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The Diversity of Bitter Manioc (Manihot Esculenta Crantz) Cultivation in a Whitewater Amazonian Landscape

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article

Published

Journal publication date2010
JournalDiversity
Journal number4
Volume2
Number of pages24
Pages586-609
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

While bitter manioc has been one of the most important staple crops in the central Amazon for thousands of years, there have been few studies of its cultivation in the fertile whitewater landscapes of this region. Anthropological research on bitter manioc cultivation in the Amazon has focused almost exclusively on long-fallow shifting cultivation in marginal upland areas of low soil fertility. This has contributed to the persistence of the oversimplified notion that because bitter manioc is well adapted to infertile upland soils; it cannot yield well in alluvial and/or fertile soils. I hypothesized that bitter manioc cultivation would be well adapted to the fertile soils of the whitewater landscapes of the central Amazon because of the centrality of this crop to subsistence in this region. In this article, I examine one such whitewater landscape, the middle Madeira River, Amazonas, Brazil, where smallholders cultivate bitter manioc on fertile Amazonian Dark Earths (ADE) and floodplain soils, and on infertile Oxisols and Ultisols. In this region, cultivation on fertile soils tends to be short-cycled, characterised by short fallowing (0–6 years) and shorter cropping periods (5–12 months) with a predominance of low starch fast maturing “weak” landraces. By contrast, cultivation on infertile soils is normally long-cycled, characterised by longer fallows (>10 years) and longer cropping periods (1–3 years) with a predominance of high starch slow maturing “strong” landraces. This diversity in bitter manioc cultivation systems (landraces, fallow periods, soils) demonstrates that Amazonian farmers have adapted bitter manioc cultivation to the specific characteristics of the landscapes that they inhabit. I conclude that contrary to earlier claims, there are no ecological limitations on growing bitter manioc in fertile soils, and therefore the cultivation of this crop in floodplain and ADE soils would have been possible in the pre-Columbian period.