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Floodplain Lakes in the Amazon basin

Local Management Can Work

Sebastian MATHEW

12 / 1997

The fertile soils and abundant aquatic resources of the vast Amazonian floodplain have always supported some of the highest population densities in the basin. The seemingly inexhaustible fisheries of the floodplain have played an important role in local subsistence and, to a more limited extent, regional trade.

Over the last three decades, however, Amazonian commercial fisheries have developed rapidly, largely due to technological innovations in fishing craft and gear, a dramatic increase in demand for fish products in regional as well as export markets, and a massive shift of ribeirinho labour from farming to fishing due to the decline of jute, the main cash crop on the floodplain.

Today, the Amazonian commercial fisheries involve around 230,000 fishermen, most of whom are smallholders living on the floodplain. There are four major fisheries, each focused on a specific environment, namely, the estuary, river channel, lake and reservoir.

Despite the great diversity of Amazonian fisheries, estimated to contain up to 2,000 species, the commercial fisheries are based on a relatively small number of species. In major urban centres like Manaus, Santarem and Porto Velho, for instance, 10 species typically account for 70 to 90 per cent of the catch. Of these only three species show signs of overfishing.

While the fisheries are not yet overexploited, increased pressure on regional fisheries has significantly reduced the productivity of ribeirinho fishing efforts, especially in areas surrounding major urban centres.

As productivity drops, conflicts between ribeirinho communities and commercial fishermen from other areas have proliferated throughout the basin. This has sometimes led to the destruction of boats and equipment, and even caused deaths. Unless action is taken, present trends will lead to the eventual overexploitation of fish stocks and the progressive marginalisation of much of the floodplain population (ribeirinho).

So far, the Brazilian Institute for Environment and Renewable Resources (IBAMA), the government agency responsible for fisheries policy, has proved incapable of effectively managing regional fisheries or mediating in conflicts.

As a result, apart from the industrial trawl fishery in the estuary, there is open access to Amazon fisheries. This encourages fishermen to exploit the fisheries with little concern for maintaining long-term productivity.

The open-access approach to fisheries management clashes with community notions of territoriality. Communities throughout the Amazon are asserting control over local lake systems, excluding outsiders and establishing informal community lake reserves.

Typically, these lake reserves involve the members of one or more communities and are based on a formal document signed by the majority of local landowners and fishermen. They usually limit the lake access to local fishermen and may specify informal rules for controlling fishing effort. These rules are based on the traditional knowledge of fisheries ecology. Preliminary comparative studies of lake management suggest that well-organised lake reserves can increase the productivity of fishing effort.

However, since virtually all ribeirinhos are directly involved in commercial fisheries, many attempts to regulate local fishing activity fail for lack of support from community members. For this reason, the lake reserve has functioned more to exclude outsiders than to regulate fishing effort.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Brazilian fisheries policy is based on free access to lake fisheries. Since lake reserves are technically illegal, they can receive little formal support from IBAMA.

In recent years, a variety of organisations have begun to address the technical and organisational problems of community-based fisheries management. For example, municipal fishermen’s unions (Colonel des Pescadores), whose membership is often dominated by ribeirinho fishermen, are taking an increasingly active role in organising communities to manage local fisheries. National fishermen’s organisations like MONAPE (Movimento Nacional da Pesca)and church-related groups like the CPP (Comissado Pestoral da Pesca)and CPT (Comissado Pastoral da Terra)are working with the Colonias to co-ordinate and support these local efforts at the state and regional levels. Several other projects to strengthen the Colonia’s ability to support these efforts at the municipal level are being undertaken.

Key words

fishing, fishermen’s organization, social conflict, management of natural resources

, Brazil, Amazon Basin


The development of the Amazonian commercial fisheries and the resulting competition for resources is transforming the economy, ecology and society of the area. Given this scenario, lake reserves represent a management model which have the potential to address the problems of social justice and ecological sustainability that are central to fisheries development. The direct involvement of the ribeirinho population ensures that traditional know-ledge and resource use are incorporated into models of floodplain resource management, and that the resulting programmes address local interests.

These fragile efforts at local management represent a potentially important alternative to the conventional government-based fisheries management, which has proven totally ineffective. They need to be recognised, supported and strengthened, especially by government agencies.


Articles and files

DE CASTRO, Fablo, Local management works in. Samudra Report, 1994/12, 10 11

ICSF (International Collective in Support of Fishworkers) - 27 College Road, Chennai 600006, INDIA - Tel. (91) 44-2827 5303 - Fax (91) 44-2825 4457 - India - - icsf (@)

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