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Hispanic American Historical Review 82.1 (2002) 180-181

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Book Review

A água e o homem na várzea do Careiro

A água e o homem na várzea do Careiro. 2 d. ed. 2 vols. By HILGARD O'REILLY STERNBERG. Coleção Friedrich Katzer. Belém: Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, 1998 . Photographs. Plates. Illustrations. Maps. Tables. Figures. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. xli, 248 pp. Cloth.

This beautiful book is a richly illustrated reedition of a classic in Latin American human geography, one which may be read today as a work of "environmental history." It has much to say to historians of any country about the ever-changing two-way relationship between humanity and the rest of nature; and one may hope that it will soon be available in English translation. The original, published in limited edition in 1956 , has been a respected and influential, hard-to-find goldmine for Amazonists in many disciplines ever since. It is an exquisitely detailed study, based on extensive field and archival research, of the hydrology, geomorphology, natural history, transformation from wilderness into landscape, ethnography and modern agricultural economy of a specific but in some ways representative small place: Careiro Island in the central floodplain or várzea of the Amazon river, just below its confluence with the Rio Negro at Manaus. The first volume incorporates dozens of the author's own black & white photographs, along with sketches by Brazilian artist Percy Lau and many maps, aerial survey photos and tables; the second is a sheaf of maps illustrating the island's relationship to the river, and the evolution of smallholdings between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries.

The principal protagonist here is the vast sediment-bearing Amazon itself whose dramatic annual flood regime has carved and continually recarved the landforms of low-lying Careiro, and sustains its abundant plant and animal life. The flood has presented all its human inhabitants with immense opportunities as well as almost insuperable challenges. That dynamic is the subject of the book's eloquent, stage-setting introduction and first chapter, which describe the flood, represent it photographically, and record over a long term the variations in the river's depth at Manaus (some ten meters on average between June's high water and November's low). The remainder of the book focuses on the fascinating amphibious human occupation of the island during particularly the past century. A new preface and conclusion by the author (now Emeritus Professor of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley), together with a bibliographical appendix, carry the story of the fast-evolving human ecology of Careiro to the millennium, and ensure its continuing great value to students of the past, present and future of the Amazonian várzea.

Careiro, along with the rest of the várzea, was once densely inhabited by native peoples who throve by exploiting its rich alluvial soils, forests and aquatic sources of protein. The book's treatment of origins is enhanced by Sternberg's own mapping of the terra preta or ancient habitation sites found during his extensive reconnaissance of the island half a century ago. During the seventeenth century, [End Page 180] the várzea was virtually depopulated by the ravages of epidemic disease and a relentless Indian slave trade; by the mid-eighteenth, Careiro was the site of an important commercial fishery. These get little attention here. But beginning in the 1840 's, the island was resettled principally by young couples of "Cearense" refugees from the "drought triangle" of northeastern Brazil. These hard-working settlers introduced truck farms and small herds of dairy cattle to provide nearby Manaus with its milk, cheese, and butter, in the process devising remarkable new adaptations to the flood regime--notably herding cattle onto raised platforms or rafts as the waters rose, and transporting fodder to them by canoe during the long months of inundation. The treatment here, based on Sternberg's direct observation, ample documentation and extensive interviews with the farmers themselves, is rich indeed.

Since 1950 , as Manaus with its free trade zone has grown...


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