P. ~' .' v. 0! 0X I 2.
, 7. '. ^. :' '.1 0 .' I
." ' .. '.
_s tl 1
1 **, T7; : L a t I
;; '.-;.:!J ]T 0. !-'LORIDA
, ~. L. "f^' I cr t .' ":
^ -C^ L -.** i- J ', **
Harlan G. Hawkins
To the family
Thelma, Mike, Pat and Tom
In the completion of a ,graduate dclgree rnany debts
are incurred. The author- wJishes to express his gratitude
to all who have helped ;im achieve this goal. The list
is long and includes both follow students and faculty.
All of the geography department faculty have coritributea,
but special thanks are due the supervisory committee
and 'r. Crist, who read the initial draft and offered
many suggestions to improve it.
The staff of the Latin A.:erican CenteLr was also help-
ful in many ways, particularly in the ad;iiiistrat ion of
the Fulbright-Hays ,an!t.
To all of these people who wcre intcrestea and kind
enough to offer help, many thanks are due. You are
ACIl :': 0'. LE D7;, ::. :'. `S
JII.~ n~ ..I'II
L I S T .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
L TST I' :.; :,S . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Vegeta ion ...................................
role of the Rio VaupTs. ...................
HISTO-ICAL REVIEW AND RELATED LITERATURE .... .....
PRESENT DAY MITU....................................
Pop"'lation.......... ... .....................
Government Employees anid Subsidies........
Pet .il Stores.............................
Hubber .......... ...........................
F o o . . .. . .. . . . . ... . . . .. . .. . ... .
Transportation and Communications.............
. . . . . .
. . . . . .
Civ c Imiprovements ........................... 150
Recre ion .................................. 156
CULTcJAL A'I D RELIGIOUS CO'IFL,.ICTS .................. 171
TWO }1EPRESES:TATIVE FAIIILIES........................ 19
CONCLUSIO iS ...................................... 20?
GLOSS'Ji A OP SPAIISH TE S ......................... 216
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY.............................. 218
BIOG3RAFHICAL SKETCH ............................... 233
LIST OF TABLES
1. Populaticn Data For The Vaupeas .......... 48
2. Budget For The Vaupe's Comisaria ......... 55
3. Sales In The Mitu Comisariato ........... 58
4. Retail Price Increases Between 1964 and
February, 1970.......................... -69
5. Hoi2cical Personnel and Facilities In The
Vaupes, November, 19069........ .......... 123
6. Changing Air Transportation Costs to Mitu'. 146
LIST OF PIGUlLS
Forest Clearing ...
Cerro de Mitu ......
Tito's Boat ........
Passing Through Raop
Large Eoat in the Rh
9. Santa arta Iapidcs.
10. The itu Ara o t
The Town of iitu.......
The Ca.-. ......... ......
Nitu Pl] ea .............
Colegio Jose Sustacio
Garcia's Storc .........
22. Burned Field ..............
23. Yuca .Grd.en ................
24. An" Open 1House". .............
25. Thatched House.............
26. An Indian Town House.......
27. Indian Iialoca..............
28. A House Call...............
29. Dro.g Store.................
30. Incoming Food..............
31. Townspeople at the Airport.
32. The Water Pump.............
33. Laundry Float .............
34. Basketball Game.............
35. A Canoe Race...............
36. Emergence Rock.............
37. A Protestant Service.......
38. Mitu Church ................
39. The Internadlo..............
40. The Vargas Family...........
41. The Comisario ..............
42. Samuel and His Family......
43. New House..................
Abs-tract or Di.r:-;er ct.ion Pr.esente to the
G:-, ';-:te C'u,.ciU f the iUnivepit.y of 'lorid3
ii :- .ir' 1ial F:'...l'jllienit of tric Ieqalir,;e.,] t for tie
D -gr ee or Doctor of Ih.il.osophy
.Ti PU, COLOLCi:TA:
A GTEhcqiAPIICAL ANALYSIS O O A: ISGLAT.D BODERZ' TO7*,;
llarlan G. Ha'wkirc~
Chairmnian: Iaymond 3. Crist
Iajo~ D-..-.rtment: Geography
The goal of this study is to describe and &-ralyze,
from a geographical point, of view., the c-clop.ent aid
potent ia.! resources of Mittu, Colombia.
The initial section is a description of the pI :.c'Al
settling of the town including climate, lan;ifor.rs, slc ,
and vegetation. This is followed by a brief historical
tr:eatnmet of the development of the area and :; ri'eic of
some of the pertinent literature dealing v with it.
The major portion of the study is a dcsco iption of
the various aspects of the tov.n. The most ir..pori.ai eco -
omic elements in the town are government salaries, the
collection of wild rubber, and agriculture. The price of
rubber has not kept pace with the inflationary increases
in the cost of trade goods and interest in rubber is
declining rapidly. Agricultural development is limiited
by the size of the local market and the high cost of
transportation to other markets. 'For these reasons the
role of government spending is becomjn:g more and more
The amount spent there by the federal government is
far in express of the amount collected locally. This
sub.si.d:ation of the local economy is justified by the
importance of Mitu" as an outpost of the Colombian govern-
ment. The capital of the comisaria was moved to iMitu
from further inland to help secure the land against any
incursions by Brazilians. The goal has been achieved, but
the flow of federal money must continue to maintain the
The lack of any land. communicatiUjon, to other parts
of Colombia has stifled much growth of the town. Even
river transportation is hazardous due to many rapids and
waterfalls. Air transportation is not difficult as several
small airlines fly in from Villavicencio almost daily,
but the higher costs of air transportation restrict the
movement of all but the very expensive products.
dhil.e there is an ample supply of land in more
accessible areas of Colombia there can be no great ex-
pansion of agriculture in the Mitu'area. Unless some
new natural resource is discovered it will remain dependent
on federal spending as its major source of income.
Even the naime of i.it.u is intriguing. (It is the
Indian L.ame of a bird). .Inon s:cni the town becomes ?.vfn
more interesting. It stretches for lmi.ost a ile along
the r.-it bank of the Vaunmis iiver in southeast Col. bi',
about 70 iiics north of the equator. After flying over
virtually unbroken reinflorcst vc station for an hour,
the to:.n mpruvidcs a w.ielcoi.e chane,; in the uceory. The
most ous-Lnding foeiture from the air is the large (3,400
foot) l'andin strip which parallels the river just cast
On the iprounu one is struck by the peirinnence atnd
si.ze of trn aLy Liuilicgs constructed of concrete bloc s.
Other noteworthy features were the raised watertower and
the system of street lights that .w:cre more obvious than
the streets they were intended to light. .hlt justification
could thnre be for such a town, so isolated fro:r. the rest
of Colombia that all transportation in or out :es by air?
Thus began the field work which resulted in this paper.
Previous library research had indicated that iitu
began as a trading town with forest products being col-
lected larg-ely by the Indians and exchanged in town for
rmanufacturejd ,oco:s. These products then mov ,e through i:,aaus
or, their way to worIl market.
This somiewlat circuitous trade route w.as necessitated
by the many rapids on the upper branc.he. of tne river. Be-
fore the advent of the airplane, transportation from Bogoca
to liitu was considered extremely difficult. The alternate
route do.;!n the Vaupes and the Rio .egro to Ianaus was not
easy bi.t offered less hazards than going up river.
As the trade in rubber grew, more Colombian products
were passing through Brazil and the Brazilian influence
increased. The fear of Brazilian encroachment on Colom-
bian territory led to the transfer of the capital of the
ccmisa i.a of Vaupes from Calamar to Litu. The plan
being that the government employees located there would
stren,_ti-o:n the Colombian hold on the land.
The i'orth American demand for rubber during World
War ji resulted in further growth in the town. Since the
war the rice of rubber has dropped but the Colombian
government has continued to invest far nore money in the
town than is justified on the basis of taxes collected
These government expenditures may be justified by
the role of town as "guardian of the border," or in the
expectation that in the future, additional settlers from
the more populated parts of the country will immigrate to
the lowlands in search of land. Presently, immigration
to l. t- jo ,j5 .ing on at a .mAuch .'].o;; r rate thia in the
more LC'uuSs c o'Lo.as alcng the north h'.rn border of the
cc!i ~vria. It sc li;L ely th1r.t the Iack of easy li.d
com!li) L~;:io'7s will coitinu to stifle the ccono:,ic
devel c'nn- it ,,f iitit indef'ini tely.
i i tu" cr..ntLy soers larger than it should bo, on
the b;sis of loca population. This is clue to its long
standi-! role as a trading center for a large portion of
thep rA l.hi.ost. Am'nn Basin.
The v.-:ry isolation of the town has also attracted
many scientists from throughout the world. It serves
as the jumpingg off" point for many .,ithropologisbs frol,
various counlrie,~ who are atteimting to study Indi~n
cultures ,before they have been altered too much by con-
tact wit'i h modern civilization. Numerous biologists also
use i.itu' a. a bare station for their studies of plant
C OII,,I E.I I j t i e s.
.issicnary efforts, both Protestant anl Catholic,
have long been carried on in the 1iiitu area and they
have played an innortant role in the religious and
economic development of the town and surrounding area.
The present study is an attempt to evaluate the
various aspects and elei.,ents of society in the vnhysical
setting of the Amazon easin. Litu' is not a unique town
because many towns in the tropics face similar problems.
However, its isolation coupled with its role as trading
center and government outpost do give it rather unr4ique
characterist i cs.
For many of Fiti' s problems there is no apparent,
solution. Perhaps they cannot be solved, but Lhe res--
idents are not discouraged. They anticipate better
things in the future.
It is hoped that learning of the problems of these
people ..io live, almost literally, on the edge of civili-
zaticon :.'ill be as meaningful for the reader as they were
when observed by the author. The isolation, econuriic, and
physical problems have simply become part of the enviror-
menrt i.hich must be overcome.
Ch.Ar' 'L'i II
I,:'V impact cn the Colombian Amazon has not been
greaL. His presence is indicated by the few scattered
clearinG[; that may be seen usually along water cour.~crc.
While it is possible to move about on the rivers, and
in some cases even overland, the most logical means of
traveling any distance is by air an indication that man
has not conquered the landscape. To provide a frame-
work in which the town of Nitiu may be viewed, the follow-
ing sections have been included.
All of these topics have been instrumental in directing
or influencing the growth and development of IMitu". The
ch;otei' begins with a consideration of clii.atic factor-.,
describes the physical landscape, and concludes with a
section on the Vaupes hiver itself. Throughout this study
the role o2 man, and his efforts is emphasized, but they
must be considered within the local environment.
Dr. Hegen has stated that very little detailed informa-
tion on the climate of the Amazon Basin is now: available.
lie was referring specifically to the area south of the Vaupes,
but i'( for- t ri V:~ i "L1 j o .ihe L Colo' bi a ar
certain t,y 1no battce til. l, ::inc; the: A'.,.loI proper. r Al-
thiou'"h ih c., UtaJ of Lhe co i rr ijas i.o'.'cd. to it.
in 193i, tihe'e wris little cnncert- :lt'wI th w.ther recorcts;
"officiio" rccorJs date only fro: 1946.2 (The fact tiha
the sa.c t.ble records data for Bot-oti only from ].941 nay
be an i- ication of the past. lack of concern for weather
data t!hrouj].out the ccuntry. )
leather rcco-'dinJs a're usually assumed to include
temnperaLtur'e, precii.itation., humidity, cloud cover, .,inJ
direction aid velocity, ana barometric pressure; uost data
for Amazonia, however, include only temperature and
prccipitabion rcadinGr. Por ilitu, hu.iiuity is also included,
but there is no anierioineto or barometer anrd cloud cov(.r
is not recorded.
In 1.969 the radio operator at the f':iti airport began
taking more or less systematic readings of temperature,
preccipJ.tL-tio. and humidity. his readii,; of tle ,,o:i-
recording instruments are generally made betw.:c *n the hours
of 7 A.,I. and. 2 P.ii., with a few being made as late as
As would be expected from. its location, so near the
equator, there is little variation in the temperature
throughout the year. The difference between the average
temncrature of the coldest months July and August, and the
hottest month September, is only 1.1C (24.80 vs 25.90C).
The di.urnal r.nge i of course rluc great r and often
exceeds 10 C. l.ii) mu,.i temperatures of 15. 50 aind even
100C hove been reported, an d certainly may have occurred,
but they are obviou-rly nob '"average" ininimurm tcmpe'rdtuies.
Part of '.he discrepancy can be attributed to the .lack of
recording instru.nents and to reliance on visual observa-
tion dLri? n.1 a limited part of each day. Low night terper-
aturcs have been cited as one problem in introducing agri-
cu.ltur-al crops to the area. Some extremely sensitive crops
have been da&agoed.5
While the average temperature for the year is 25.30C,
the Miaximiu.J reported is much higher. Again there is quite
a variation in reported temperatures, according to the
va::.'io.u~ sourcess. ri'.ile the official data showed a maxi-
um of 360C, other sources6 reported 40 C, and one, who
traveled through the area in 1920,/ recorded a high read-
in-g of i-.3.. 3C. ,'l-hough temperatures may reach these
extreme under exceptional conditions or for short periods
of time, they do not represent the "normal" highs for the
area. The usual range of maxirumis varies generally be-
twecn 300 and 33 C uith highs of 370C not uncommon.
For a visitor to the Vaupes, probably the most striking
aspect of the temperature is the change, from day to night,
in the sensible temperature and how cool one can be when
the thermometer is still recording 23.30. To sleep comfort-
ably at least one light blanket, and sometimes two, were
Th'c vrv rapid changes in temperaC-ture a.o r nave r, pro-
nounced effect on physical comfort. A drop of over 20 C.
occuirred i.n oni fifteen minute period when a rat,rr strong
wind from to.e south developed. On this day even many of
the residents had donned jackets by 7 P.H.I. even though the
temperature :os still above 230. On another af ernoon
there was a I4C drop in temperature during a one hour
period of heavy rains.
Wnile the maximums were reached in the late afternoon
(2-5:30 P.i,.) the temperature at 6:30 or 7 A.Ii. was often
within a few degrees of the high for the day. The sun
rises at apl)roximately 6 A.I. each day and, with the excep-
tion of cloudy days, the "chill" of the night soon is
There is much more variation in levels of precipita-
tion than ini temperature. The average annual, rainfall 5 s
over 3,200 mm and is so well distributed over the year that
no month is truly dry, but the driest month (February)
receives less th:m one-third that of the wettest month
This rainfall regime is very important in the
economic life of the Vaupes, as the seasonal tapping of
the rubber trees is regulated by it. The rubber workers
begin their work in the fall and stop in the spring be-
fore the rainfall becomes too heavy, in iiay and June.
New fields are cut and "clcaried" d.urin. January and Februa.ry
and. after bing allowed to dry are burned in late Februay,
preferably just before the rains begin again. If there is
sufficient time for rather thorough drying, the fJields
will burn cleaner and more completely and cultivation will
be much easier.
In general terms, the wetter season extends from i'i:rh
through November while the drier season is from December
through February. During the dry season river travel often
becomes both difficult and dangerous as rapids appear in
parts of the rivers which were previously calm and smooth.
As Dr. Hegen found in his study, it is apparent that
the afternoon convectional rain which has often been con-
sidered representative of tropic regions is not as conmmoni
or as prevalent as it was thought to be. Based on obser-
vations made during November, February and Earch, (with-
out the aid of instrumentation) rain occurs during all
times of the day or night and some of the heavier rains
and thunderstorms developed late at night.
The heavy rains have a very important effect on the
soils in areas where the natural vegetation has been dis-
turbed. Run-off is very rapid and erosion and compac-
tion occur. Within five minutes of the start of heavy
rains the river was turned to a muddy-brown along the
bank and after a few more minutes this band of muddy water
*often extended fifty or one hundred yards out into the
river. Never during the time of the field work was the
entivure river filled with sal ,t c. but it U ; c'I iLou.,
that heavy rains dr r,-.iove much of the. Lo'~ ol aind. .: t
care must be taken in clearing fo.'c-tcd l ild ad 1.pre-
paring it for planting to reduce e:osion. C pletc]y
cleared land without cover cannot be left ex~osud to the
Rainfall is extremely heavy at ties. 'Thei lack of
recording instruments precludes precise a~ta b;it Dr.
Goldman reported seeing a dugout canoe i;.m.ejiately s iamp-
ed when a rain storm passed over it. The Indian- occupant,
who was attempting to reach the shore before the storm hit,
had to swim the rest of the way; only later did he re-
cover his boat.10 Even without rain gauges oi'e is i:i..ied-
iately aware of the intensity of such precipitation.
Humidity levels during each twenty-four hour day
gei.erally exceed 960, with the maximum being record(l
early in the morning. Often in the early morning a mist
hangs over the VaupJs which is very siim.ilar to river fog;;
of the mid latitudes. This is quickly burnce off by the
rising sun and the heat of the day arrives early. uI:ii,-
ity also drops quickly and is not generally op],reosive.
Conditions are certainly not severe enough to curtail
physical activity for the residents and both work and
recreation were carried on throughout the day without re-
gard for heat or humidity. Football (soccer) practices
were at 5:30 or 6:00 A.II. but this was more an accommodation
to work schedules than an attempt to av' oid l-::.-t; g.:Jfri::' ,cr:
played in the afternoon.
As stated previously, thce i" no amic o'.i;a in the
Vaupes and no records of winds are kept. During ti-,o period
of the field work for this paper, there were several storms
with rather h]gh winds; but they, like most weather phenom-
enon there, seem to have little direct influence on the
lives of the residents. On one occasion it was inlpossible
for a plane to land because of the wet landing strip and
another time a plane was delayed because of the lowv ccil-
ling, but in general the people have learned to cope with
the elements and accept the changes which they bring. Dur-
ing an extremely long or hard rainstorm, one might see boat
passengers using a banana leaf as an umbrella but even this
was rather rare.
The Indians who were native to the VaupeC know no
other conditions and the blanco moving in accept t r:
vagaries of the weather not with stoicism, but with che,.r-
1Mitu is located on the Vaupes River in the southeast
part of Colombia. Virtually all of the comisaria of Vaupos
lies within the Greater Amazon Basin. It is a region of
relatively low relief with most of the small variations
in elevation,which do occur,obscured by dense rainforest
vegetation. The only breaks in the somewhat monotonous
landscape are provided by isolated sandstone hills,
Fig. 2--Mitu. The town of Mitu along the right
bank of the Vaupes River.
Mitu from across the river. The
water tower give the appearance of a
which will b3 discussed later,
Geologically this region is not well knor:bul t reconn ais-
sance studies have been made by Van Dor lia-men (0192)?
and by Thcer and Tayler (1960). Their reports form the
basis for most of this section on landforTs.
Between the Guaviare River and bhe Caquoba is located
a slightly higher land mass, known as the Vauplis S,'ell,
which separacs the drainage of the Ileta River to the north
from that of the Putamayo to the south.
Because of the complete lack of evidence of folding,
it appears that the entire region was uplifted in the
east creating a dip to the west.1
The sedimentary deposits formed sandstones and con-
glomerates, with the sandstones frequently displaying
stratification. From these it was determined that the
prevalent direction of the rivers depositing them was to-
ward the northwest, indicating that during the period of
deposition, the Andean syncline was receiving materials
from the area of the Guianas. 1
Along the Apaporis (south of .1itu) are some small
hills 150- 200 feet high composed of eroded material from
the ancient sandstones. Because of their homogeneity, it
is difficult to determine the direction of their origin,
but in some places it is clearly from the east.15 iiuch
of this westward erosion took place during the Tertiary
period when there were apparently two separate instances
of uiplift il C, east.1
l.'ith the r'isc of tlhe Ald cs duringg thle y -n' .nalr the
rivers reversed Lhcr.msclves nd b ,an flo :ir; toward the
Atlantic. As they cut t1hci ; wuay Unrou.rh the canAitons,
many ra-nr'.d and falls ucre creaLetL. It is thuse geologically
"recent" remnants caused by differential crosinv which
cause the disruption of water transportation today.
hoscr describes the formation similarly:
It is probable that the Vaup:s Swell
formed a rising lard r.ass from iiid-
Cretaceous until early i rtia.'.j time,
but s.ink during the Olicocene ihen
marine influences were felt. 3y the
ILiocene, the sea had retreated and shall
freshwater basins, resulted from i.inror
undulations uhic'-: preceded a fiiiai up-
lift of the Swell at the end of tio
Tertiary. The 'iraparan 4 ar Apaporis
pass. over the fcutlern flanVk c' the
Swell, the b:sc of which consists of
procanbria- i gneous rocis.
Overlying the igneous basement is the
basal conglomerate of t! c Lindosa Forr.a-
tion and the unconformable contact is
cl. ,'ly :in : '. C-' ;1- v '- r 0: the
Apaporis. 'ni fornr.iutioi, wiose roba-
ble equivalent in Guiana, the Rorai.ia,
has a total thicviness of some 2400 ietres.
nou!here exceec"- 300-4'00 metres in the
area of the Vaune's, and this supports
the theory that the S.;cll formed a
rising shelf during the time of :ia.ir
d(nosition. No fossils have been found
in the Lindosa, and estimates of its age
have ranged from Paleozoic to Creta-
ceous. However, recent potassium-ar'Ron
and rubidium-strortium a, e measurements
on doleri tes which intrude the 1orri':ia
Formation in british Guiana show that
the Roraimia iust be at least 2,085 nil-
lion years old and therefore pre-Cambrian. 17
This interpretation is supported by writings of an
earlier seologic party in which it is theorized that
Idrainage from the Amazon Basin was to thi.:? o-':ific Ocean
prior bo the uplift of the Andes. As th, AFdi:s uc\:re forced
higher, the r.asin became an inland sea until the combinar.jon
of the rising mountains and basin filling forced rivers to
flow east thereby forming the present drainage pattern.18
Hamilton Rice also believed that the Amazon Basin was up-
lifted following previous volcanic action.19 i 'oser's map
of the ilitif area indicates a "Basement Complex" composed of
Pre-Ca_%brian igneous and metamorphic rocks.20
This is overlain with rather thin deposits of clays,
sands, and gravels laid down during the Quaternary period;
the cycle of erosion still continues. Deposits of clay
are being laid down on the inside of the rivers' meanders
while erosion of the older formations continues on the
As mentioned above, the only variations apparent in
the rather flat topography of the Vaupes are provided by
the isolated "islands" that have resisted the erosion
which lowered the land surrounding them. Because of the
general low relief, these mountains (the commonly used
name, in spite of their low elevation) have become impor-
tant landmarks and reference points for both Indians and
whites.21 They extend across this portion of the Amazon
Basin in a broad arc with a general northeast-southwest
trend. They are not high, usually rising some 600-900
feet above the rest of the land.22
Fig. 4--Forest Clearing. From the air both old and
new clearings are very obvious.
Fig. 5--Cerro de Mitu. The isolated hill south
of Mitu stands out on the horizon.
T ::.. ntain. th :: '. -. i' r! oj" t 10 cc:. :- ,'":
are l,'.r.', ffat, -l ik .tto.lon, or' t,'-ts i E. sad-
stoine rock, forinmid u ic,_r water and. i;hei urpift-ld. In the
eastern part of thl Va pisj, tno m.oun:.aLK.Js -.- ar tD ue of a
different orin in. They are srIa.cl er, conc--hiapcd rather
than flat, and are conmposed of a very hard ~an:iite of the
Cambrjn in periocd.23 The condstone mountains of the west
are usually covered with ratiihr dense, stunted, xerophytic
vegetation while on the igneous ones of t'no cast the only
vegetation is in the crevices wlhore nioisturc collect.
After their investigations on the Apaporis, i..oser
and Tayler speculated that these mountains "imay :.well be
horsts, the result of vertical block faulting at the ena. of
the Tertiary." Ho.iever, the consenvscs of scientific
opinion is that they arc the crosio1rl rerm:;:ncts of a vast
ran.g that has been peniepla5,ed, w.ho.,e dark;, mist-shrouded
fo r n Lre a n:.(ort of tL,- o..al fo9 1 :lo~- 3s L-cill as the
social and religious 1. ends of the Indian population.
The distinctijve plant communities they support are the
delijit of botanists.
The channing landforms ancd the varying drainage
patterns they produced have been instrumental in develop-
ing the soils and vegetative communities there. Their most
important work has been in the alteration of lines of drain-
age and the disruption of river transportation.
'hi-c so.i.l. of Le Hiiiu area are very .;imnilar to those
of the entire Amazon Basin. They are formed from alluvium
Ltoan;sported primarily from the Andes. HIaving been subjected
to thi: heavy rains and the high temperatures of an clua-
torial location, they exhibit most of the characteristics
typical. of latosols. (Oxisols in the recent 7th Approxi-
mnatici Srcries. ) They are not inherently fertile soils
but in their "undisturbed state" do support a rather im-
pressive growth of native vegetation. As Bates has said,
the problems encountered with tropical soils are not due
either to the soils themselves or the climatic regime, but
to the systems of use which have been imposed on the;.27
In the immediate area of ]itu', the Vaum.,s River is
fl.oving bet-i.een natural levees high enough to contain it
excerpt in times of extremely high water. (There are no
reports of flooding or cuulse changes during this century.)
Consequently the soils are not being renewed and plants
arec dcendent on the nutrients in the vegetative cycle
plus what can be derived from the granitic rocks which in
some places are near the surface and are being subjected to
the soil building processes.28
For the comisaria as a whole, the soils of the western
portion are somewhat better drained, sandy laterites while
those in the east are more impermeable with a greater per-
centage of clays.29
The evaluation of the soil's pote:tia]. v'l.us o O;-
wha b :stb' innve.ti ators havc not b ;! c-ti .1'ias!tic4
about tncir future as the basis of coinmecrcial a .riculb'ure..30
Scientists who ,have exa'i.ind the :;oils of' this 'trin
colncluidd that thy were suiltable for grazin- operations
Lut not for intensive agriculture. An i'ncrican geologist
has ; ble.n quoted as saying that "clearing ti.e vegetation
and working the land with a tractor and p3ou would pro-Cuce
only a desert, a brick baked in the sun. 1 Under
cultivation the good structure of the Amazonian soils tei.d
to break down completely, possibly due to the small. per-
centage of alkalis and alTaline earths.32
The fc'. isolated scientific studies of the soil
properties indicate that it is extremely acidic and lre:k,
humus due to the very rapid decomposition of falling
Go;l e Vi J.l1m zr, present Cominsrio of '.u,-is,
has cited one study of soils along the hio Guaviaro in tne
San Josd area which found the soils there entirely suit-
able for agriculture. Among the suggested crops were corn,
supar' cane, rice, cotton, coffee and cacao.
He also mentions that some settlers along the old
road from San Jose to Calamar are successful in their
agricultural efforts but lack markets to stimulate pro-
The only "scientific" survey of the soils and agri--
cultura resources of the entire Vaupes was carried out by
Jelisemirbiar Galincdo, an agronomical engineer, who traversed
the cojminar:ripa in 1935. The result of his work was an
extremely detailed (considering the scale of 1:1,000,000)
map with symbols used to indicate land. uses.35 At that
time, the only "commercial" activity was collecting from
native trees and thus the value of the map for the evaluation
of agriculture is virtually negated. The map does serve
however,as a means of locating where the Indian and w lite
settlements were at a time when little was known of
Overall the soils are poor,derived from clays, sands,
conglomerates, and rocks of igneous origin. The minerals
having been leached out by the abundant tropical rains
have left soils, where there are any at all, of a highly
acidic nature. Only a few restricted areas of recent
alluvium, suitable for the cultivation of modern commercial
crops, have been found along the main streams.
Man has from the beginning of his incumbency in this
area practiced an economy based on gathering, hunting, and
fishing. The arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese merely
meant continued emphasis on gathering those forest pro-
ducts valuable enough to reach the world market. A dis-
cussion of man against this historical and physical back-
ground will be made in the chapters to follow.
Tn': vc[;tativ\ e patterns of the Vaupcs :ie very
simil,, to those of iiost of the Ai.azoiin a.in; the out-
st.andtin cnar.cteristic is the great variety of :p 'cies.
In 1.85'; .ob-rt Spruce cstiiated thut some 50,000 to 80,000
specie- of pl:-nts were yet to be discovcreo, and ci.cr'ifiec
in the Amazon forests. This estiimate wid based o:i t'e
fact that`. as he traveled one dcgrL.e of latitude or longi-
tudce approximately one-half of the speci s i:ere new. -
AltLou ;ii plant discovery and idlntific:.tionL has becr' a
o;owerfil lure in bringing men to the Amazon, their w-orn:
is far f-rom complete. Of the approximately 15,000 Colo: -
bian spncimen.; on file in the herbariuw of the Institute
do. Cicia ;: tur in ot, only 8,820 1,ad been ident-
ifiec. and classified.37 The most prolific contributor
to this collection has been Rich:ard E. Schultos (Harvard
Univer.:ity Lotanical .vuc.OuT) with 3,700, ou. reviral oth.rs
have collected more than a hundred.38
Lany of these plants are valuable for their wood or
for scientific processing to provide drugs, insecticides,
or chemicals but their value is lessened by the great mixing
of species which often prevents economic harvesting.
The Indians have the best knowledge of the resources
of the forests. When a missionary needed a ridgepole for
his house, an Indian took him by canoe to a place where
the desired type tree was growing. 'When it was decided
that this tree was too small, the Indian got back in the
canoe, paddled a mile, and then lead the missionary to a
larger tree of the same variety.
Because land transportation is so difficult, the
only trees that can be cut for processing into lumber
are those growing very near the rivers or caeios. In the
past enough of these trees were taken to warrant a small
sawmill in Mitu operated by the comisaria as well as an-
other at the internado run by the Catholic missionaries.
The sawmill in Miti had been out of operation for several
years due to mechanical problems with the engine powering
it but in the Spring of 1970 the entire mill was being
renovated with the aim of reopening it. Logs for both
mills are floated down river and the sawn lumber is then
transported by boat to building sites.
In the Lower Vaupes the natural vegetation is rather
dense with several stories. The larger trees are 90 feet
or more in height but often only three or four per acre,
with intervening space being filled by smaller trees with
very few vacant areas.39 In the immediate vicinity of
Mitu most of this original vegetative cover has been re-
placed by rastrojo_ after clearing and farming, but an
occasional "giant" is seen to illustrate what was once the
dominant plant cover.
Among the economically valuable plants are varieties
of Coumarouna, a source of perfume used in the soap and
tobacco industries, Phvtelehas macrocarrj a a source of
vegetable ivory, Anibt r~isrodara, from which rosewood oil
is extracted, and many palms which yield oils, w:ixel ;nd
fibers. From the roots of various species of' Louchca:'rnu.p,
rotenone is extracted and used as a poison for mn!y cold
blooded animals and insects.
The 3ndians make very good use of the available plant
resources. Besides their utilization as food, building
materials, transportation (as dugout canoes), and in making
baskets, many are valued for their chemical nroporties. Some
hallucinogens are used in religious ceremonies, while other
plants supply them with fish poisons, poisons for hunting
arrows, contraceptive drugs, and even aphrodisiacs.
MIany of these plants are now being analyzed and
tested by chemists in other countries to determine pos-
sible applications of their properties in modern societies.
Any consideration of plant resources .iust also take note
of the many species of Hevea which were responsible for
the initial development of the Vaupes. l.ore wi. 1 be
written on this in a later section dtiling wi i r1ober
-The one characteristic in which the Vaupe's varies
from most regions of tropic rainforest is the "highlands"
around the headwaters of rivers, notably the Cuduiari and
the Cubiyu. This area, known as Yapoboda, is a stony up-
land with sandstone outcrops. .While levels of rainfall
are high during most of the year, due to soil conditions
and rapid run-off, the vegetation is xerophytic .*:it.h palms
predominant. One native plant of this area which deserves
mention ic a very primitive, xerophytic form of a rubber
tree (Hevea nitida, variety toxicodendroides) which was
probably an early part of the evolutionary chain in the
development of modern, productive heveas which are now
found in the wet lowlands.
The vegetative cover is the most prominent feature of
the landscape, the object of much of the economic activity
and the greatest resource of the Vaupe's. It remains for
modern man to determine the best and most complete use
of this resource, and progress is being made.
Role of The Rio Vaupes
Although the means and problems of transportation
will be considered in some detail in a later section of
this paper, it seems appropriate to make some mention at
this time of the vital role played by Rio Vaupes in the
life of this area.
Due to the combination of landforms, vegetation,
and river drainage patterns, land travel is virtually
impossible through much of the area. There is an inter-
mittent road of sorts as far as the old capital of Calamar,
on the Rio Unilla, and it is or was possible to con-
tinue overland as far as Miraflores. From this point on
all travel is by water on down the Vaupes. The only other
Fig. 6--Tito's Eoat. Boats not in use scon sir.:,
often requiring hours of baling before -tey are
Fig. 7--Passing though Rapids. Even a small dugout
must be "walked through" the rapids at the in-T:r.ao
when the river is low.
road in the eastern Vaupes is a portion of the road which
was to have connected Mitu with the mission village of
Hlontfort o. t'le Rio Papuri. About sixteen Kii of this road
was built during the regime of Hojas Pinilla and it is
sometimes referred to as "Rojas Road".
By far the most common form of travel in the comisaria
is by water, primarily on the Vaupes or its tributaries.
The only significant land travel which does occur is over
the ancient Indian trails which connect the various river
drainage areas. As soon as the next river is reached.
travel continues by water.
It was the large numbers of Indians living along the
river which led to the establishment of the first mission
station on the Vaupes at Cararu in 1852. 2 During the 1880's
a mission was set up at Mitu. The Indian cultural and
"economic" life was closely tied to river transportation
then and remains so today.
The stimulus for the present development came with the
rubber and balata "boom" of the early twentieth century and
the movement of commerce downriver to Hanaus. At the same
time, of course, trade goods moved upriver from Manaus
in exchange for these forest products.
During World War II, the United States Rubber Develop-
ment Corporation came in and exported badly needed rubber
to the United States by way of Bogota. The river, plus
the concentration of potential Indian labor,was a major
factor in the selection of IIitu as a collection point.
Catalina flying coats wcre landed on a road, relati .'ely
straight section of the river and the rubber was then
flo.n out to Eogot'. Indeed until the early 1960's,
when the landing strip was enlarged, Avianca (tHe major
Colombian Airline) continued to send Catalinas on this
route and used the river as a strip.
The dominance of the river and its tributaries over
travel and housing is indicated by the fact that the
survey team completing the latest (1964) census of the
comisaria relied almost solely on water transportation with
only an occasional overland trip to a settlement not on
Perhaps even more indicative of the importance of the
river is that it is used in spite of all the difficulties
of water travel. The number of dangerous rapids and water
falls which must be portaged varies with the season, but
at no time is the river completely safe for travel. Dur-
ing all seasons it is necessary to unload boats to pass
them safely up or down the rapids. With the rapid run-off
which occurs, the conditions change almost daily.
At Santa Marta rapids on the Cuduiarl on one occasion
it was necessary to "walk the dug out through". Two days
later, after a rain, the boat passed easily over the area
without trouble, but only two days later the water again
dropped to the level that passage was impossible without
Fig. 8--Large Boat in the Rapids. Tito's large
boat is pulled through the rapids at Santa Marta
after removing the outboard motor.
Fig. 9--Santa Marta Rapids. The rapids disappeared a
few days later when the river rose and it was possible
to pass easily over the same area of the Cuduiari
unload,'i;g. If there ':.s any easy or lo;.ical alternative
to such problems neither Indian or blarco would put up
with such inconveniences. The rivers are the best, and
virtually thc only, i.icans of travel.
1 E. E. Hegen, "Some Notes on Tropical Rainfall:
Observations of Showers In The Upper Amazon Basin." (A
paper presented to the Southeast Association of American
Geographers at Greenville, N. C., Nov. 1968), p. 1.
2 Cuadro de Temperaturas y Precipitacion riensual
de Algunas AeroOuertos de Colombia. (Table available
from Raimundo Tirado at 'iitu Airport).
3 Gordon lacCreagh, W.hite Waters and Black (New
York: Grosset and Dunlap, 192)T, p. 377.
4 Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, Desana (Bogota: Uni-
versidad de Los Andes, 1968), p. 3.
5 G. Ciro A. Camacho, "La Comisaria Del Vaupes,"
Boletin De La Sociedad Ceoprafico De Colombia, 15, Numero
54 and 55 2-3 trnestres (1957), P. 143.
7 IlacCreagh, op. cit.
8 Brian Noser and D. Tayler, "Tribes of The
Piraparana," Geogranhical Journal, 129 (1963), p. 440.
9 Hegen, op. cit.
10 Irving Goldman, Interview in iIitu', Nov. 1969.
11 Th. van der Hammen, Informe Preliminar Geologia
Del Rio Acaporis Entre Sorotama y Cachivera La Playa.
(Bogota: Hepublica De Colombia, iinisterio De .jinas y
Petroleos, Servicio Geologico Nacional, 1952).
12 Brian Hloser and D. Tayler, "Tribes of The Pira-
parana," Geographical Journal, 129 (1963), p. 40.
13 van der Hammen, op. cit., p. 2.
14 Ibid., p. 3.
15 Ibid., p. 4.
16 Ibid., p. 6.
17 MIoser and Tayler, T). cit., D. 440.
18 C. F. .iarbut and C. B. Manifold, "The Topogr'aphy
of The Amazon Valley," GeIoranhical Levicw., 15 (1925),
19 Eamilton hice, "The hiver Uaupes," Geographical
Journal, 35 (1910), p. 689.
20 IMoser and Tayler, on. cit., accompanying map.
21 Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, "Rock Paintings of the
Vaupds: An iEssay of Interpretation," Folklore Anrericas.~
27 (1967), p. 108.
22 Paul H. Allen, "The Rubber Country of Colombia,"
Missouri Botanical Garden Bulletin, 32 (1944), p. 50.
23 Richard E. Schultes, "El Cauchero Abanderado
del Vaupes," Revista Nacional de Agricultura, 1o. 564 (1952),
25 iIoser and Tayler, op. cit., p. 441.
26 Glenn T. Trewartha, et. al., Fiundamenctals of
Physical Geograahy, 2nd edition (iew York: i.cGraw-Hiill,
1968), p. 33.
27 Earston Bates, WJhere Winter Never Comes (New York:
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952), p. 247.
28 Richard E. Schultes, op. cit.
30 Ibid.; Marcos Fulop, "El Cauchero en el Vaupes,"
Revista Colo:.biana de Folklore (Bogota: Instituto Colombiano
de PAntropologia, 1953), p. 246; Richard E. Schultes, "Esper-
anza Agronomica Para La Amazonia Colombiana, Suplemento
A5ronoriico de Arricultura Tronical, (Bogota: 194b), p. 5;
"Recursos 1:aturales" Doc 01fO, ..emoria ael Primer Conrreso
de Torritorios '!acionales (Bogota, 9y66), p. 2; C. I,. barbut
and C. B. manifold, "The Soils of the Amazon Basin in Rela-
tion to Agricultural Possibilities," Geographical Review,
16 (1926), p. 441..
31 "Recursos Naturales", Doc ;/10, Heemoria del Primer
Congreso de Territorios Nacionales (Bogota, Y ,. .
32 Marbut and iManifold, or~. ci.
33 "Recursos Naturales," 0p_ cit., p. 2.
341- Hernando Gonzalez-Villamizar, "Colonizacion de
Vaupes," Doc ;23, Memoria del Prnimer Congreso (Bogot, 1966),
35 Jelisembiar Galindo, "Grafico Agricola de la
Comisaria del Vaup6s," (1935) Scale 1:1,000,000. A Thermo-
fax copy courtesy of Dr. Irving Goldman, Dept. of Anthro-
pology, Sarah Lawrence College, N. Y.
36 G. W. Prescott, "Amazonia Hinterland: Biologists'
Nirvana," Ward's Bulletin, 9 (1969), p. 1.
37 Alvaro Fernandez-Perez, Memoria del Primer Con-
greso (Bogota, 1966), p. 3.
39 Paul H. Allen, "Indians of Southeastern Colombia,"
Geographical Review, 37 (1947), p. 567.
40 Paul H. Allen, "The Rubber Country of Colombia,"
op. cit., p. 54.
41 Richard E. Schultes, "El Cauchero Abanderado,"
op. cit., p. 6.
42 Irving Goldman, The Cubeo Indians of the North-
west Amazon, Illinois Studies in Anthropology No. 2 (Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1963), p. 15.
43 Goldmnan, op. cit., p. 16.
44 Michael J. Lambert, Alonrf the Pira-Parana, Manuscript
written under Student Project for Amity Among Nations (SPAN)
University of Miinnesota, 1964
HISTORICAL BEVIE'.! AND RELATED LITEsATUhE
It is impossible to write a geographical study of
this type without including pertinent historical infor-
mation in each of the individual sections. It is
appropriate however to include in this brief segment some
of the more important events from the past and mention
some of tne literature which pertains either to the
Vaupes itself or to the whole of the Amazon Basin but
with application in the Vaupes.
Only a few years after the discovery of the New World,
the Spanish had completed cursory explorations of much of
the immense land area. Their primary interest in these
exolorationr was the discovery of sources of wealth, with
a secondary goal being the christianizing of the Indians.
Whether these journeys were inspired by earthly or heavenly
motivations, the result was that during the sixteenth
century, towns were founded and attempts were made to
assess the material and human resources of both North and
The first European visitors to Amazonia were those who
traveled with Orellana on his voyage down the Amazon from
the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean in 1541. Included in his
party was Friar Gaspar de Carvajal who later published his
account of the trip.
Following this group in 1559 was another Catholic
Priest, Raphael Ferrer, who traveled on the Caqueta and
Apaporis Rivers. His principal interest was in locating
possible converts to Christianity but he also observed
the vegetative cover and reported seeing wild cacao,
manioc, and several wax and oil palms.1
The first man known to have entered the Vaupes region
was also a priest. In 1570, Padre Figueroa traveled
from the Amazon up the Ri'o Negro and explored part of
the courses of both the Vaupes and the Papuri. Despite
these early excursions into Amazonia, no permanent settle-
ments were made in the area which was later to become a
part of Colombia.
The discovery of the Casiquiare Canal in 1750
stimulated. settlement interest. The increased trade made
possible by this water route connecting the Orinoco and
Amazon drainage basins led to Portuguese fears of Spanish
intrusion into Brazilian territory. The town of Sao
Gabriel (Uaupes) was founded near the junction of the Vaupes
and Rio Negro to reaffirm Brazilian authority.3 During
the same period the Jesuits of San Ignacio de Loyola began
establishing missions and drawing the Indians to them
to learn of Christianity and agriculture. The Jesuits
achieved considerable success in both areas of endeavor
before being expelled in 1765. C
It was not until the middle of tne nineteenth
century that further serious efforts were made to ex-
plore or colonize this section of Amazonia. In 1852
a Carmelite, Padre Gregorio, set up a mission at Carar'
which was rather successful in attracting Indians tc it,
but it was closed in 1881.5 Also in 1852 the botani:.,t
Richard Spruce came up the hBo Negro and attempted to
ascend the Rio Vaupes. He was able to get only as far as
the falls at Yavarate before the problem of negotiating
the rapids and falls during low water stalled him.6 Dur-
ing the same year (1852), Alfred R. Wallace was studying
the vegetation of the Amazon. He had better luck or
rather arrived at a more propitious time, and was able
to reach the mouth of the Cuduiari on the Vaupes. At this
point there was an Indian village (iLucura) where he
stayed for some time. This location is approxi..-ately
three miles downriver from the present site of Mitt'. The
isolation of this place was such that he was moved to
write that he was in an area "where no European had
Outside interest in Amazonia increased with the de-
mand for rubber which arose in the early twentieth century,
but there had been little contact with Europeans by
1909- 10 when both W hiiffen and Rice made trips through
on the Vaupes. The latter had traveled overland part way
MITU AREA Ri NAIOA
B OF OTRET
THE VAUPES YA\-Aelr*
% 0 BAZBRAZIL
COMISARIA OR NATIONAL
from 3Bcgot2 arid noted that San Martin, on the ILl.'nos, was
the onJ of 1cvc0rnment.
hice traveled rather extensively on the Unilla and
Itilla rivers which merge below Cala -ar to form the Vaap~os
proper. Wish numerous side trips up tributaries, he
then proceeded down the main river to its junction with
the hio iegro and exited by way of Manaus. In the course
of his report he mentioned the death of four Colombian
rubber gatherers at the hands of the Indians in 1904.11
He also alluded to earlier slaving raids by the Portu-
guese from the Rio Negro as having been instrumental
in fostering attitudes of distrust or belligerence to-
ward visiting Europeans.
During this same period (1904), Dr. Theodor Koch-
Grunberg began his ethnographic studies in this area. He
continued intermittent field work in rorthwest Amazonia
until his death there in 1924.
Increasing interest in this part of Amazonia lead to
the creation of the Vaupes corisaria in 1910 when it was
separated from the old national territory of Caqueta.
Eder reported that in 1913 there were 400 rubber
gatherers working in the Calainar area. They collected
primarily caucho ner-ro by cutting down the tree and
draining the entire trunk.13 Although the interest in
Amazonian rubber was lessening at this time, the influx
of outsiders was a stimulating factor in the establishment
of Catholic mission stations in the area.
The first permanent mission was on the Papuri river
by a Dutch order, the iontfortianos, They came up the
Amazon and Rio Negro to reach the site of present day
Montfort in 1914. In 1916 a temporary mission was set
up at Urania, where the Cuduiari joins the Vaupes. The
higher land was considered much healthier than the
surrounding area, but when attempts to purchase the house
and land there were unsuccessful the mission was moved upt
the Cuduiari river to Santa Maria.
According to some of the older Indians, when the
waite rubber collectors began to enter the Vaupes, there
were three major villages, one at Urania, one on the left
bank of the river opposite present day Mitu~, and the third
up river a short distance where the internrado is now
located. They say there were more people in these three
villages than are now left in the entire area. Census data
does not appear to bear out this statement but the rela-
tively dense population at Urania and along the lower
Cuduiari was certainly a factor in the location of this
Explorations continued during the 1920's even though
there was less interest in rubber. iany of these expeditions
were better equipped and more scientifically oriented than
those who came before only "to look." Rice returned with
a mapping and medical survey team.15 Newcomers included
F. O. Martin, an employee of the Union Oil Co. w.,ho covered
the north:cst edge of the selva while aSscss.ing the potdn-
tial for petroleum deposits. C. F. Marbut and C. B. hanifola
also attempted to describe and explain the topography of
the Amazon Basin as well as to study the soils there and
evaluate their use for various types of agriculture.1'
In 1927, the Hontfortianos also established a small
mission station at iitu. Several more blancos were attracted
to the area at this time as a result of a small :i'at.h_
Boom." Balata is a substance resembling rubber which was
obtained by tapping trees. Its main use was as a belt
dressing i. e.: to keep heavy belts powering machinery
During the 1930's rapid changes occurred in the Vaupes.
The most important of these was the movement of the
capital from Calamnar to Miitu. The move was prompted by
a desire to maintain a stronger hold on the border area
to forestall any Brazilian expansion, and this goal was
The influx of administrative workers and the police
force extended federal authority, and the introduction of
better communications, with monthly flights, also promoted
the growth of the town. However the move was not a com-
plete success for as Dr. Crist has written, ". .. although
planes speedily cover distance, they do not achieve spatial
spread."18 The move was criticized by a local official
who wrote, ". they believed it was better to leave the
capitals near the borders of the country, a sin of ignor-
ance. The location of the capitals near the borders left
them unarmed and forsaken, without means of communication
other thon the airplane and began the backwardness that
they denounce today. It is impossible to bring in all the
necessary elements of a higher civilization using only
In 1939,Irving Goldman, an anthropologist, arrived
and spent several months living among the Cubeo indians
on the Cuduiari River. His work is the most complete
and detailed description of Indian life which has been
published.20 The bulk of it is anthropological but there
is also a great deal of information valuable to a geographer
or anyone else interested in living in the Vaupes or in
assessing the economic potential there. By this time
there was also an Indian school in Mitul and efforts to
incorporate the Indians into the cultural mainstream of
the nation were beginning in earnest.
The arrival of people, ideas, and money during
World War II brought about a second revolution in liiti~.
The Rubber Development Corporation (RDC) financed rapid
expansion in the rubber industry and also brought in the
first outboard motors which have so completely changed
transportation patterns. Indians, whose way of life had
scarcely been effcctcd by three hundred years of inter-
mittent contact with Lhe outside world, were in a fev:
iiorths enmeshed in efforts to earn money for all kinds of
manufactured products. The volume of trade goods brought
in was greater than had ever been seen before and improved
transportation brought in many more people to promote
rubber collecting and hire the Indians.
The BDC also brought in many American scientists to
determine what the potential supply of rubber was, and
also to suggest more efficient means of collecting and
processing it. As scientists, they were trained observers,
not only of vegetation but of the entire way of life. Two
of these men Richard E. Schultes and Paul H. Allen -
have continued to study and report on this area since
their initial contact with it during the war time search
for rubber. The published reports of their findings have
added immeasurably to the knowledge of the northi:ese-
During this period of development, the Catholic
church continued its missionary activity. Decreto No. 91V.
of 1946 was issued which gave broad powers to the Church.
The I onsefior was given authority to sentence persons to
labor on public works for offenses of drutnkencss, fighting,
or "acts against the public morality."22
Toward the end of this decade, the order of Iiont-
fortianos was replaced by a Colombian order the Javerianos -
who began more intensive efforts to nationalize the Indians
and make them "Colombians" as well as Indians. Intruc-
tion was given in Spanish and some aspects of the Indian
culture were discouraged.23
Protestant missionaries also began proseletyzing at
this time and their efforts have continued with increas-
ing success. A large number of the Indians are professing
and practicing Protestants and any evaluation of cultural
or economic changes must consider this element.
The greatest changes to occur since 1950 have been:
the building of a large Catholic church and enlarging the
boarding school (internado) for Indian students, the con-
struction of a new government building, and the imiprovcnent
of aerial communications.
The Vaupes was greatly reduced in size in 1963 when
the northeastern oart of the comisaria was removed to form
Guainia. The separation was authorized by Law #18, 1963
but the split did not really occur until December 1964..
In view of the transportation difficulties the division
is probably justified. Development of the Vaupcs will
not be hindered by the split and Guainia will receive much
more attention as a separate comisaria than it would as
an isolated part of the Vaupes.
Many anthropologists have come to study the Indian
cultures. Several of these studies were still incomplete
in 1970 but Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff has been working in
the Vaupes since the early 1950'1 anatd nas written i.:any
anthroological articles as well as a part of th3 O'Leary
bibliography dealing with the Vaup s.24
Irving Goldman also returned in 1970 to do a follow-
up study and revision of his earlier work on the Cubeo
Over the past centuries, and especially in tne years
following the work of Hamilton Rice, much has been written
on the Vaupes and Northwest Amazonia. i;ost of these works
have been rather narrow in their scope and this present
paper is an attempt to view the many facets of L'.an operating
in an Amazonian environment and to evaluate his successes
and failures. The optimum means of utilizing the large
land area of the Amazon Basin have not yet been determined.
Some of the problems that have evolved with various aspects
of human incumbency in that area will be discussed and
some suggestions as to possible future development will be
1 Jesus Martinez Delgado, Razas Perdidas (Bogota,
1969), p. 132.
2 Ibid., p. 133.
3 P. van Erst, "Indians and Missionaries On the Bio
Tiquie, Brazil-Colombia, International Archives of Ethno-
graphy, 50 (1966), p. 169.
4 G. Ciro A. Camacho, "La Comisaria del Vaupes,"
Boletin de La Sociedad Geografico do Colombia, 15, INumero
54-55 (1957), P. 144.
5 Irving Goldman, The Cubeo, Indians of Northwest
Amazon, Illinois Studies in Anthropology, No. 2 (Urbana,
1963), p. 16.
6 Richard Spruce, Notes of a Botanist On the Amazon
and Andes. (London: Macmillan and Co., 1908), p. 328.
7 Alfred B. Wallace, Travels on the AmNazon and Hio
Nerro. (London: 1889; reprinted, New York: Haskel rouse
Publishers, 1969), p. 248.
8 Thomas Whiffen, The Northwest Amazons (New York:
Duffield and Co., 1915).
9 Hamilton A. Rice, "The River Uaupes," The Geogra~h-
ical Journal, 35 (1910), 682-700.
10 Ibid., p. 683.
11 Ibid., p. 692.
12 Hemoria del Primer Congreso, Doc. #24 (Bogota, 1966),
13 Phanor James Eder, Colombia (London: T. Fisher
Unwin, 1913), p. 239.
14 Pedro Baron, Informes Sobre las Misiones del
Caqueta, Putumayo, Goajira_ Casanare mi-eta, Vichada, Vaupes,
y Arauca. Bogota,: Imprenta iacional, 1917), p. 180.
15 Richard P. Strong, et al., .eoAecil He)orr. rf tce
H. Picr Kxpcdition to, 'A',,... .2_'.-2i. (C'ribria.'-:
HarvarJ University _ress, l2o).
16 F. 0. Irtin, "Exoloration In Colombia, Grrau-
ical !Review. 19 (1929), 621-o37.
17 C. F. Marbut and C. B. iHanifold, "The Topora:phy
of the ,,Amazon Valley, Geooanhical heviw 15 (1)25),
61.7-642; "'iThe Soils of the Auazon .oasin in elation to
Agricultural Possibilities," Co _prahical '_ vic, 10 (1926),
18 haymond E. Crist, ;Politics and Geography, Some
Aspects of Centrifugal and Centripetal Forces Operative in
Andean Anerica, The American Journal of Economics ai:d
Sociol.or-, 25 (1966), p. 35-.
19 Enrique Uribe Cespedes, lemnoria del Primer Congzreso,
Doc. #21 (Bogota, 1966), p. 3.
20 Irving Goldman, op. cit.
21 In addition to the listings in the bibliographiy,
Schulteo; has numerous other publications, many of zhe:n in
the Harvard .-ntanical _iluseu:. Leaflets. Allen has published
several related a-'rticles in The .issouri Botanical -.rcn
22 Mi. A. Builes, Cuarenta Dias En El Vaoc's (Tl-
lores De La Imprcnta Departmental De Antioquia, 1951),
23 Ibid., p. 116.
24 Timothy O'Leary, Ethnorraohic Bibliography of
South knerica (sew Haven: Hum.an relations Area Files, Be-
havior Science Biblio-raphies, 1963).
PRESENT DAY hITU
The population of Mitu, as listed in the 1964 census,
is 2,360, or about 17,b of the 13,403 living in the Vaupes.1
This figure is probably too high, but certainly is closer
to reality than the report of the 1969 World Almanac
(Spanish Edition) which showed a population of 6,500! His-
torical accounts of population in Arazonia over the years
show a great disparity, making it difficult to arrive at
anything but a reasonable guess.
A 1925 report on the Amazon in general lists the pop-
ulation of the Vaupes at 5,500 but then goes on to state
that this figure is too high.2 The government census of
1918 snows 6,355 and that of 1928, 9,332.3 Estimates of
Mitu"'s population by various visitors also show great
divergence. The oldest resident said that in 1929 there
were only twelve families in the Nlitu area. These
families formed the nucleus of the early town and several
operated the first stores there. Builes,in 1951,didin't
venture a guess as to the population but counted fifty
houses. The first padre in charge of the mission station
arrived in 1949 and in a book published in 1952 reported
forty-five houses and a population not exceeding four
hundred.5 Another writer in 1953 did not count the Indians
but foLund 150 men and thirty womenn living as "criollo
colombia los. Just four ,years later a ; writer countud'
sixty homes and estimated the population at 1,500. Using
these figures, the number of occupants per houLe aiould
figure out to twenty-five, a rather unlikely number. He
probably counted the houses correctly but then included
all Indians from the area as part of the town's population.
TABLE 1.--Population Data For The Vaupes
Year 1912 1918 1928 1938 1951 1964
Population 5545 6355 9332 7767 9169 13,403
aData extracted from official census of 1938, 1951, and
In 1964 Lambert estimated the population as between
sixty and 1,000 depending on the season. An interest-
ing aspect of this estimate is that he was uravelinr
with the census survey team and yet arrived at a very
different figure from what was officially reported. (As
There is a great fluctuation in the population of the
town as empresarios go out into the forest to supervise
the crews of Indians tapping the rubber trees. ..-hen the
rains increase and the season is over both bosses and workers
return to town, thus temporarily increasing the popula-
tion far beyond the normal figure. During much of the year
some houses are completely vacant and some open "houses"
are only briefly occupied by transients passing through.
As a supply and service center for a large area, .it.u
attracts people from great distances and they often stay
several days for a taste of "city living" before return-
ing again to the isolation of their home.
Based on the number of houses approximately 125 -
and estimating the number of occupants, the population
in early 1970 was approximately 600. This is also fairly
close to the estimate of 500 made by Gerardo Reichel-
Dolmatoff, who has done a great deal of anthropological
research in the area.9 In addition, there are another
250 people living at the internado most of the year as
students, workers, or teachers.
Complaints about the inaccuracy of the 1964 official
census in the comisarias and intendencias were general
and a suggestion was made that the federal agency res-
ponsible for the census, station a representative in the
capital city of each of these political subdivisions.
Their task would be to supervise more closely the actual
work done by civil servants, teachers, and advanced
The director of the national census understandably
views the reported figures differently and attributes
the high rate of growth for the Vaupe's (47.97S between
1951 and 1964) not to an influx of settlers or a high
GOV WJILDING ...Q
(Ai --L NOT tO 5CALE)
SCALE 1 4000
birth rate, but rather to a more efficient sySt.c.m of
enumerating the population.)
For those revisiting i'litu after an absence of a
few years, it is obvious that the town is continuing
to grow and to supply more services than it did in the
past. Business is not expanding rapidly bub new stores
are opening and new houses are being built. While in
the past new residents came largely from outside urban
centers, Indians who formerly lived in the forest are
now beginning to move to town. The attraction for cut-
siders is somewhat limited by the over concentration on
rubber production which is becoming less profitable each
year. As reported by the 1964 census, only about 151
(2,008 of 13,403) of the residents were born outside the
comisaria. This figure may be interpreted as a measure
of the lack of attraction of the Vaupes for residents of
The major groups of "outsiders" have been the religious
missionaries, government employees and the police force.12
The police are rotated periodically and some missionary
personnel are still recruited from other areas but many of
the government employees have been there many years and the
younger workers are hired from the local population.
Many of the missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant,
have also been there several years.
Along the Guaviare River and even as far south as
Calamarn, whliera a,,:ri cu3 tu ru is miorc. cu .essf'l. Lhe influx
of settler'r, from outside the Vaupes h-.. b--n 'hevy. After
an article describing the possibiliLticO of se-ttling this
area was published in a national no~spapcr, more tha-
2,000 people wrote letters of inquiry. 3 To apureciatc
fully the significance of this response one must be aware
that Colombia, like much of Latin America, ,:.'as experiencc-
ing at the sane time a period of very rapid urbaniiZation,
with many people leaving the 3and for the city.
Due primarily to better transportation, as well as
to more agricultural potential, it seems likely that the
balance of population will soon shift to this area along
the Guaviare liiver, perhaps even at the expense of the
capital, Litu. The rate of growth along the Guaviare is so
rapid that the total population may triple in a period of
only ten years.1
It has been written that 'The Av-.zonian forest is a
great cemetery which absorbs what is left of the Indian
population of Colombia. l5 Gourou has made the cowient
that the population of Amazonia was destroyed by diseases
not cndemic to the area and that the encroaching Europeans
never replaced the natives.16 Both of these statements
appear valid as many areas of Amazonia are almost void
One of the richest rubber areas of the Vaupes is the
Apaporis Valley. When the Rubber Development Corporation
wanted to exploit this supply during ;a.rld War II it was
necessary to fly in Indians to do the work as there were
none living there.17
It now appears that these vanished populations may
be replaced by incoming settlers who will very likely not
settle first in the area of Hiiti. They may reach this
area eventually, but only after the more accessible and
fertile l nd along the northern border of the comisaria
has been occupied.
The principal capital producing elements of the economy
are government expenditures, in the form of the local
payroll or to finance improvements in local living condi-
tions, and the collection of wild rubber which is then
sold to the government agency.
The development of retail trade, prices, and agricul-
tural sales are in large part dependent on these initial
sources of capital. While the various elements of the
economy are considered separately, it must be remembered
that they are all inter-related and basically dependent
on the government or rubber for any real stimulation of
Government Employees and Subsidies
The government employees are extremely important to
the economy of Mitu'. They are virtually the only workers
*(All prices quoted are in Colombian pesos, 18.50 @ dollar)
with a regular incono aid they form a najor nortjon of the
employed scment. of the population. The co.i.isaria it.a-ilf
employs thirty-five workers while the Po ica.n "'cicl has
another eleven employees. The Caja jiLraria also employs
about fifteen workers. Others receiving their salaries
from governments sources include the radio operator and
maintenance man, all the teachers and the hospital staff.
There are also numerous p-overnment employees at San
Jose and Miraflores as well as a few others in smaller
settlements. As is often the case in developing countries,
it does not seem that all these government -workers are
fully employed but they all perform, some service and they
receive a salary which is rather quickly spent and adds to
the local supply of money.
The revenue from the area is far fro,, adequate to
support such a payroll and the majority of the budget is
derivcu fro:i federal sources. Table 2 shoi:s ho'.;: depen-
dent the Vauces is on the central government and also how
much the level of support has varied over several years.
These direct. grants fro.n the national government to
territories ; and intendencias were authorized by law r10,
1930 (Oct. 8). Although the wisdom of such spending might
be questioned, the present role of many of these terri-
tories is to protect the border land from further encroach-
ment by neighboring countries and this is especially
important in the Amazon Basin where Colombia has already
Slot 180,000 Ki.2 to Brazil since 1907.18 If the present
boundaries are secured against further losses most Colom-
bians will consider the money well spent.
TABLE 2.--Budget For The Vaupes Comisaria
Year Amount Haised Percent of Federal Total
within the the Total Subsidies Budget
1959-C0 120,541 22.9 405,034 525,575
1960-61 250,423 32.3 525,000 775,423
1961-62 214,396 17.2 1,030,000 1,244,396
1962-63 47,024 3.0 1,516,318 3,563,343
1963-64 45,396 7.5 563,157 608,553
1964-65 51,379 2.8 1,763,132 1.814,511
1969-70 199,854 2.7 7,219,194 7,419,048
a1959-1965 Data from Ilemoria del Primer Congreso, Doc. -26
(Bogota, 1966), p. 8.
"1969-1970 Data from Comisaria records in Mitu.
Even though federal expenditures exceed income from
this area, the level of spending is far below that for the
rest of the nation. In the departamentos (more highly
developed areas with greater population) federal spending
averages ,;1,000 per square kilometer while in the 'erri-
torios Nacionales, spending averages only :;1 per square
kilometer.19 In 1962 the central governinent spent only
.32 per cent of the national budget (.,7.6 million of
$3,526 million) in the outlying lands. By 1966 this per-
centage had dropped to .17 per cent (,7.1 million of
$5,529 million)20 while the constitution called for 2 per
cent of national budget to be spent in these lands in order
to stimulate their growth and development.21 During this
same period the total budgets of all Territorios Nacionales
increased from .,32.3 r:illion to j,.5 n.i aion, aith iorv
than 83 Te)C cent of the increase btin-. dcrivcd fro.,
local sourcee. Thus the federal [gove:i- aent has fai led
to maintain its level of spending in the outlying areS.-;
and more and more of the burden he~ been shifted to tle
local governij,' bodies Becauie of the importance of the
Vaupes in rebuffing any Brazilian advances, it has received
somewhat better treatment and in 3.969-70 was required, to
raise only 2.7 per cent of its total budget. The remainder
was provided from the national treasury.
A law passed in 1943 (Art. 10, Law 2A) gave intendon-
cias and co!,isariss the right to establish duties anr.
taxes on goods conin- into their jurisdiction. This
practice had previously been adopted by the dera-tci.cntos
as a means of financing local government and it seemed the
logical answer for financinri other political subdivisions.
However, this program. which hai, worked rati'er r'cc .iully
in other areas has not raised sufficient reveruo to support
the national territories. The basic problem is that there
are simply not enough people to create the dmc.and neces-
sary to generate revenue. This condition prevails ii spite
of a 20 per cent tax on liquor, beer, and cigarettes and
a 10 per cent tax on all other incoming merchandise.
Of this income, 30 per cent is remitted to the area
government while 70 per cent is retained within the municipio
or corrc.ci!:icnto where the sale w.as made, to finance local
In 1964 the tax on alcoholic beverages anC cigarettes
yielded. 79 per cent of locally raised income while in 1970
this percentage was down to 49 per cent.
A major portion of each budget is pa-d as salaries,
most of which is spent in Mitu. If, as has been suggested
by some, the capital and its employees were moved from
Iliti to San Jose, the town of Nitu would die and all that
would remain would be an area of rastrojo, or second growth
forest.25 Further enhancing the value of the government
workers to the economy is the fact that their salaries
increased approximately 200 per cent between 1964 and 1970.
During the same period consumer prices of food and other
necessities generally increased 100 per cent or more. (See
The purchasing power of these workers is thus greater
now than in the past. Conversely the price of good quality
rubber has increased only 18 per cent. Therefore all those
workers engaged in collecting rubber have suffered a re-
duction in their purchasing power which made the government
employees an even more important element in the economic
health of the town.
The government enters trade directly through two
agencies: the comisariato, a retail store, and the Caja
Agraria, a multi purpose organization.
The comisariato was originally established to supply
the needs of governmental workers when there were very
few stores operating in ilitt. With the rise of the indepen-
dent store its stock has been reduced but its src. c- sti j
amount to hundreds of thousands of pesos each ycLr:. (0cc
Table 3). Total sales had increased markedly fo: t'.';
three complete years shown but were 1Ic.;er during the first
two months, of 1970 and also the firs' half of March (not
included in table).
TABLi 3.--Sales In Tne ilitu Ccmisariato
Month 1967 1968 1969 1970
January 10,243 18,741 33,642 25,996
February 14,477 26,124 34,527 28,985
arch 28,950 25,054 39,870
April 14,991 27,243 44,548
hay 26,064 31,756 45,388
June 32,534 33,647 38,667
July 39,763 46,811 48,819
August 29,772 38,525 54,683
September 26,496 31,513 33,635
October 34,295 29,305 2b,581
November 13,7 2 31,689 33,814
December 25,43 45 154 43,224
TOTALS 296,806 387,572 477,418
aData supplied by Senor Amisquita, manager of the
Comisariato, Miarch 20, 1970.
Sales tend to be higher during June, July, and August
after the rubber workers have been paid off. During the
first half of the year, when the workers are out in the
woods, sales are generally lower.
Anyone may buy in this store at prices somewhat lower
than the privately owned stores but the stock is limited.
There was a large stock of canned goods but these are too
expensive for many people. The only cc:..monly used foods
Fig. 12 --Generator House. This concrete block
building houses the new diesel generator. Both
the truck and bulldozer were flown in and re-
Fig. 13--The Caia. The Caja Agraria has been enlarged
in spite of the declining rubber business.
were rico, sugar, and potatoes.
The agricultural office or Caa aijrnria is another
governmental element of vital importance to the cconorny.
3y law, it is the only purchasing office for rubber collected
from the forest and serves to maintain the standard price
set by the government. It also offers many ite.ns for sale
at prices somewhat lower than those of privately owned
stores. In addition it functions as a bank: of sorts, the
only facility of this type in iiitu. Loans are made to fin-
ance rubber collection and local home improver:iefnts. It is
possible to deposit money there and withdraw it at a later
date. Also, money deposited in the Bogota office may be
collected from the Iiitu branch, thus reducing the amount
of cash which a businessman or traveler must carry. Con-
sidering its role as the primary money handling agercy in
town, it was a surprise to learn that it was impossible to
exchange. lare bills (500 oesos) for smaller cld~romi.nationes;
however, the supply of money in the town is limited and
they do not want it tied up in large bills. (In the past
a "flyin, ban::" has operated with a representative of a
Villavicencio bank flying in each week to handle the accumu-
lated business and then returning on the same flight).
A vital role of the Caja A.raria is the supplying of
gasoline to power the many outboard motors. (All gas arrives
Because of the expense of buying in quantity, few
residents are able to buy gas "on the outside" :I;J O-lii' it
in. Therefore, almost without eoxception, l -as ..cd in
the area is sold through the Caja.
All gas arrives by plane in 55 gallon barrels
and is either dumped into a larger underground tank or
siphoned directly into gas tanks. An. improvement to the
system was completed in 1970 when a pipeline from the air-
port to the storage tank was completed. This new line
made possible the emptying of the barrels as soon as they
were unloaded and obviated the need to roll the barrels
to and from the Caja. Considering the supply of labor
available, the justification for such an improvement may
Although gas arrives almost daily, there is rarely
a large reserve and often travel is curtailed until a new
supply is brought in. The price is high but so are trans-
portation costs and there is virtually no competition.
During 1969-70, the building in which the Caja is
housed, was being expanded and building materials arrived
in chartered planes as well as on the regular passenger
flights. Most of the construction is of concrete blocks.
The cement used in the blocks arrived on almost every
flight. Some have argued against the use of this construc-
tion as too costly, in a land surrounded by trees and
where cement must beflown in, but its use continues. Many
of the townspeople were employed as laborers and consider-
able money was added to the economy. Most of these workers
Fig. 14--Mitu Plaza. In the foreground the Mitt
plaza, in the background the house of the Comisa'rio
and government headquarters building.
Fig. 15--Colegio "Jose'Eustacio Rivera" The
secondary school was opened in 1963 to complete
the educational program.
were engaged in menial jobs; the six carpenters ;!':, were
doing the finishing work on the interior- were flown in from
Another arm of the federal government which forrrs
an important part of the economy is the Folicia .!1acional
which is responsible for enforcing the laws and maintain-
ing order in the town and surrounding area. In general, the
demands of their job are not great; they arrest the occasional
drunk who becomes too belligerent; they check the baggage
of foreigners; but they are also called upon to arrest
murderers and others who commit felonies. Although their
assignment in riitu is temporary the members of the Policia
National take an active role in the sports and social life
while they are there.
The ten men stationed in iHitu' spend a major portion of
their pay in the local stores and aid the economy. Their
influence would be even greater if they bought more of their
food and supplies in the local market. Host of their food
is purchased in Villavicencio and is flown in. This is
more expensive than buying locally produced food and also
means a reduced demand and market for food grown by local
Both the hospital workers and the teachers are almost
completely dependent on the local stores for their food
and other necessities. Like most of the other government
employees their salaries have tended to rise as rapidly
as prices aind they have .maintained tL.cir purchasijgii powr.
Because of this, plus the dependability of their incoLne, they
are very desirable customers.
There are many smaller retail storon in addition to
the Caja A raria and the comisniariato already mentioned. One
of the more important stores is run by the mission personnel
in the Catholic Church compound. Because of the greater
capital available to them and their better contacts on the
outside, they are able to maintain a larger stock than most
privately owned stores. Prices are competitive with other
stores but not especially low. As the official agency for
the distribution of both "CARE" and "Caritas" (A Catholic
relief organization) supplies they are able to supplement
their commercial stock with other donated items. In the
pnst there have been reports of donated itens bein, sold
to residents, but in general such items have been used as
prescribed and the store is able to provide a larger choice
of products than most stores.
The stock of independent stores varies a great deal
from week to week. When the stock runs low the owner
generally goes out to Bogota or Villavicencio, the closest
point with an aiple supply source. Due to the lower prices
and larger choice available, the majority of the proprietors
prefer to buy in Bogota. Transportation costs consume some
of the profit, bi. by, u: i.lji r:i .', tne .J'te.: fj i;.ht- ih .c}i
are partially subsidizcd. b the o:*:-:'n',:e.,nt. t'e :cost
only ,2.40 per kilo uhich is the ~sme. a tie Urraca I-..es
from Villavicencio (See Table 6).
Since the volume of sales is low and most of the
merchants do not have a great deal of capital available,
there are often times when shelves are virtually bare. For
several days the stock of one store consisted of matches,
writing tablets and bread. Without the bread customers,
business would have been almost nonexistent.
l'Iany residents complained that while the stores were
completely out of rice, potatoes, sugar or other staples,
there was always an ample supply of beer. During the period
when the field work was completed there was never a time
when beer was lacking in town. There seems to be some
status in drinking beer and the demand is great even when
economic conditions are poor.
Marcos Fulop noted in 1953 that there was a great
scarcity of food in Mitu's stores, at least in part due
to the propensity to bring in trade goods for the Indian
workers and liquor for the Colombians, rather than food.2
Although there are more flights today, the tendency to
move non-food items is still apparent.
The primitive state of the economy necessitates very
little specialization in the stores. Virtually all carry
an identical stock and if one runs out he never hesitates
Fig. 16--Garcia's Store. One of the better stocked
retail stores of Mitiu. Because photographers are not
common the owner's young son was also included in
Fig. 17--Tito's Oven. Tito's oven with a fire laid.
After the oven is heated, the fire is removed and
the bread and rolls inserted.
to patronize his coi.'ipetitors. Also '.i.l;?e o.t :; l. sk .o.e:
in Latin America, the coi~-"i'rcial part occ-;:i.,l only the
front of the building and the family lives in the back.
The only material advantages that one possesses over
another is a slightly larger stock or a kerosene powered
refrigerator which may permit him to sell jello or other
products which require refrigeration.
Business is also somewhat stifled by the lack of im.oney
to make change. If a customer attempts to pay for the
purchase of an item costing one or two pesos with a twenty
peso bill, the proprietor often must go in search of change
from a neighboring store. Though they are competitors,
there is great cooperation between most of the merchants.
Wives are often involved in running the stores while
the husband seeks to supplement the income in various
other enterprises. Many of the merchants earn extra money
by serving as agents for the several small airlines that
fly regular schedules to Hitu' or make an occasional charter
With some twenty-one shops serving as retail out-
lets, fitu is obviously over commercialized, but there is
no apparent solution to the problem. The large number
of stores is required to provide the goods that are re-
quired by all the people living within that section of
Colombia. The rubber emnresarios and others living in
the forest travel several days to reach Mitu and replenish
their supplies. Jf it wtere not for the greater rec :n.ccs
of the "naJ. _Igraria and the comisariato, even this nu!.ber
would not be sufficient to meet their demands. Each
merchant i.; so l.i:ited in his capital that 'he can only buy
a suiall stc:k and must wait until it is virtually all
sold before he again has enough money to finance a trip
to Bogota or Villavicencio to buy a new supply.
Three or four merchants with more adequate financial
resources might provide a much better choice of merchan-
dise but storekeepers with that much capital have found
investments for their money that offer far less risk. The
rubber business of the Vaupes is far fro;ii lucrative and
many merchants have not been able to collect for the
supplies they have advanced on credit. Due to the proble:qs
of selling rubber and collecting their pay, the cauchcros
are often without funds and must be carried6 on the books."
Thus only p-ople with a little r.ioey, :which they are
willing to risk, attempt to operate in this town.
Table 4 showing the rise in prices between 1964-70
indicates one of the economic problems of the 'Jaupcs,
and of Colombia. Inflation and rising transportation
costs have led to great increases in prices while the
price of rubber has gone up very little. The most direct-
ly effected are the caucheros, but the merchants are also
being adversely effected. The size of their stock is
progressively limited by skyrocketing costs and the problem
of collecting their debts is much gr etor.
TABLE 4..---etail Price Increases B3etween ] 964 and February, 970
1ice T ilo 0
Cooking oil (gallon)
aData for 1964 from Alvara Guzman Cortes, "Panorama
de la Comisaria del Vaupe's, vista Policia iacional de Vaupes,
Afio LT, Io. 104, Segunda Epoca (1964), p. 15.
Data for 1970 compiled in Iiitlu stores.
What is needed to stimulate trade is a cron or pro-
duct which could be spread over the year to keep capital
moving. When the season's collection of rubber is sold
there is money, but this is soon spent often on last
year's debts and very little money circulates until the
following Hay when the rubber is again brought to town.
With the decline in the rubber business, even this economic
stimulus is beginning to weaken.
The stores of Mitu offer only a very limited stock, but
they are providing high risk capital in an area that des-
perately needs it. If Mitu and the eastern Vaupis ever
develop into a truly viable economic region, these Iiterchants
with their inadequ2le stocks will havc ocon a-arsoly res-
ponsible for sustaining it until a stronr:or economic ba;e
could be devt lopjd.
The "rubber" industry in the Vaupc's began with the
collection of bajata from a species cf the Lanilkara tree.
At this time early in the twentieth century all sales
were made through iianaus and trade goods also came from
The dominance of plantation rubber from the East
Indies then lead to a decline in interest in Amazonian
rubber which was more expensive and often of an inferior
quality. As long as the eastern rubber was available,
there was no dem-and for that of Amazonia which was col-
lected from scattered wild trees by Indians who were
not well trained and had little intere.-t in their work.
The movement of the Japanese forces into the Pacific
during Uorld 'War II cut off the supply of plantatio:i
rubber and this, coupled with the increased demands of
a full scale w:ar brought about a renewal of interest in
the wild rubber from this hemisphere.
Nationals of the Amazonian countries were encouraged
to reopen old rubber trails and the Rubber Development
Corporation was organized and financed by the United
States government to determine the extent of the reserves
available for development and to recommend '*.q.ys, to increase
the current levels of production.
The Rubber Development Corporation (RDC) vwas extr-emely
important in the development of Mitu. kot only did the
increased demand and higher prices stimulate gathering,
but the new techniques introduced raised the quality of
the rubber collected.
Prior to the arrival of the RDC technicians, the
rubber was all made into large "balls" by pouring the
latex on a stick which was suspended across a fire. By
continuously turning the stick, successive layers of rubber
were applied. The smoke from the fire helped cure the
rubber and retarded the growth of molds and fungi which
could contaminate it. The new method was to mix the latex
with water, strain it to remove any trash, and then stir
in enough formic acid to cause it to coagulate. The rubber
floated to the top and was then run through rollers to
remove more of the water and transform it into thin strips.
The strips were draped on racks and smoked before being
pressed into bundles. The end result was a better quality
rubber which could immediately be classified as it was
all visible. The older "balls" often contained various
types of latex and it was necessary to cut them up to
determine what quality they were. One of the major problems
of quality even today is that the rubber is often not clean
or is contaminated by fungi after being packed. A local
processing plant arid better storage facilities could help
alleviate this trouble.
The HDC also recommended better techniques for tap-
ping the trees to increase the yield while also insuring
the long life of the trees. (Some types of trees must
be cut down to collect the latex but most are tapped by
cutting diagonal lines part way around the trunk so the
rubber drains into a cup suspended at the bottom.) Early
collectors used hatchets to cut through the outer bark
and into the cambium layer. This often resulted in the
death of the tree. The lack of trees in the Vaupe's
showing scars of previous tappings led RDC personnel to
speculate that either they were killed by the crude
methods used or that very few of them had been worked
prior to the 1940's.29
The new knives introduced have a small hook on the
end of the blade which simplifies the grooving and mini-
mizes the danger of permanent damage to the trees.
There are few Hevea brasiliensis trees in the Vaupes.
Host rubber is collected from Hevea guianensis and Hevea
benthamiana trees and neither of these varieties has the
quality of the brasiliensis.30 They grow along the rivers
and watercourses at the rate of about 8 20 per hectare.31
As each worker taps 100 150 trees per day he must often
walk 10 15 kilometers twice daily.32 he tine sent in
travel between trees is one of the chief drawbacks in the
Fig. 18--Raw Rubber. Bundles of new rubber are
stored on the porch before being taken to Caja
Agraria for sale.
Fig. 19--Selling Gasoline. The Caja buys all
rubber and dispenses virtually all the gasoline
used in the area.
collection and utilization of wild ruober.
For i1lany years residents of Amazonia have been advised
to plant young trees between the native trees so that
ultimately the trail, or trocha, through the forest .wculd
be lined with producing trees. As long ago as 19-49, there
was discussion of planting rubber but the recomr.:endations
have not been carried out.'3
An even more productive idea was that proposed by
Schultes in 1945 when he recomruended the planting of
small family "plantations" containing from 500 to 1,000
trees with the seeds being procured from trees with
records of superior production.4 By utilizing only high
producing trees, yields would bI greatly increased and by
planting them near the house, the worker would be able to
care for them while they were young. He also would be
spared the long hours walking along the forest trails. A
farm in the Vaupes planted with good clones could pro-
duce as much as 2,500 kilos per hectare while one planted
with seeds collected from the forest would probably not
yield more than 500 kilos per hectare.35 1When the price
of rubber was high enough to justify collecting from the
trees, they could be worked but when the price dropped,
the settler would not tap them but could devote his time
to subsistence agriculture or to other crops. This system
presupposes that the individual would have the time to
carry on the planting operation and also a very limited
amount of capital. It would be necessary for the cg-.rn-
ment to carry on the selection and seedling program in
order to offer productive young plants at a minimum price.
One of the worst aspects of the native rubber industry
is the labor system which was devised, or perhaps evolved,
to make it work. The scattered trees can only be tapped
by clearing a path from one to the next closest tree. Be-
cause the trees grow only near the rivers, the ground is
low and often cut by watercourses. Fallen trees and other
obstacles make walking difficult. From the earliest days
of the rubber industry, local Indians have been recruited
both to cut the trails and to collect the rubber. Numer-
ous books and articles have been written describing the
treatment of these Indian workers the best known perhaps
being Roger Ca3ement's report of the rubber industry on
the Putamayo River in 1912. Conditions for the workers
have been improved since that time but many Indians re-
main in a virtual state of slavery to the empresarios who
have advanced them trade goods.36
In order to hire Indians to work rubber, the employer
must have a statement from the local monsenor (chief priest)
that he is a responsible citizen. This document is then
shown to the Protector of Indians who authorizes him to
go looking for workers.
Workers are usually recruited in August or September
and receive the season's wages in advance. The pay is
rarely in money but consists of cloth, clothing, shot-
guns, transistor radios, sewing machines or any other item
that the Indian might desire. These items are evaluated
by the employer and their value entered on the employee's
account. The terms of the contract and the amounts advanced
are also recorded with the Protector of Indians.
The crew is then taken to the concession area (Inderena
has charge of granting these concessions) where they remain
until March or April when the heavy rains begin that make
collecting impossible. Sometimes a man's family will
accompany him but usually the camp is composed only of
men. Their days are too long and busy to devote much
time to their families in any event.
The day begins as soon as there is sufficient light
to work. Each tree on the trail is tapped and a small cup
is attached to catch the latex. By the time the tapping
is accomplished, it is usually 11:00 12:00 A. i.. The
worker must then go all the way around the trail again
collecting the rubber which has drained into the cups.
The amount of rubber collected varies with the skill of
the worker and the yield of the trees being tapped, but
an average day's production is between three and six
kilos.37 When the worker returns to camp, this rubber must
be processed and hung up for smoking.
Each worker has from two to four trails which he
works on alternate days. The work week is from monday
through Saturday. Sunday are free and on rainy days no
collections are made because the water Iou.d dilute the
latex too much. These "free" days are usually taken up
with housekeeping chores, hunting or fishing.
The employer must furnish his workers with salt,
soap, matches, cigarettes and farila. He usually makes
no attempt to supply any meat or fish. Workers carry shot-
guns with them on their rounds in hopes of encountering
game and also spend as much time as possible hunting or
At the end of the season the rubber is brought to Hitu
and sold to the Caja Agraria, the only agency which can
legally buy rubber. The amount collected by each worker
is then computed and in the presence of the Protector of
Indians, the worker is either paid off for any excess over
his advances or apprised of how much money he still owes
the employer. In most cases the amount collected is not
enough to balance the advance and the worker is then
obligated to work off the excess the following year. How-
ever, before going out again, further advances are made
and fresh obligation incurred. In all likelihood the
debt at the end of the second year will be greater than it
was initially and a further obligation to work is imposed.
The only way this cycle can be broken is by an extremely
productive year or by someone else paying the debt. If
a second person pays the debt he can probably only be
repaid by labor so the worker is not free, he has merely
changed masters. After 30 years of .'ork! one man at .i'ira-
flores had run up a debt of 330.000 which he could noi. pay
off and he was no longer able even to alter..pt .o work it
One worker on the Cubiyu took the rubber he had
collected to Hiraflores, sold it to the Caja and paid his
debt with the proceeds. His employer was not pleased and
stated he wanted the rubber not the money.
If workers try to run away from the car.ip they are pur-
sued by the employer, sometimes aided by members of the
Policia Nacional. As recently as 1950 such runaways were
often returned in chains and some patrons were still whip-
ping the workers. The "Patron System" has been defended
as the only means of increasing rubber production by the
Indians who were not motivated to work once their immediate
needs had been iiet.40 If the -rotector of the ladians or
the local representatives of the Catholic church become con-
vinced that an employer is mistreating his workers, he
will lose his permit to hire Indians and will be left with
his debts as well as those the Indians owe him. His only
chance to recoup his losses then is to try to sell the
workers' debts to someone else who can qualify for a
Perhaps the most unfortunate part of the whole rubber
business is that no one seems to make any money. The
trade goods paid. to the Indians by the employers are
usually bought on credit from a local merchant at inflated
prices and at the end of the season his sales of rubber
are not enou;-h to cover his debts. The merchants must
charge high prices because of their expenses, in addition
to the high percentage of defaults which they must absorb.
During the 1968 69 season one employer with ten
workers ran up a debt of p22,000 which the rubber barely
paid off. He was trying again in the 1969 70 season but
experienced trouble with five Indians running away for a
time and felt that this would be his last year.
The cost of the trade goods required has gone up much
more rapidly than the price of the rubber which he collects.
Recently 4.00 50) in goods were sufficient to secure a
season's work. Now $1,500 is needed nd' the worker also
demands the use of an outboard motor to transport him to
the work site.
Since 1949, the wages of workers have risen more than
1,000 per cent while the price of rubber has gone up only
slightly more than 200 per cent. ($3 9.95)1 The cost
of farina and other supplies has also risen, thus further
reducing the profit of the employer. The diminishing
profits have been reflected in the amount of rubber being
purchased by the Caja in Mitu. This figure has dropped
from 350 tons in 1967, to 300 tons in 1968, to 200 tons in
196942 Less people are involved in working rubber each
1969. Less people are involved in working rubber each
year and the residents of iiitu' wre not at all opci.istic
about the future prospects for rubber collecting. The
manager of thn Caja estimated, tLat the total nur,:ber of
workers in the ;iitu area dropped fro;i 1,560 in 1969 to 1,200
in 1970. Those people still hiring u;orkers seei.; to be
doing so in spite of, not because of, the outlook for
profits. There are currently few alternatives open to the
cauchero trying to make his living there.
Some of the missionaries have begun to encourage
individual Indians to collect rubber on their own without
involving a "middleman." The only capital required to
begin work is ..200 to be paid to Inderena for a concession
area, and the acid to promote coagulation. The laminators
are widely distributed and probably would not need to be
purchased. TWhile this might be more profitable than the
present system, it is doubtful that it could exist long.
Dr. Schultes predicted in 1945 that after the war years
were past, the wild rubber industry would be unable to
compete with plantation rubber from the Far East. After
almost 25 years, his forecast seems to be coming true, for
while the collection of wild rubber was dropping, Colombia
was spending more than .:50,000,000 annually to import
8,000 tons from the Orient.45
Rubber collectors blame the government or the rubber
companies for the depressed state of the local industry.
They recommend the fixing of higher prices, tariffs and
the establishment of plantations as a means of revitalizing
the economy and stimulating the frontier development. The
most realistic suggestion is that of establishing small
family plantations as originally suggested by Schultos.
The lands ecologically suited for rubber production in
the 1940's, when the idea was first seriously proposed, re-
main so today.
Unfortunately all the other social, economic and
governmental conditions are also largely unchanged. The
plantations that could provide an abundant supply of good
quality rubber and furnish jobs for many people will not
be planted. In describing the rubber industry of Brazil
during its "Golden Era" MacCreagh wrote: "Rubber was such
easy money that they never learned to plant a potato or
weave a gee-string. They paid for every single thing
they ate or used with Black Gold." The rubber is no
longer "golden" but many have been so involved in their
quest of a sylvan el dorado that they failed to notice
The agricultural practices of the Vaupes are by all
accounts primitive and backward.47 The crops cultivated and
the techniques of production which were suitable for the
Indian population have not been appreciably modified to
accommodate the increasing numbers of mestizos who have
come there to work and settle.
Virtually all agriculture carried cn in the eastern
Vaupes is by Indians. The few blancos attemptijng fariingi
have largely adopted Indian crops and technique.
Any program which trys to make substantial changes in
local agricultural practices must take into account many
factors both physical and cultural. A half-hearted or
piecemeal plan of development is almost certain to fail.
Besides the very basic problem of land ow.ners:ip and title
clearance in a region which has never been accurately
mapped or surveyed, other elements of concern must be
choice of appropriate crops, soil fertility, insect damage,
transportation, low farm prices, and resistance to change.
This situation is not unique to the Vaupes or even to
Colombia, but reflects conditions throughout the A.'iazon Basin.
The "slash and burn" agriculture typical of the area, with
its extreme dependence on yuca (Manihot esculenta), when
coupled with lo.w population densities and ample supplies
of fish and game, supported the Indian population ade-
quately. Not until the early twentieth century did it
become apparent that changes might be in order. During
this time rubber collectors began recruiting Indians to
tap the rubber trees and to incorporate them or at least
their labor into the world economic system. At this time
when the population began to increase, new demands were
placed on the forest ecosystem to provide food. The
introduction of firearms accelerated t!e destruction of much
Fig. 20--Cubeo House. The Indians surround their
houses with useful food plants.
- r ';O51r
F.'~ _Y ~~~1' 17~iii c
Fig. 21--Raised Garden. To protect vegetables
from ants an old canoe has been converted to
a raised garden. Tin shields on the supports
are further protection.
wildlife while the removal of many of the men to work in
the rubber industry placed greater demands on those who
remained to produce food. Since this time there have been
sporadic and uncoordinated attempts to alter cropping
patterns but basically agriculture remains mi:uch as it was
during the nineteenth century.
The agriculture practiced is the usual slash and burn
carried on by natives in both the American and Asian tropics.
Fields are "cleared" by cutting the smaller trees and gird-
ling the larger ones to kill them. This cutting is usually
completed during February when precipitation drops. Burning
is accomplished late in the month with planting following;
immediately to take advantage of the nutrients in the ashes
before they are leached out.
The most important food crop is yuca and in its many
forms it is the staple food in the regional diet. Planted
from cuttings, it is easy to transfer and does well in a
variety of soils. In six months the roots are large enough
to be dug and made into cassava bread. Because of the
presence in the root of a cyanide poison, it must be ground
and the juice pressed out before it is cooked and eaten.
Any poison remaining after the processing is neutralized
by the heat of the fire.
If fariia is to be made, usually older roots are selected
which, after being ground and pressed to remove the poison,
are roasted on a flat griddle or tiesto. Properly roasted
Fig. 22--Burned Field. This field was not dry
enough to burn cleanly. The remaining wood is
often sold in town for firewood.
Fig. 23--Yuca Garden. Yuca grows well in even
poor soils often growing o heights of more than
fariia will keep alrmoot indefinitely wit'noLt spoiling aann
is often used as "trail food" while on trips. Some is also
used as the basis for the manufacture of the mildly alcho-
holic drink, chicha.
Other crops found in most gardens are nuoulia (Guilielma
s eciosa), peppers, pineapples, sugar ca:e(for eating only),
and onions. Around the houses are often found citrus trees,
caimarones (Pourouma cgcropiaefolia), and bananas for both
cooking and eating.
The lack of fertility in the soils requires that garden
plots be moved frequently. Four or five years is the maxi-
mum farming time for most yuca fields and some are not
productive longer than one or two years. This rapid turn-
over necessitates large areas of vacant land ini the agri-
cultural cycle. Ideally, land would remain under natural
vegetation for twenty or thirty years to renew its fertility
before being cleared again. ouch a system rmcy require u
total of fifteen hectares of land to support each person
living there. .iany Indian gardens are now half an hour's
walk from the home because all adjacent virgin or fertile
land has been cut over, farmed out. and is now in second
The Caja AMraria stocks fertilizer and some of the
farmers are aware of an alternative to shifting their
fields, but until they are able to sell more products for
cash they cannot afford it. The situation may well change
in the future but currently the labor to cleail'r ew. f ieldc
is cheaper than fertilizer.
The major insect problem is with the 3eaf cutter ants
(Atta sp.) which are found throughout the region. They
are especially damaging to vegetables and citrus. It is
not uncommon to see trails of ants two or three inches wide
leading from gardens to ant mounds. Each ant going to the
nest carries a half inch square piece of leaf over his
head. In order to thwart them, favored plants are often
grown on raised platforms with tin shields around the
supporting legs. Commercial poisons are available, but
like fertilizer they are beyond the means of most planters.
It is doubtful that the efforts of any one farmer would
be successful when there is so much unused land available
for their nesting and foraging.
It has often been stated that the greatest handicap
to improving tropical agriculture is the wealth of the
forest resources. A small increase in the price of rubber
or another natural product is sufficient to draw labor
away from agriculture, and fields abandoned for even a
short time are often beyond reclaiming. 'ieeds can quickly
take over a cleared plot of ground if they are not held in
check. In fact, competition from fast growing weeds and
shrubs and the rapid build up of insect and rodent popu-
lations, are often as big a factor in field abandonment as
loss of fertility.
With the decline in rubber production curi noiLyl t..king
place, ore might argue that the population and' food require-
ments will revert to the for iier conditions aid. that tradi-*
tional agriculture will again suffice to supply their needs
of the populace. This is not likely to occur. The blancos
who have moved there are not leaving, indeed the Co)ombian
government would go to great lengths to encourage them to
stay, and. the Indians will never rebuild their society as
it was before they became enmeshed in a monied economy.
Due to the lack of alternatives it is apparent that
agriculture in one form or another is going to be called
upon to support more and more people at a hig';rr level of
living than they have yet enjoyed. The problem is to
choose the best direction for agriculture to move and the
means to facilitate this growth.
In many remote areas of the world, livestock production
has served as the forerunner of more intensive land uses.
With Hitu located only one degree north of the equator,
there is an ample amount of solar energy to stimulate lush
pasture growth. A well distributed annual rainfall of
over 130 inches is adequate for good vegetative growth
even in this area of high evaporation. While native grasses
are not nutritious, imported varieties have been planted
and have done well.50 This, coupled with a twenty year
history of cattle in the town,51 should have encouraged