An Amazon Culture Withers as Food Dries Up

An Amazon Culture Withers as Food Dries Up


XINGU NATIONAL PARK, Brazil – As the naked, painted young men of the Kamayurá tribe prepare for the ritualized war games of a festival, they end their haunting fireside chant with a blowing sound – “whoosh, whoosh” – a symbolic attempt to eliminate the scent of fish so they will not be detected by enemies. For centuries, fish from jungle lakes and rivers have been a staple of the Kamayurá diet, the tribe’s primary source of protein.

But fish smells are not a problem for the warriors anymore. Deforestation and, some scientists contend, global climate change are making the Amazon region drier and hotter, decimating fish stocks in this area and imperiling the Kamayurá’s very existence. Like other small indigenous cultures around the world with little money or capacity to move, they are struggling to adapt to the changes.

“Us old monkeys can take the hunger, but the little ones suffer – they’re always asking for fish,” said Kotok, the tribe’s chief, who stood in front of a hut containing the tribe’s sacred flutes on a recent evening. He wore a white T-shirt over the tribe’s traditional dress, which is basically nothing.

Chief Kotok, who like all of the Kamayurá people goes by only one name, said that men can now fish all night without a bite in streams where fish used to be abundant; they safely swim in lakes previously teeming with piranhas.

Responsible for 3 wives, 24 children and hundreds of other tribe members, he said his once-idyllic existence had turned into a kind of bad dream.

“I’m stressed and anxious – this has all changed so quickly, and life has become very hard,” he said in Portuguese, speaking through an interpreter. “As a chief, I have to have vision and look down the road, but I don’t know what will happen to my children and grandchildren.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that up to 30 percent of animals and plants face an increased risk of extinction if global temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in coming decades. But anthropologists also fear a wave of cultural extinction for dozens of small indigenous groups – the loss of their traditions, their arts, their languages.

“In some places, people will have to move to preserve their culture,” said Gonzalo Oviedo, a senior adviser on social policy at the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Gland, Switzerland. “But some of those that are small and marginal will assimilate and disappear.”

To make do without fish, Kamayurá children are eating ants on their traditional spongy flatbread, made from tropical cassava flour. “There aren’t as many around because the kids have eaten them,” Chief Kotok said of the ants. Sometimes members of the tribe kill monkeys for their meat, but, the chief said, “You have to eat 30 monkeys to fill your stomach.”

Living deep in the forest with no transportation and little money, he noted, “We don’t have a way to go to the grocery store for rice and beans to supplement what is missing.”

Tacuma, the tribe’s wizened senior shaman, said that the only threat he could remember rivaling climate change was a measles virus that arrived deep in the Amazon in 1954, killing more than 90 percent of the Kamayurá.

Cultures threatened by climate change span the globe. They include rainforest residents like the Kamayurá who face dwindling food supplies; remote Arctic communities where the only roads were frozen rivers that are now flowing most of the year; and residents of low-lying islands whose land is threatened by rising seas.

Many indigenous people depend intimately on the cycles of nature and have had to adapt to climate variations – a season of drought, for example, or a hurricane that kills animals.

But worldwide, the change is large, rapid and inexorable, heading in only one direction: warmer. Eskimo settlements like Kivalina and Shishmaref in Alaska are “literally being washed away,” said Thomas Thornton, an anthropologist who studies the region, because the sea ice that long protected their shores is melting and the seas around are rising. Without that hard ice, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to hunt for seals, a mainstay of the traditional diet.

Some Eskimo groups are suing polluters and developed nations, demanding compensation and help with adapting.

“As they see it, they didn’t cause the problem, and their lifestyle is being threatened by pollution from industrial nations,” said Dr. Thornton, who is a researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. “The message is that this is about people, not just about polar bears and wildlife.”

At climate negotiations in December in Poznan, Poland, the United Nations created an “adaptation fund” through which rich nations could in theory help poor nations adjust to climate change. But some of the money was expected to come from voluntary contributions, and there have been none so far, said Yvo De Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “It would help if rich countries could make financial commitments,” he said.

Throughout history, the traditional final response for indigenous cultures threatened by untenable climate conditions or political strife was to move. But today, moving is often impossible. Land surrounding tribes is now usually occupied by an expanding global population, and once-nomadic groups have often settled down, building homes and schools and even declaring statehood.

The Kamayurá live in the middle of Xingu National Park, a vast territory that was once deep in the Amazon but is now surrounded by farms and ranches.

About 5,000 square miles of Amazon forest are being cut down annually in recent years, according to the Brazilian government. And with far less foliage, there is less moisture in the regional water cycle, lending unpredictability to seasonal rains and leaving the climate drier and hotter.

That has upended the cycles of nature that long regulated Kamayurá life. They wake with the sun and have no set meals, eating whenever they are hungry.

Fish stocks began to dwindle in the 1990s and “have just collapsed” since 2006, said Chief Kotok, who is considering the possibility of fish farming, in which fish would be fed in a penned area of a lake. With hotter temperatures as well as less rain and humidity in the region, water levels in rivers are extremely low. Fish cannot get to their spawning grounds.

Last year, for the first time, the beach on the lake that abuts the village was not covered by water in the rainy season, rendering useless the tribe’s method of catching turtles by putting food in holes that would fill up, luring the animals.

The tribe’s agriculture has suffered, too. For centuries, the Kamayurá planted their summer crops when a certain star appeared on the horizon. “When it appeared, everyone celebrated because it was the sign to start planting cassava since the rain and wind would come,” Chief Kotok recalled. But starting seven or eight seasons ago, the star’s appearance was no longer followed by rain, an ominous divergence, forcing the tribe to adjust its schedule.

It has been an ever-shifting game of trial and error since. Last year, families had to plant their cassava four times – it died in September, October and November because there was not enough moisture in the ground. It was not until December that the planting took. The corn also failed, said Mapulu, the chief’s sister. “It sprouted and withered away,” she said.

A specialist in medicinal plants, Ms. Mapulu said that a root she used to treat diarrhea and other ailments had become nearly impossible to find because the forest flora had changed. The grass they use to bound together the essential beams of their huts has also become difficult to find.

But perhaps the Kamayurá’s greatest fear are the new summer forest fires. Once too moist to ignite, the forest here is now flammable because of the drier weather. In 2007, Xingu National Park burned for the first time, and thousands of acres were destroyed.

“The whole Xingu was burning – it stung our lungs and our eyes,” Chief Kotok said. “We had nowhere to escape. We suffered along with the animals.”

Rachel Smolker


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