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Urban Amazon: crucial path to sustainability

Combining science and traditional knowledge, study fronts in Architecture, Urbanism and other areas step forward in the search for building solutions and basic planning against historical problems in the region

O Liberal

Translated by Silvia Benchimol and Ewerton Branco (ET-Multi/UFPA)

From the Editor’s Office


The urban Amazon is very different from the imaginary that has been built about the region. Its complexity lies precisely in the proximity of these large human conglomerates and the relationships they have established with the most extensive tropical forest on the planet, its rivers and its biodiversity. Solutions to historical problems stemming from the population pressures, which also impact cities, such as precarious basic sanitation, flooding events, and challenges to the health sector, still need to be looked at all together, experts point out. One of the fields of knowledge that crosses this discussion is Architecture. After all, the Amazon region is not a "green void". In search of solutions for hydrosanitary projects in riverside communities, or for construction formulas that consider air circulation, as well as the permeability of rainwater and rivers, researchers in this area and urban planners argue that traditional communities have a lot to teach about how to establish good relationships of large populations with nature. As such, the main lessons are: combining local and academic knowledge to understand that solutions designed for other areas of the planet, almost always, do not work for our region.


Amongst the ten Brazilian cities with the worst sanitation rates, eight are located in the Amazon – and half are in the State of Pará (Marabá, Santarém, Ananindeua and the capital, Belém), according to “Ranking do Saneamento 2023 do Instituto Trata Brasil” [2023 Sanitation Ranking by Instituto Trata Brasil]. The study lists the country's municipalities based on access to drinking water, garbage collection status and sewage treatment care. This balance highlights that the precariousness of public policies in this area is historical – and points out that the region's particularities are not taken into account regarding the implementation of actions aiming at reducing inequalities when it comes to access to basic services.

Another study, conducted by Serviço Geológico do Brasil (SGB) [Brazilian Geological Survey], identified areas with high or very high risk of flooding in Belém, including the districts and surrounding islands. In total, 32 high-risk areas and 93 very high-risk areas were spotted. There are 125 points, 76 of which are at risk of flooding and inundation, in addition to 49 at risk of coastal erosion. According to the SGB, some of these points are on the banks of the Tucunduba and Estrada Nova river basins, which have received drainage works in the capital.

Another issue is afforestation. Although Manaus and Belém are the main metropolises in the Amazon, they appear at the top positions among the least forested capitals in Brazil, according to data from the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE) [Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics]. Precarious access to sanitation and water, reduction of green areas, and the population's risk of losing their homes to the force of water torrents are factors that can help us to understand the extent to which the climate can affect communities living in Amazon urban areas .



Professor at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA) and researcher in the area of urbanization and right to socio-biodiversity, Ana Cláudia Cardoso explains that the elaboration of the concept of urban planning took hold in society in a historical context of industrialization. Although the way of living in cities seems incompatible with the preservation of nature or ecosystems, the researcher guarantees that the situation is not quite like that. “It is possible to observe that, ‘yes’, there may be a relationship between the forest and cities, based on the employment of ecological solutions in the infrastructure of urban centers that seek a lower environmental impact, such as bioconstruction, for example”.

Ana Cláudia Cardoso argues that “in order for the city to adapt to new climatic conditions, such as more intense rain, increased water volume, with greater incidences of extreme events than in the past, the soil must be increasingly permeable". Permeability, from an architectural point of view, is the soil's ability to drain water.

For the researcher, this problem is strictly related to understanding water movements in a city, and especially in the Amazon, where people live surrounded by rivers and in a very humid climate. “It is necessary to reduce the speed at which this water crosses the city, as water always goes from a high point to the lowest point, and to slow down this process it is necessary to create conditions to retain this water. After that, also offer water the possibility to be absorbed – this is how we can combat flooding, for example – by increasing the presence of vegetation in the urban area”.

Living and working in Combu: the part of Belém integrated into the forest

Fifteen minutes by boat, departing from Praça Princesa Isabel in Belém, tourists  from any place in the world can reach Combu Island – the fourth largest one of the 39 that exist in the insular portion of the capital of Pará. In this region, the attraction is the dozens of restaurants on stilts offering river bathing and regional cuisine. In addition, they also offer the experience of being above the rivers and getting closer to riverside life, as many of these establishments offer activities, such as trails through the forest.

In the trail of the occupation of a portion of the forest, problems come along in Combu, such as garbage, sanitary issues, shortages of drinking water and access to energy, for example. Dona Nena has lived and faced this reality for 40 years on the island. She has turned her backyard, in the middle of the forest, into her own chocolate industry. It is the place where she harvests and processes cocoa to commercialize. She reveals that the extractivism and processing, in accord with the bioeconomy principles, is faced with the various challenges of producing in the forest - one of them is the availability of drinking water. “We have to buy mineral water, and when we put it on the tip of a pencil, the container costs R$30 due to transport by boat”, she explains.


The place where Nena and her family produce desserts, jams, chocolate powder and a variety of other products coming from the forest is equipped with efficient hydro-sanitary system: there are boxes for collecting and treating rainwater, as well as a complete structure for the production processes of cocoa. However, in their routine, the electricity goes out constantly.

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Dona Nena and the water supply system in Combu. CREDITS: Igor Mota

Despite the problems, quite common in Amazonian cities, leaving the place is not an option for Nena, since, besides a place to work, the island is also her safe home. She names it "the fantastic chocolate machine". Her backyard has a gigantic samaúma tree [kapok tree] - a type of tree considered sacred in the Amazon. This relationship with the place has led Dona Nena to bring her emotional memories to the packaging of her sweets.


“There is a chocolate candy that is wrapped in a leaf and tied with a string. When I exposed it to be sold, I was told that I was crazy, because ‘who would buy a chocolate candy tied inside a leaf?’. In fact, whoever saw it, had their affective memory activated, as people who moved to the city, made the rural exodus, related to it. They remembered someone who used to make this type of packaging in the countryside. That's how I started to form a network of consumers for my chocolate.”

Dona Nena's work is supported by researchers from the Federal Rural University of the Amazon (UFRA).  Almost 30 people are directly and indirectly employed by it - the majority of them are women. The group is waiting for the process of geographical indication of cocoa produced in the region to be concluded. Meanwhile, Dona Nena's house also became a space for raising stingless bees (which should soon be used for honey production, according to her). Regarding the contact and knowledge exchange relationship with the researchers, Nena says that it has been very beneficial.

“Here we have the human resources and the material that comes from the forest, and the university has the technology. So, the idea was to make people from here, locally, learn and then be able to replicate the knowledge”, says Dona Nena. “This is what happened with our water supply system, which uses treated rainwater both in the factory and for human consumption. Then the two knowledges came together: that of experience and that of science”.

The inside look: more and more essential to Amazon cities

Researcher and professor of architecture at UFPA, Ana Klaudia Perdigão inquires the perspective of outsiders regarding quality of life of riverine communities in the Amazon. “It is important to bring to light what this place means and the existing environmental conditions in order to learn more about life in this area. What means “life quality” in these spaces? And how can we think about life quality in urban areas based on this? It’s all about exchanging.”

“This is why it is essential to relate local knowledge to formal knowledge, that is, science, because these communities have a lot to teach about life quality in the Amazon. For example, the use of stilt houses is still seen as precarious, but behind this, there is an identity of a people. We need to look at this without prejudice towards this way of living.”


In the article entitled “Tipo e tipologia na palafita amazônica da cidade de Afuá” [Type and typology in the Amazon stilt house in the city of Afuá], in which the researcher talks about another Amazonian city, entirely built on stilts over a river, Perdigão approaches the wooden structure as a form of “resistance of riverine cultural tradition”. In her paper, she discusses the “peculiar way of production and appropriation of space with the manifestation of local values (..) in proximity to the river and the forest”.

“The city of Afuá is a living example of the appreciation of Amazonian riverside culture. An invaluable source for investigating new connections between formal and popular knowledge. In the Amazonian experience of living, there is an intuitive knowledge and a feeling of belonging that is so unique that it deserves to be included in architectural knowledge”, states Ana Klaudia Perdigão.

Afuá is located in the Marajó archipelago. Surrounded by rivers, the city has a population of 37.7 thousand people, according to IBGE. The tradition of living in stilt houses means that the main means of transport in the city is bicycles – pedals are adapted even to police vehicles, ambulances, taxis, etc. The municipality is called the “Marajoara Venice” due to the strong connection with the water that runs through the city.


When looking at these riverside areas, Perdigão, who coordinates the Space and Human Development Laboratory at UFPA, says that she aimed to “understand what it means to produce a space that brings quality of life to people, how to think about sanitation, electricity, sustainability, in constructions aimed at this way of living in the Amazon”.

“When we talk about a space and human development laboratory, what we want to find are these connections, these translations and alignments, what this way of living in the Amazon means, going beyond hegemonic theories that can serve all corners of the planet. We will observe them, but we will also translate this into the way of living here in the region”, highlights the UFPA professor.

The researcher argues that human constructions in urban centers cannot ignore the climate – hot and humid. According to her, it is necessary to have ventilation and permeability, everything should be provided so that air and water can circulate. This is how it is in forest communities and how cities can find a way to rethink themselves.