Climate Change's Impact on Amazonian Indigenous Peoples

Human habitation in the Amazon can be traced as far back as 12,000 years ago or perhaps earlier. Over this time, the rainforest's indigenous inhabitants have evolved to become so attuned to the Amazon's physical environment that even mild disturbances to the region's complex ecological systems can pose threats to their welfare and survival. Climate change and its implications on the Amazon region – ranging from increased frequencies of drought and forest fire to potential biome collapse – may therefore spell catastrophe for indigenous subsistence systems, which are intricately tied to predictable and well-established seasons.

According to a World Bank study[S4], many indigenous groups in the Amazon are already feeling the effect of climate change as the rainforest's natural rhythms are altered. With temperatures rising, hydrological cycles changing, and seasons occurring outside their usual time of year, the study found that indigenous food production systems in many parts of the Colombian Amazon have been badly hit.

The study indicates that these changes also have direct effects on human health. In addition to decreasing fish stocks, changing patterns of river fluctuation can potentially improve breeding conditions for disease vectors, increasing the prevalence of malaria and other diseases. Moreover, crop failures and declines in the availability of protein in the form of fish, for example, may have irreversible and harmful effects on the growth and development of children in affected regions, which include the Tikuna, Tupi, and Witodo indigenous groups' territories.

In the Xingu National Park of the Brazilian Amazon, the Kamayurá are experiencing similar hardships. An investigation[S5] by The New York Times revealed that the decimation of local fish stocks by rising temperatures and decreasing precipitation has become so severe that Kamayurá children have resorted to eating ants on their traditional flatbreads, in the absence of fish. According to the article, drier weather conditions result in the Kamayurá also facing the newfound threat of forest fires in an area of the rainforest that previously was too moist to ignite.

For the Yanomami of the Brazilian Amazon, it is clear that climate change is unfolding and that it threatens their very existence. In 2009, during an international indigenous rights campaign in Europe, Shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami attested to his people's struggle: "You are worried about climate change. It is arriving. The rains come late, the sun behaves in a strange way. The world is ill. The lungs of the sky are polluted. We know it is happening."

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