period. The dynamics of weed populations and soil texture warrant study here. It may prove necessary to allow fields to revert periodically to fallow for a year or two to restore soil structure and suppress weed populations.

Soybeans (Glycine max) might prove a suitable cash crop for floodplain farmers in the future, if well-adapted varieties are developed. Currently, Pariná and Rio Grande do Sul are the main soybean-producing states in Brazil. Lesser quantities of the pulse are grown on the cerrado, including transitional areas with forest in southern Rondônia. The municipal governments of Santarém and Juriti in particular have expressed keen interest in promoting soybean production on the Amazon flood plain.

Although greater food production is possible on flood plains, especially along the Amazon, Madeira, Purus, and Jurua, large-scale clearing of varzea forest would likely disrupt some major fisheries. Over three-quarters of the fish important in commerce and subsistence depend directly or indirectly on flood-plain forests for food (Goulding 1980). Hence the need to focus efforts on designing more intensive cropping systems on already cleared areas.

The collapse of jute and the emergence of market gardening

For decades, jute (Corchorus spp.) reigned supreme as the main cash crop along the middle Amazon. Introduced to the Amazon by Japanese farmers in 1931 (Biard and Wagenaar 1960), jute is well adapted to the rich soils of the flood plain and found a ready market in northeastern and southern Brazil, particularly to sack sugar and coffee. In recent years, however, competition from synthetic fibres, particularly polypropylene, has undercut the market for jute. In Brazil, petroleumderived polypropylene bags are one-third to one-half the price of jute bags, and are now widely used for many commodities, particularly for groundnuts, potatoes, and onions (Thigpen, Marongiu, and Lasker 1987). A second factor in the decline of jute is the shift to bulk handling of many commodities, particularly sugar, grains, and soybeans. Finally, producers in Bangladesh have driven down the price of jute fibre because of their relatively low operating costs; they now provide close to half of all jute traded on world markets.

One symptom of jute's decline in Brazil is the shrinking number of factories working with the material. No jute-pressing plants remain in Santarém and Juriti, formerly important processing centres for the crop. In 1991, the Brazilian government eliminated import tariffs for jute imported from Asia. The area planted to jute is thus shrinking along the Amazon, and farmers are searching for other sources of income. Many have turned to fishing on a more intensive scale and to livestock raising. Others are searching for more viable cash crops.

Vegetables have emerged as one of the most promising options for flood-plain farmers seeking a replacement crop for jute. With the spectacular growth of cities, demand for a wide variety of vegetables, particularly tomato, lettuce, cabbage, cucumber, bell pepper, okra, and spring onions, has increased dramatically (fig. 8.1). Traditionally, people in Amazonia have not eaten many vegetables (Shrimpton and Giugliano 1979), but customs are changing with the rise of the middle class in urban areas and the influx of people from other regions (don der Pahlen et al. 1979). Salads are now much more commonly served in homes, restaurants, and fast-food outlets in Amazonian cities.

All the vegetables grown on the várzea are produced by small farmers with heavy reliance on family labour. Women and children help transplant, weed, and harvest vegetables. Wage labourers, paid the equivalent of US$1 a day including lunch, also find employment on small vegetable farms, particularly for harvesting tomatoes.

Vegetable plots are typically fenced to keep out cattle and water buffalo. The high return on vegetables apparently pays for the investment in fences. Many farmers have purchased diesel pumps to irrigate their vegetable plots; in some cases, several families have cooperated to buy and maintain portable irrigation pumps. Farmers along Paraná Cachoeri near Oriximina have built raised platforms so that they can grow vegetables year-round. One such farmer has 70 raised platforms in production, ranging in length from 20 to 50 metres.

The experience of vegetable growers along Paraná Cachoeri illustrates the importance of markets and linkages with other land-use systems. "Cured" cattle manure is the planting medium in raised vegetable beds. Cattle dung is used uncut, after at least a month of storage. Thus cattle production on the Amazon flood plain can be a blessing or a bane of vegetable growers. Most of the vegetables produced along Paraná Cachoeri are taken by boat to Porto Trombetas to feed workers and their families associated with the bauxite-mining company, Mineração Rio Norte. "Mineração," as the mining operation is known locally, has chartered as many at two jets a month from São Paulo to provide the company town with vegetables. Flights are now down to once a month, in part owing to vegetable production along the Paraná Cachoeri.

Although the spread of vegetable farming along the Amazon flood plain is undoubtedly improving rural incomes and employment opportunities, as well as helping to improve the vitamin and fibre content of diets in urban areas, market gardening raises some ecological issues. Vegetable production, particularly in the tropics, is renowned for the heavy use of agro-chemicals, particularly pesticides. Apart from possible poisoning of farmers and workers owing to inappropriate handling of pesticides and insufficient washing of vegetables by consumers, the use of such chemicals in flood plains raises the spectre of contamination of fish, the most important source of animal protein for the regional population.

If vegetable farming increases, as seems likely, insecticides could start finding their way into aquatic food-chains and contaminate fish. At the moment, mercury levels in fish are a regional concern as a result of goldmining activities. But gold mining has declined dramatically since the late 1980s, accompanying the worldwide plunge in gold prices. A preoccupation with mercury contamination could blind public health officials to the "sleeper" issue of potentially dangerous levels of insecticides in some fish species in certain areas.

One way to counteract the use of insecticides would be to deploy pestresistant varieties. At the moment, vegetable growers in the Santarém area are purchasing seed produced in Minas Gerais and Rio Grande do Sul, or imported from Denmark. Pest pressure is less severe in the subtropical and temperate climates where the vegetable varieties are developed. Vegetable growers in Amazonia would undoubtedly benefit from more research on varieties adapted to the intense onslaught of diseases and pests characteristic of the humid tropics. A broad-based research agenda would include integrated pest management systems, such as resistant varieties, biocontrol of pests and diseases, and improved agronomic practices, such as crop rotation.

Flood-plain orchards

At first glance, flood plains might appear to be inappropriate for perennial crops. Although flood plains seem flat from the air, they are a complex of ridges, swales, and broad terraces. Some parts of the flood plain may be swamped for seven months or more, while higher portions may be under water for a month or less. Still other areas of the flood plain may be inundated only every 5-15 years or so during exceptional floods. Subtle but significant differences in topography create many micro-environments for different crops.

Many economically viable perennials are suited to the varied drainage conditions of flood plains in Amazonia. At least 80 species of perennials are grown in home gardens of the middle Amazon flood plain (Smith in prep.). Some of the plants are relatively well known, such as the palms agai (Euterpe oleracea) and buriti (Mauritiaflexuosa), while others are in the process of domestication. Home gardens contain a wealth of species and varieties adapted to the Amazon flood plain, some of which could be grown on a larger, commercial scale.

Açai palm, for example, is already an important component of riverine vegetation in many parts of Amazonia, particularly in the estuarine area, but is not common along the middle Amazon. açaí, is harvested from natural and planted stands for its fruit and heart-of-palm (Anderson 1990b). Agai fruit finds a ready market in both rural and urban areas, where it is mixed with manioc flour to make a thick, purple porridge; taken with water as a refreshing "milk" shake; and made into ice-cream. More flood-plain forests could be enriched with this graceful palm to boost food production and diversify sources of income, particularly near the mouth of the Amazon.

Numerous other native fruit trees thrive on the flood plains of white and clear water rivers, such as buriti palm, cajá (Spondias mombim), and cacao. Extensive stands of buriti palm are found along the upper Amazon, particularly between Leticia and Iquitos, but they are being felled to harvest the vitamin C-rich fruits. Improved harvesting techniques, and replanting devastated areas with this towering palm, would help ensure plentiful supplies of nutritious buriti fruit for generations to come.

Indigenous nuts, such as sapucaia (Lecythis pisonis), are a common backyard tree on the middle Amazon flood plain. Sapucaia also occurs in the remaining forest patches and could be planted more extensively in orchards and second-growth communities. Specimens of sapucaia on the flood plain are much shorter than populations in upland forests, so the nut cases can be harvested before the lid falls off and bats abscond with the nuts. Sapucaia rivals the better-known Brazil nuts in taste; indeed, to some, sapucaia nuts are creamier and more savoury than their distant cousin, the Brazil nut.

Although some time might be required before desirable selections of sapucaia are available for more widespread planting, other perennial crops well adapted to the flood plain could be promoted for planting in polycultural orchards or single stands. cupuaçu, for example, thrives on higher parts of the flood plain, and could become a viable cash crop along the Amazon, particularly if floating pulp processing plants could be established. With the help of simple freezers, upland-based farmers' and growers' associations are marketing ever-increasing quantities of cupuaçu for the ice-cream and juice trade. Flood-plain farmers are being bypassed by the cupuaçu boom; small, barge-based agro-industrial plants combined with cheap water transportation could help rectify the situation. Large, low-fibre selections of mango, such as "Kent" and "Keitt," might also help flood-plain farmers boost their incomes.

Tree crops thus provide many benefits and warrant more attention on the várzea. Labour costs are lower than for most annual crops, and discarded or rotten fruit and nuts provide food for fish. Several species of forest trees are tended in home gardens for fish bait, such as tarumã (Vitex cymosa) and catauari (Crutnevu benthami), and some of them could be grown in larger agro-forestry fields to supply upland-based fish farmers. Within the past two decades, fish culture has progressed to the point that some pond-raised species are already reaching the market, as in the case of tambaqui (Colossoma macropomum) from ranches in the vicinity of Rio Branco, Acre. Tambaqui is one of the most commercially valuable fish in Amazonia and, although an omnivore, depends heavily on fruits and seeds in the wild. In fish ponds, tambaqui thrives on starchy rations, but its flavour is reputedly not the same as wild tambaqui. Fish farmers might well be interested in buying fruits and nuts favoured by tambaqui to improve flavour and conditioning, particularly just before the fish are harvested for market.

Livestock in conflict with crops and fisheries

The most acute threat to the integrity of forests along the Amazon flood plain is livestock raising, particularly cattle and water buffalo. Ranchers and small farmers alike fell trees to create pasture at low water and to promote floating meadows at high water. Cattle and water buffalo wreak havoc in farmers' fields at low water. Even fences will not keep out powerful water buffalo, which can easily swim around barriers.

The driving forces behind cattle and water buffalo raising are similar to those on uplands, explored in the previous chapter. As on terra firma, some small farmers are opting to raise cattle, even if they occasionally damage crops. Water buffalo are still the domain of larger ranchers, however. In time, though, water buffalo will likely be taken up by some smallholders, as they have in many parts of tropical Asia.

The convergence of market and cultural forces is likely to further propel livestock raising on the varzea. Short of unleashing a Jurassic Park, no policy action is likely to rid the flood plain of cattle and water buffalo; cattle and water buffalo have become an integral part of the culture and economy of the Amazon flood plain. It is the scale of ranching that is triggering concern. Given that large livestock are here to stay on the flood plain, ways must be found to improve productivity while minimizing environmental damage and social conflicts. After reviewing the potential of flood-plain meadows, possibilities for raising native animals for food are explored.

Flood-plain meadows

Small cattle herds have been kept along the flood plains of major white water rivers, such as the Amazon, for centuries. At low water, zebu cattle are let out to graze on lush new growth, where they fatten up for market and produce milk for cheese-making. During the flood season, ranchers and small farmers have three options for safeguarding their herds during the season of deprivation: floating corrals, small pens along the interface between uplands and the flood plain, or upland pasture.

The first two options are generally employed by small operators. Livestock placed in floating corrals (marombas) or pens (caiçaras) are fed floating grasses (Sternberg 1953). Other operators lease or own pasture on terra firma. Cattle transhumance is common along the Amazon, particularly in the mid-section. Sometimes ranchers own land both on flood plains and on uplands (fig. 8.2). In other cases, particularly among smaller operators, pasture is often rented at certain times of the year. For example, one rancher with 280 ha of land along Ramal Andirobalzinho near Alter do Chao, Pará, keeps 70 head of cattle on 30 ha of weed-infested upland pasture from April to September, then transports his cattle to the Amazon flood plain. Truck and boat charges amount to US$4/head, while the lease of flood-plain pastures is US$2/head. The availability of lush várzea pasture is a major reason few ranchers have invested in pasture improvement in the Santarém area.

Partially submerged water buffalo are able to feed directly on the floating meadows. Water buffalo are admirably adapted to the fluctuating water levels and the native grasses of Marajó Island and stretches of the middle to lower Amazon (fig. 8.3). Only a small fraction of the estimated 11 million ha of flood-plain pasture available in the Amazon is effectively utilized by livestock. Although the carrying capacity of flood-plain meadows is generally higher than that of upland pasture, cattle can take advantage of them for only roughly 48 months. Improved management, such as enrichment planting with legumes and fencing, could boost the productivity of ranching on flood plains while reducing damage to adjacent fields and lakes.

Water buffalo were introduced to Brazil in the late nineteenth century, and now exceed 800,000 head, mostly in the lower Amazon (Alvim 1990; Mahadevan 1974; NRC 1981: 2). Marajó Island alone is reputed to have half a million water buffalo (Leal 1990). Water buffalo take an average of three years to reach 350 kg, while cattle take four years to reach the same weight in Amazonia. Also, water buffalo can remain on the flood plain longer than cattle during the flood stage.

Although raising cattle along flood plains is considered more environmentally benign than ranching in upland forest, some environmental and social costs are incurred. Ranchers sometimes clear parts of the floodplain forest to create more grassland at low water. Rather than keep cattle on barges or in sheds kept above the water line by stilts, some of the larger operators often clear adjacent up-lands to maintain the cattle during the flood stage. This lateral transhumance reduces the amount of forest cleared because cattle are kept on artificial pasture only for some three to five months. Nevertheless, forests are cleared to raise beef, when fish protein can be produced much more cheaply by leaving the forest cover.

Fig. 8.3 Riverine and upland savanna in Amazonia (Sources adapted from Eden 1990 3; Pires and Prance 1985)

Both cattle and water buffalo can interfere with small-scale farmers' efforts to grow food crops, especially vegetables. Conflicts between farmers and ranchers occasionally flare up on Careiro Island near Manaus and along other sections of the Amazon. Farmers erect fences at their own expense to keep out cattle, even though ranchers are supposed to be liable for any damage to crops. Conflicts between ranchers and small farmers is likely to increase in the future unless management systems are worked out to the benefit of all stakeholders on the flood plain. Various options are worth exploring such as living fences, designating certain islands for crop or livestock production, and improving the forage of existing flood-plain pastures so that cattle and water buffalo are less tempted by nearby fields.

Alternatives to cattle

Our analysis of cattle and water buffalo production in Amazonia does not imply that other systems of raising animal protein do not deserve more support, particularly for research. Indeed, sheep and goats appear to be increasingly raised by small- and medium-scale operators in Amazonia, in part because they are less demanding in terms of feed and veterinary care. Non-conventional animals for meat production also warrant further study, such as agouti (Smith 1974a), pace (Myers 1990; Smythe 1991), and capybara (Ojasti 1991), all indigenous rodents with widely appreciated flesh.

A major impediment to raising capybara, which is still found on the Amazon flood plain in spite of extensive hunting, is the legal restriction on maintaining wild animals in captivity. One farmer near Santarém keeps about a dozen capybara for domestic consumption and for sale or exchange to neighbours. Under the current legal framework and understaffed wildlife protection agencies, capybara can be hunted to local extinction with no effective protection from authorities, while ranchers can clear forest for cattle and water buffalo with virtual impunity. But a small farmer wishing to raise capybara, instead of cattle, is subject to fines. If a farmer is caught trying to sell capybara meat in an urban market, he or she could be imprisoned. A ready market exists for capybara; it makes sense to provide incentives for raising them in captivity. The social and ecological benefits of raising the native rodent would warrant an exception to the prevailing law on keeping wild animals in captivity.

Some species of turtle, particularly Podocnemis expanse, which can reach 50 kg when mature, could also be raised commercially in ponds (Smith 1974b, 1979). Aquaculture is appropriate for riverine and upland areas, but more research is needed on disease control, dietary requirements, and breeding for precocious weight gain, among other traits. In the early 1970s, a rancher near Juriti, Pará, took advantage of fiscal incentives from the regional development agency, SUDAM (Superintendência do Desenvolvimento da Amazônia), to stock an Amazon flood-plain lake with 70,000 hatchlings of Podocnemis expansa. Few if any tartaruga, as the turtle is known locally, remained in the lake at Fazenda Lago Pretinho by 1994. Future efforts to raise turtle in semicaptivity should be backed by credible scientific research to verify reproduction and growth rates so that sustainable harvests can be set.

Pond-raised pirarucu (Arapaima gigas) will soon reach the market, particularly in Pará. Upland ranchers have been among the leaders in trying out aquaculture with pirarucu and other fish species in Amazonia. Ironically, no aquaculture is under way on the Amazon flood plain, presumably because it is still cheaper to harvest wild stocks of fish. Nevertheless, some incentives for raising fish in cages or pens in lakes and small channels might pay off. Experience on the uplands has demonstrated that private sector involvement in research is essential to improve the R&D process.

Setting the stage

To reap the potential of flood plains for improving food production and rural incomes, more land-use surveys are needed to assess current uses, settlement patterns, and soil and vegetation types (Hiraoka 1989). An approach that combines fieldwork with remote sensing and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) would provide planners with a better sense of the land capability for different agricultural systems.

Greater accessibility to credit would help spur more intensive use of the land. In Brazil, only one-fourth of agricultural credit goes to small operators, who account for 70 per cent of farm produce (Santos and Cardoso 1992). Credit can be abused and heavily subsidized agriculture is an onus for society and often leads to inefficiencies and adverse environmental impacts, such as overuse of agro-chemicals. But carefully crafted incentives could encourage farmers to use such relatively benign technologies as solar-powered irrigation systems using windmills or photovoltaic pumps, and enable farmers to erect strong fences and purchase tree seedlings. Farmers on the flood plain and uplands would surely benefit from improved access to credit.

A major stumbling block for small farmers in their attempts to obtain credit is that they often do not have title to their land. Without documents establishing land ownership, banks will not consider granting agricultural loans. Redoubled efforts to provide titles to legitimate landowners would greatly facilitate efforts to promote more intensive and environmentally benign land-use practices. Without a clear system of property rights, few farmers will be motivated to conserve natural resources (World Bank 1992). For the most part, land conflicts are rare on the Amazon flood plain because land ownership is generally well recognized, even without official documentation. Still, lending agencies usually require title to the property to secure loans. If it is not feasible to distribute land titles to people who farm, fish, and/or raise livestock on the flood plain in the near future, then the exigency of land titles could perhaps be waived. In such cases, the state or federal government might offer a guarantee to the lending institution to cover any losses should the farmer default.

With a careful assessment of the potential and pitfalls of harnessing natural resources on the Amazon flood plain, this critically important environment could make a much greater contribution to the welfare of people living in Amazonia. A headlong rush to "develop" the Amazon flood plains, akin to some of the settlement and engineering schemes perpetrated on the uplands in the 1970s and 1980s, could lead to a bitter harvest. Although many ecosystems along the Amazon have already been dramatically altered by human activities, with proper management their long-term productivity could be greatly improved.

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