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The Last Move of the Ribeirinho: Indigenous Sovereignty and Servitude in the Middle and Lower Rio Negro Basin, Brazilian Amazonia



The Last Move of the Ribeirinho: Indigenous Sovereignty and Servitude

in the Middle and Lower Rio Negro Basin, Brazilian Amazonia


Francisco Boavista Pontual

Doctor of Philosophy in Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Claudia J. Carr, Chair

The ribeirinhos (mestizo or "generic indian" river dwellers) amount for the largest indigenous contingent in the Pan-Amazonia, yet have remained virtually invisible and unrecognized in spite of being a living and diversified cultural entity undergoing their ethnic transfigurations since the 18th century. During the past decades, many ribeirinho households from rural communities located in the Middle and Lower Rio Negro Basin have left behind their subsistence grounds and moved to the nearest towns in what seems to be an anomalous phenomenon of rural-to-urban migration. The observed migrations seem to lack the most common Amazonian push factors ⎯ such as land grabs, loss of ecosystem services, and forced displacements; while the common pull factors ⎯ such as access to urban-based public services and the job market ⎯ are either of very low quality or simply not available.

In this study, I wanted to understand who are the present-day Middle and Lower Rio Negro ribeirinho, how their livelihoods have been changing throughout the centuries, why they have such high mobility and how can it serve their long-term survival strategies, and how they seemed to keep a say about their lives after many centuries of service dedicated to a myriad of patrons?

I provide a comprehensive historical background and analysis on the ribeirinho ethnogenesis and general history, as well as the origins and evolution of patron-client relationships during the past four centuries. Based on the contexts derived from this initial analysis, I designed and conducted the first Middle and Lower Rio Negro regional scale household survey of ribeirinho families and rural communities to shed light on their present-day identities, socio-political organization, cultural perceptions and expressions, household micro-economy, livelihood dynamics, drivers of mobility and main survival strategies. I argue that the apparently paradoxical exodus from a supposedly "better" rural existence to a "worse" semi-urban or urban one is in fact a present day expression of ribeirinho historical survival strategies that kept them alive as cultural entities, and is now delivering a response to opportunistic circumstances of the 21st century.

The future of the ribeirinhos and the Rio Negro basin depends on the development priorities and policies yet to be adopted and implemented by the Brazilian government. The ribeirinhos have been the main driving force of all Amazonian socio-economic cycles, where they have played roles of servitude as a means of keeping their sovereign capacity to self-determine their own way to survive and take care of their families. This study suggests that -- if the coercive patrons are substituted by a supportive and functional State -- the ribeirinhos seem to be willing to shift their livelihoods and use of their profound ecological and geographical knowledge and regional experience towards socio-economic activities associated with sustainable rural development projects.

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