Napo River Flood
August 20, 2014
I am back in Iquitos, after a summer working with speakers of Iquito and Máíhɨ̃ki, en route to Berkeley. This summer was once again mostly uneventful and productive, with one significant exception in the eventfulness category: major flooding on the Napo River that we ran into on our way to the Máíhuna community of Nueva Vida. Extremely heavy rains in late June in the upper reaches of the Napo basin bloated the river several meters beyond its typical maximum height, flooding low-lying land along the banks for hundreds of kilometers. Communities built on bluffs escaped with flooding only of houses near the river, but the last twenty years have seen the foundinɡ of many new communities along the banks of the Napo, mostly in low-lying area. On the way up to the Yanayacu, the tributary on which Nueva Vida is located, we saw community after community in which the river level was right at, or just over, the levels of the raised floors of riverside communities. More critically, however, all the gardens planted in low-lying land were flooded, and remained so for a couple of weeks, meaning that most crops in these areas were damaged or lost.
Since the terrain in this area of the Amazon Basin is so flat, this flooding extended far up the tributaries of the Napo, and when we got to Nueva Vida at dusk, we found it likewise flooded. Our research center is typically located some three minutes walk from the river, but with the flooding, we were able to pull up to within 50 meters of the center in our relatively large boat, and community members helped us ferry our possessions, equipment, and supplies right to the center in dugouts with shallower draughts.
When morning came we awoke to a surreal and disorienting sight: the community of Nueva Vida as we know it, but now placed in what seemed like a vast lake. We soon began linguistic work, and for about a week, our consultants arrived at the center to work with us in boats or dugouts.
The waters dropped and left the community a marshy, muddy mess that no-one was happy with, but this was a minor inconvenience in comparison to the loss of most people’s gardens. Although several people had gardens in higher areas (airo or ‘elevated forest’ in Máíhɨ̃ki), many people had most or all of their gardens in kótibɨ, the low-lying areas near the river banks, which are easiest to clear and travel to. The people of Nueva Vida seemed confident that by salvaging what they could from the gardens, and relying on the generosity of people with gardens in airo areas, they would get through the thin times until the new gardens they planted would begin to produce in 6-9 months. (We also pitched in by purchasing some 1400 kilos of rice for Nueva Vida and Puerto Huamán, the other Maihuna community on the Yanayacu.)
But the loss of the gardens were evident in the almost complete absence of hasogóno (manioc beer) in the community the entire time we were there, which not only had an impact on social life in the community, but in an ironic twist, also impeded to some degree the planting of new gardens. Much large-scale work like this is done via mingas, collaborative work parties in which a host provide food and drink — the latter in the form of manioc beer — in exchange for a day of cheerful labor and social activity, and an implicit agreement to subsequently go to others’ mingas.
Fortunately, by the time we left Nueva Vida a week ago, fishing and hunting was back to normal, and so it looks like community members will weather the months until the new gardens begin to produce reasonably well. They will, alas, be a hasogóno-free months!