Diversity and Traditional Management of Four Amazonian Varzea Forests in the Lowland Peruvian Amazon

Diversity and Traditional Management of Four Amazonian Varzea Forests in the Lowland Peruvian Amazon.

Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez, DF Candidate


Lands within the floodplain or varzea are believed to have the most fertile soils in the Amazon Basin. Intensive agriculture is often considered the most suitable land use for these areas. However, planting many of the most desirable Amazonian crops, such as plantains and manioc in the floodplain, is very risky because annual floods are irregular in timing and unpredictable in height (Chibnik 1986). Because of these risks, as well as other factors, management of varzea forests is an important, and yet rarely discussed alternative to agricultural development.

In varzea areas, several different kinds of forest are predominantly characterized by the abundance of one, two or three tree species. Peters et. al. (1989) identified and described two of these kinds of forests: those dominated by the camu-camu shrub (Myrciaria dubia) and those where the dominant species is the acai palm (Euterpe oleracea). In addition to these two kinds of varzea forest, four more are commonly classified as economically important in the Iquitos region: yarinales, moenales, capinurinales and capironales.

lnformation about these four kinds of varzea forest is scarce even though they are exploited regularly for both subsistence and commercial production by the rural population. In this paper, I present a general description of these forests, their uses, and traditional management patterns. I conclude with a few remarks about the need for further study if the economic potential of these forests is to be realized.

Yarinales, Moenales, Capinurinales and Capironales

Yarinales are varzea forests where the yarina palm (Phytelephas spp.) is abundant. Four species of this palm have been reported in the Amazon: P. tumacana, P. schottii, P. macrocarpa, and P. seemannii (Barfod 1988). The species Phytelephas macrocarpa predominates in the varzea forest near the city of Iquitos.

Natural dense stands of Phytelephas macrocarpa in the Iquitos region thrive on natural levees or restingas altas close to ox-bow lakes. Forming less dense stands, yarina palms also grow between old river streambeds and swamps. People from the region have long collected several different yarina products especially fruits and leaves. Immature yarina fruits are collected for consumption and for sale in the Iquitos' market all year round (Padoch 1987).

Figure 1. Mature yarina fruits are used.for the production of tagua, vegetable ivory.

When its fruits mature, yarina produces tagua (vegetable ivory) which in the 1940's was sold on the international market for the production of buttons, dice, chess pieces, umbrella handles, and jewelry. With the recent world ban on elephant ivory, vegetable ivory has been rediscovered as a substitute for the animal product. This situation presents an opportunity for managing natural stands of yarina in the Peruvian Amazon.

Moenales are found in natural stands on high and low natural levees, as well as close to swamps and old riverbeds. In this kind of varzea forest, the most abundant tree species are those known collectively to local villagers as moena. These include trees of the genera Aniba, Endlicheria, Nectandra and Ocotea of the Lauraceae family. These genera include some of the most valuable timber species of the Amazonian forest.

Figure 2. Indigenous people use moena trees for making canoes.

Capinurales are varzea forests where the most abundant trees are of the species Clarisia biflora and Clarisia racemosa (Moraceae). The demand for these two species in the regional plywood industry has increased in the last twenty years due to the scarcity of the previously favored lupuna (Chorisia insignis). Both capinure species grow in the region forming dense natural stands on low levees near river meanders and ox-bow lakes.

Varzea forests dominated by the genus Calycophyllum (Rubiaceae) are called capironales. Three species of this genus are found in the Iquitos region: C. spruceanum, C. acreanum, and C. obovatum (Vasquez 1989). Capironales are exploited for fuelwood and roundwood. At the beginning of this century, much fuelwood for powering river steamers was extracted from capironale forest. The commercial extraction of fuel wood from capironales led to establishment of many villages along rivers in the region (San Roman 1975).

Present and Future Management of Yarinales, Moenales, Capinurales, and Capironales

Traditional management of natural resources in the lowland Peruvian Amazon has been only superficially studied. Management of swidden-fallows for the production of native fruits and construction materials for subsistence and marketing is known in the region (Denevan and Padoch 1988). Peters et. al. (1989) report that natural forests in the Amazon are rarely managed. However, rural people of the Peruvian Amazon have managed the four varzea forest types more or less intensively for a very long time.

In the Iquitos region rural people either plant or protect natural stands of yarina. The extraction of leaves and fruits of the palm is often controlled by community rules. For instance, the collection of leaves from young yarinas is prohibited. It is also forbidden to collect the four or six youngest leaves from an adult yarina palm. The majority of communities have protected their yarinales, prohibit ing their cutting for agriculture.

Management of yarinales differs in both method and intensity from the management of the other forest types: moenales, capinurinales, and capironales in the Iquitos region. Moena, capinuri, and capirona trees are not planted but they are protected. Methods of protecting these species differ from one another. For instance, people select and protect young, healthy, and straight-stemmed moena trees. Each tree is cleaned of vines and marked with the name of the family that owns and manages it. These trees are harvested when they reach 25 cm DBH and are sold as timber or are used for making canoes.

Figure 3. Varzea forests provide highly valued timber.

People protect capinurales, on the other hand, as stands rather than as individual trees. Capinurales are usually managed by controlling the fast growing emergent species of the genera Ficus and Hura (Moraceae). These species tend to suppress and kill capinuri trees. The control of these trees is done by peeling and burning the bark in the base of their stems.

Capinuri seedlings and saplings are also protected from fast growing shrubs species of the genus Inga (Mimosaceae); these shrubs are commonly pruned once or twice until the young capinuris reach the understory.

The most common management practice for capironales is to leave and protect the seedlings that invade old agricultural fields. Roundwood is extracted after two years and fuelwood after four years. Trees with the best stems are sold as roundwood while trees with deformed stems are used as fuelwood. Capironales usually are cut and converted to agricultural fields when they are seven years old or when all usable capironas are exhausted.


Local knowledge of management methods of the four varzea forest types represent an important, underutilized resource. Management plans that are based on local knowledge can attract the participation of local people, a key to any kind of successful development in the region.

Yarinales, moenales, capinurales, and capironales are only four of the most economically important varzea forests in the Iquitos region. Ecological economic studies of these and other kinds of varzea forests need to be conducted. These studies should give us better understanding of their ecology, management, and current and potential role in market and subsistence economies, and help prevent the destruction or over-exploitation of these Amazonian resources. Conservation and development of these important varzea forests cannot be overlooked for long.


Balfod, A. 1988. Natural history and systematics of the subfamily Phytelephantoideae (Arecaceae). Ph.D. Thesis. Botanisk Institut, Aarhus Universitet, Denmark.

Chibnik, M. 1986. New sources of credit in Peruvian Amazonian communities. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Denevan, W.M. and C. Padoch. 1988. Swidden-fallow agroforestry in the Peruvian Amazon. Advances in Economic Botany, V. 5.

Padoch, C. 1987. The economic importance and marketing of forest and fallow products in the Iquitos region. Advances in Economic Botany, V. 5.

Peters, M.C., Balick, M.J., Kahn, F., and A.B. Anderson. 1989. Oligarchic forest of economic plants in Amazonia: uitlization and conservation of an important tropical resource. Conservation Biology, 3(4).

San Roman, J.V. 1975. Perfiles historicos de la Amazonia Peruana. C.E.T.A., Lima, Perf.

Vasquez, R.M. 1989. Plantas utilies de la Amazonia Peruana. Mimeo. Iquitos, Perf.

Citation of Original Article

Pinedo-Vasquez, Miguel. 1993. Diversity and Traditional Management of Four Amazonian Varzea Forests in the Lowland Peruvian Amazon. TRI News 12, 4–6.