Climate change threatens Indigenous farming and cultures in the Brazilian Amazon

Indigenous people sell the products of their crops at a local market | Photo: Paulo Desana/Agência Pública

This article, written by Ana Amélia Hamdan, Paulo Desana and Daniela Villegas, was originally published by Agência Pública on July 29, 2022, and is republished here under a partnership agreement with Global Voices, translated by Liam Anderson.

It is Sunday morning, and members of the Indigenous Tuyuka people who live in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, in Brazil's northwest Amazonas state are ready to greet visitors at the weekly market. Everything is prepared long before, though, with crops planted in a farmed area in the forest near the city, where they grow cassava, banana, pineapple, açaí, and cará, and more.

As visitors are arriving, some women of the Tuyuka — who the market is named for — are kneading manioc dough, which will be put in the oven to be made into ‘beiju.’  

Also served are traditional dishes such as quinhapira — fish broth with chillis and tucupi (juice taken from manioc root) — and sometimes even ants, which are common in the region's cuisine, not to mention caxiri, the fermented drink that livens up the traditional dances. All this variety comes from the Traditional Agricultural System of Rio Negro, which brings together knowledge of agriculture in ‘roças’ (farmed areas), gardens and the forest, and relies on the balance of the cycles of nature and on maintaining a culture that involves exchanges, rituals, and blessings. 

This system is under constant pressure: from illegal mining, unsustainable economic systems, a law proposal such as PL 191, which would allow mining and other extractive activities on Indigenous lands, and the climate crisis.  

“Last year, we lost two farmed areas precisely because the summer didn't come at the time we were expecting. We just about planted some bananas, but we weren't able to plant manioc,” said the Tuyuka farmer Florinda Lima Orjuela, one of the people involved in the market, as she was describing part of the stages in this system. “When you see that there's a change in this cycle, then it disrupts this whole process of planting, of burning.” 

Accounts like Florinda's are increasingly common in the municipality, where 23 Indigenous peoples live across about 750 communities and settlements. Located on the river Rio Negro, São Gabriel and its residents have particularly suffered from the record floods that have hit Amazonas state in recent years.

In addition to floods, the main effects reported by the Indigenous people are unpredictable seasons, increased temperatures and changes in environmental cycles, which directly affect local people's food production. Many of them have started to change the places where they plant crops and manage more than one plot, as well as changing their working hours due to the stronger sun. Now the question is how long this adaptation will be enough. 

What the Indigenous people have observed in everyday life is in line with the latest report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which, for the first time, raised the alarm about irreversible losses to Indigenous peoples’ ways of life in the Amazon.

Researcher and biologist Patrícia Pinho, from the Institute for Environmental Research in the Amazon (IPAM), one of the report's authors, explained that the Indigenous population is more vulnerable to climate change.

“In the Amazon, biodiversity is intrinsically connected to the territory, to culture, to the way of life. When there is erosion or there are shocks in the territory, there’s a loss of traditional knowledge, we no longer know when the cycle will occur, which species should be planted, when flowering will occur.”

Indigenous woman works with manioc dough | Photo: Paulo Desana/Agência Pública

Mothers of the farm

The Traditional Agricultural System of Rio Negro was recognized as part of Brazilian Cultural Heritage by the Institute for National Historical and Artistic Heritage (Iphan) in 2010. In this type of agriculture, an area of forest previously used for farming is cut down, left to dry out, and then burned. In the clearings, crops are planted for about three years and, after that period, the areas are gradually abandoned. 

The men cut down a forested area and, together with the women, carry out the burning. The women then take charge of the space. They choose what to plant — manioc, banana, açaí, bacaba, cupuaçu, chillis — and what will feed the family. The Indigenous peoples see them as ‘mothers of the farm’ (‘mães da roça’).

Carine Viriato da Silva, a farmer from the Baniwa people and resident of the Yamado community, located opposite the main waterfront of São Gabriel, described two examples of the effects of climate change on her daily life. She says that after the manioc harvest, women usually soak the root in water to soften it. However, over time, it stopped being possible to do this: more and more water entered the igarapés (smaller forest waterways) and the manioc began to be carried away by the force of the water.

Chilli has also been affected, which is an essential food in Baniwa culture as it is at the centre of a complex system of exchanging seedlings that involves family and marriage relations. “When a woman marries and goes to her husband's house, the chilli plant has to go with her. That’s our custom, that's why we can’t lack chillies. If we don't have chilli, nobody even eats,” Carine said.   

This problem is mainly due to the increase in temperatures, which interferes with growing the plant. This was explained by farmer Diva de Souza, who is a speaker of the Indigenous Baniwa language and preferred that Carine spoke for her. 

“She saw her grandmother moving the already big chilli [plant]. When you move a big chilli [plant], it has roots so it can get nutrients from below. But now, when you move the chilli plant to another place, it can't withstand the temperatures and starts to dry out.” 

Changes in fishing 

While the women take care of the farm, the men are responsible for fishing — and the fish have not escaped the changes either. The Baniwa farmer and watchman Alcir Ricardo, Carine's husband, says that the changes in rainfall patterns are not allowing the fish to fatten up.

“In our culture, when the rain starts to fall, the piracema [breeding period for some fish] begins. Then, in June, the fish are fat.” The problem, he explained, is that with the changed rainfall patterns, mosses that only used to appear in June have appeared in May, earlier than expected. The fish start feeding on these plants and do not fatten up. “So, it [the fish] is not fat yet, and it rains ahead of time, and it will stay thin,” he summarized.   

Alcir Ricardo, Indigenous from Baniwa people, shows the garbage that arrives through Rio Negro to the Yamado community | Photo: Paulo Desana/Agência Pública

Rosivaldo Miranda, of the Piratapuya ethnic group, lives in the Açaí-Paraná community in the Alto Rio Negro Indigenous Territory, located on the lower Uaupés River which is also in the Rio Negro basin. He noticed another important change — that even the worms found inside bromeliads are dwindling.

Normally they live on the riverbanks and, when the river’s water level is about to rise, they take refuge in the bromeliad flowers that are high up in the trees. The instability of the rainfall and flood patterns seems to be interfering with this process, something which only those who live in the forest notice. 

Extreme events becoming more common

The Indigenous people's observations of changes to environmental cycles also match the most regular records of extreme events in the Amazon. The measuring of the Rio Negro water levels in Manaus began in 1902. The largest flood had been recorded in 1953, until this was surpassed in 2009. 

It was expected that major floods like this would occur about once every 50 years. However, the record was broken in 2012 and again in 2021, according to data from the Geological Survey of Brazil (CPRM). In 2022, the water level reached 29.76 metres, the fourth highest since measurements began. 

Luna Gripp, a researcher at CPRM, said extreme events are becoming more frequent and larger, as shown by the situation in Amazonas state. She is calling for regional solutions, including consultation with Indigenous peoples and riverside communities in developing public policies, so as to reduce the negative impacts and develop proposals for adaptation.

“The Indigenous people know what to do when the river rises high,” she says. “Their decisions need to be supported.”

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