A UC Berkeley geographer's seminal 1956 study of the Amazon reprinted by Brazilian museum

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- It's rare that a 43-year-old scientific study is still relevant and in enough demand to justify republishing.

But such is the case with a seminal study of the Amazon published in 1956 by professor emeritus of geography Hilgard O'Reilly Sternberg of the University of California, Berkeley. Now 82, Sternberg was surprised when an agency affiliated with the Brazilian National Research Council approached him three years ago with a proposal not only to reprint the book, but to make it more attractive than the original.

Clearly, some studies are just worth it.

Called "A Água e o Homem na Várzea do Careiro" (Water and People on the Floodplain of Careiro), Sternberg's book broke new ground in its approach to the Amazon River, focusing on the Careiro - a side-channel, or paraná, of the Amazon, near Manaus - and the people living along its banks.

"Sternberg's thesis presents the Careiro region as a geographic entity resulting from the interweaving of all its components, including people," writes Harald Sioli, director emeritus of the Max-Planck Institute for Limnology, in his presentation of the book. "Never before had an Amazonian region been researched with such a unifying concept. In this sense, therefore, the work is a pioneering one."

The book paved the way for other studies up and down the Amazon, leading indirectly to the first expedition that set out to measure the flow of the river. Coordinated by Sternberg, this joint operation, involving the U.S. Geological Survey, the Brazilian Navy and the University of Brazil, first brought to light the magnitude of the Amazon's contribution of fresh water to the world's oceans. That contribution is now estimated at 15 percent of the ocean's total inflow - the largest of any river on earth.

Because the initial printing was limited, the work quickly dropped out of circulation, except for coveted Xerox copies - and Xeroxes of Xerox copies - of the book. It was because this demand remained strong that the museum proposed republishing the work.

"There is in 'A Água e o Homem na Várzea do Careiro' a contemporaneity reserved for the classics in literature," praised Evaldo G. Martins Cesar, director general of the Natural Resources Department of SUDAM, the Superintendency for the Development of Amazonia.

The edition just issued by the 133 year-old Emílio Goeldi Museum, in Belém, with the support of SUDAM, retains the numerous linecuts, black-and-white plates and handsome maps of the first edition. The core of the text appears as it was written in 1956, so as to keep its value as an historical document describing a way of life that is fast disappearing.

But the new edition has a hard cover and glossy dust jacket, plus a frontispiece in full color featuring a satellite image of the research area. To its 248 pages have been added a new preface situating the study in the context of the technological progress made in geographic research tools, and a postface exemplifying changes in the area, both physical and human, with suggestions for further research.

In the postface, Sternberg give examples of transformations that have the potential for considerable impact in the region, with important consequences for the human population. One possibility mentioned is that the Solimões River (as the Amazon is called above the mouth of the Rio Negro) might preempt the bed of the densely populated Careiro. A collaborative paper with David Brillinger, a professor of statistics at UC Berkeley, is now in the works and may help monitor the changes in river discharge that could herald such an event.

Four decades ago, dairy farms predominated along the banks of the Careiro, the milkshed for Manaus. During very high water stages, the flood plain farmers stabled their milk cows on marombas, barns built on piles or rafts. Sometimes they were obliged to transport their herds to high ground, moving them back when the river dropped. Sternberg observed this as he covered the length of the Careiro during the greatest flood on record, in 1953.

Today, the more labor-intensive dairy farms are breaking down because imported milk is often cheaper, and the land is being consolidated into larger ranches, directed to the production of beef cattle or multipurpose stock. The exodus of redundant labor adds to the crowding of Manaus, which has expanded enormously in the past half century. Conversely, with improved transportation by water, there is an incipient transformation of the upper reaches of the Careiro, closer to Manaus, into a commuting suburb of the sprawling city.

Sternberg began his study of the Careiro after completing in 1944 his PhD at Louisiana State University, where his dissertation focused on the geomorphology of the Mississippi River. Over the next decade, he spent every free moment on the Careiro, charting past changes in the river channel and how they affected the riverine inhabitants.

"Everything in their lives is connected to water," he said. "The genesis and use of the land, the yearly agricultural cycle - all depend on the rise and fall of the waters and their richness in nutrients."

When he finished the study, he submitted it in a competition for the chair of Geography of Brazil at the University of Brazil, now the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He earned title to the chair, leaving it only to accept a professorship at UC Berkeley in 1964.

"One of the features that most strongly called my attention was Sternberg's concern with the issue of humans and their environment, revealed many years before an ecological focus became commonplace," writes Ozório José de Menezes Fonseca, director of the National Research Institute for Amazonia, commenting on the book.

Concludes Sioli, " the publication is fundamental to the geography of the flood plain of the lower Amazon ."

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