A mighty, snaking river, the Ucayali meanders and curves through approximately 2670 km of Andean slopes and Amazonian rainforest before joining the Marañon River to become the Amazon River. Flowing south to north, the Ucayali is one of the most dynamic rivers in the world. Despite its low gradient, it is well known locally and amongst geographers for its constant flooding, its shifting course, rising waters and moving meanders. The difference between the river’s high water level in April and low water-level in August is on the order of 9 to 12 meters (see Lamotte). Measurements made by the Peruvian Navy show that the difference in the river’s discharge between low-water stage and flood season is enormous, gushing from a low of 2,000 to a high of 22,000 cubic meters per second. In some places, the annual flood period can last up to 30 weeks, with heavy sediment deposit rates. Equally, the river’s meanders shift location annually with general rates of “lateral migration” ranging from 100 to 285 meters, whilst in some places shifts of over 700 meters have been observed. In other words, the river and its banks and swales and ridges and necks and ears and arms move dramatically. This means that new cut offs and channels connecting and disconnecting oxbow lakes develop all the time, sometimes aided by human effort (and possibly the anaconda’s or other animals), impacting both the interior land and the banks, as well as the movement of humans, plants and animals through the basin. This makes for a complex river ecology of dynamic adaptation and change that renders attempts at static mapping and geological control absurd.
Discrepancy between GPS-referenced titled areas and the current course of the river.
Although recent mapping efforts have found a special interest in the dynamics of “meander migration” in general and some interest in the Ucayali in particular, though mostly from the remove of satellite imagery, the consequences for the social, political and nonhuman ecology of communities in the Shipibo region have not been taken into consideration. At any rate, one has to keep in mind that satellite imagery provides a partial (that is, narrow as well as biased) snapshot of the river - for example, the images are generally from days with no cloud cover and are algorithmically stitched together to create an average location and shape.
The river’s dynamic movement begins in Shipibo territory around the town of Atalaya and reaches its peaks between Pucallpa and Iquitos in the North. It is to this dynamism and fluvial liveliness that Shipibo lifeways have shaped themselves. Ronin, the great anaconda water snake, the ruler of the water world and mother of all fish, lies at the heart of the Shipibo cosmology of the Ucayali, responsible both for its movements and its protection. Centered around the idea of visualizing the river as a living being, a powerful crawling snake, rather than a static line, the Non Nete mapping initiative lends the spiritual understanding of river ecology and fluvial liveliness a political life too. This is consistent with an expanding ontological understanding of natural features and the corresponding juridical movement, in countries such as Ecuador, New Zealand and India, to legally enshrine the personhood and rights of nature.
There is plenty of evidence that river ecology adaptation and mobility is not a recent phenomenon and that historically the shifting river determined activities, sites of settlement and patterns of movement–conversely human interventions also shaped the cut offs and mergings of the river and its tributaries. Local ecological and fluvial knowledge is complex, and communities have worked to manage wetlands, sedimentation, channel-making and plant life. Historically, Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo communities frequently moved sites, and were organized to be mobile. Today, many factors mitigate against mobility. Communities increasingly tend to get fixed in place by property regimes, utility services (such as electricity) and NGO projects like wells, or roads. Often NGO involvement is based not on a long term engagement with the local ecology but with an imposed priority of donation (wells or toilets, which break and stop functioning over time). In some cases, the flooding can have terrible effects on subsistence, as villages are inundated, large chunks of the river bank and its trees are swallowed up, and crops ruined, with serious implications in terms of food security and out-migration.
Coshikox considers recent proposals to create commercial riverways by attempting to fix and straighten the path of the river dangerous to the river-human-animal ecology of the region. The largest of its kind, Hidrovia Amazonica is a project on the continental scale that since its environmental impact study has created a lot of concern both in terms of threats to the biodiversity of the ecosystems and the local populations who depend on it. With the ambition of expediting fluvial transportation during the low-water season, it involves dredging sandbanks and other natural formations along an area of 2,687 km in the Huallaga, Marañón, Ucayali and Amazon rivers, between Peru and Brazil to ultimately connect the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean.Roadways and unregulated river commerce have proven to be deleterious to many communities, opening the way to logging as well as coca cultivation. Local observation corroborated by studies state that the river’s fishstock has already been destroyed, mainly due to commercial overfishing and pollution from extractive industries especially oil, gold mining and palm plantations with devastating health impacts across the Amazon. Whereas indigenous claims in the Americas have been understood in territorial terms, that is, in relation to land, it is important to underscore the integral importance of water and waterways in any move towards decolonization and self-determination. What would self-determination, sovereignty be if we started from water, instead of land, from flow instead of border?
Image Credit: Ayushi Jain and the Shipibo Conibo Center
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