Lifeways and currents of change in the Peruvian Amazon: A 1000 km boat journey down the Ucayali River

June 27, 2022 by Christian Abizaid

Media reports from the Brazilian Amazon continue to raise much concern over the fate of the Amazon and its peoples. During the last half century, forests have been cut down or degraded from cattle ranching, illegal logging and mining, roads, agribusiness development, and colonization schemes; fish populations have dwindled, and climate change and dam construction are affecting the hydrology of the Amazon River, threatening biodiversity, the livelihoods of indigenous and folk peoples, and the world's climate (Ferrante and Fearnside 2020; Nobre and Nobre 2020; Walker 2021). Yet, one third of the Amazon is found in neighboring countries, mainly to the west, where formative tributaries like the Ucayali, Marañón, and Napo rivers in Peru descend from the Andes into the Amazon lowlands, bringing the waters that drive flooding, carry sediments, and enable long-distance fish migrations (Junk et al. 2007; Latrubesse et al. 2017; Anderson et al. 2018). Although not isolated from the complex forces shaping dynamics in Brazil, the situation in western Amazonia is less well known.

To gain a perspective on how the region is changing, we undertook a 1000 km trip down the Ucayali River between the cities of Pucallpa and Iquitos in Peru. Each of us has been conducting research on indigenous and folk peoples' (ribereños) livelihoods in the Peruvian Amazon for the past 20-30 years and we have been collaborating closely for nearly a decade on a large-scale study on rural livelihoods and poverty in the region, known as the Peruvian Amazon Rural Livelihoods and Poverty (PARLAP) project. With our experience as a backdrop, we situate our observations from this long distance transect and discuss ongoing developments reshaping rural life and livelihoods that portend more significant transformations to come to western Amazonia.

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