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Climate change threatens traditional extractive communities in the Amazon

Climate change threatens traditional extractive communities in the Amazon


  • Traditional peoples in the Amazon are already experiencing the scientific community’s warnings that rising temperatures will impact those who depend on the forest for their livelihood.
  • Brazil nuts, açaí berries, andiroba oil, copaíba oil, rubber, cacao and cupuaçu fruits are some of the products at risk of disappearance or reduced production in the next 30 years.
  • In addition to climate change’s environmental impact on these resources, the social impact will likely bring worsening poverty and an exodus of traditional peoples to urban areas.

“One of our main products is açaí, and lately we have had a very large loss due to this temperature issue,” says Ladilson Amaral, a farmer who’s part of the Santarém Rural Workers Union (STTR) in Pará, a Brazilian state in the northern Amazon. “We notice that the açaí trees are starting to change. They’re starting to get weak, not bear fruit, and they end up dying.

Ladilson has also recently noticed a decline in Brazil nut trees. These giants stand out in the forest for their height – rising 30 to 50 meters – as well as for their economic importance to the forest’s inhabitants, including the residents of the Eixo Forte Agroextractive Settlement where he lives, near the urban center of Santarém. “With the temperature, many Brazil nut trees are dying, even in the middle of nature.”

The traditional peoples of the Amazon have already felt what the latest report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) warns: the increase in average global temperatures is intensifying, with potentially irreversible impacts on the biodiversity and balance of the world’s largest tropical forest – and, consequently, on the lives of those who depend on it for their livelihood.

A survey conducted by scientists from five Brazilian public universities attempts to quantify these impacts by analyzing 18 of the main plant species used for subsistence in 56 extractive reserves (Reserva Extrativista, or Resex), which protected areas of the Brazilian Amazon where local communities retain access to resources.

The study concludes that climate change, as forecasted over the next 30 years, will particularly affect native species. The projections were calculated on the basis of RCP8.5, a global warming scenario of in which carbon dioxide emissions continue to heighten due to lack of climate policy implementation and “business-as-usual.”

Of the 56 reserves analyzed, 21 could lose at least one relevant species, while four reserves located in the northwestern Brazilian state of Rondônia – Barreiro das Antas, Rio Cautário, Pacaás Novos and Curralinho – could lose all 18 of the study’s species, which would impact the livelihoods of more than 90 families of people who extract these resources. As climate change affects the local temperature and the amount of rainfall, the study says that the necessary conditions for these trees’ survival will no longer exist, including inside the reserves.

Copaíba oil extraction in the Chico Mendes Resex (AC). Image by Katie Maehler/Mídia Ninja. [CC-BY-NC]

Social impact

Brazil nuts, açaí berries, andiroba oil, copaíba oil, rubber, cacao and cupuaçu fruits are some of the important extractive products that are at risk of disappearing or having their production reduced in the reserves. Conducted with the help of computer models, the study evaluated historical climate factors in the places where these plants grow, such as temperature, humidity and soil type, and calculated projections for the year 2050, based on the RCP8.5 warming scenario.

“This is a concern on several fronts,” says Pedro Eisenlohr, one of the authors of the study from the State University of Mato Grosso. “There’s the environmental and conservationist impact, and then there’s the social impact that this change in biodiversity has on the traditional populations.”

Brazil nuts are among the most affected species; they may cease to exist in nine reserves, as they require certain environmental conditions and pollination from specific insects. According to the survey, in the Brazilian Amazon, Brazil nuts contribute to the income of more than 2,000 families and, additionally, more than 400 people associated with cooperatives that work in the reserves. In 2019 in northern Brazil alone, 30,000 tons of Brazil nuts were extracted, mostly from the Amazon, which accounts for 93% of the country’s Brazil nut production and about $22 million of revenue.

Eleven of the study’s examined tree species might have reduced in number already, and nine might disappear entirely from some extractive reserves. Açaí might not survive in two reserves, affecting 288 families; rubber trees in five reserves, affecting 332 families; and copaíba trees in six reserves, affecting 368 families. Leaving room for imprecision due to lack of exact data, these numbers of families could rise even higher.

The study predicts resource losses will be most significant in regions suffering from fires, mining and illegal deforestation. As the livelihoods of families in these areas are anchored mainly in extractivism, as well as small-scale subsistence farming and livestock, the study warns of increased poverty, the exodus of traditional peoples to urban areas, and, in turn, a risk to biodiversity protection.

The top map shows the areas of the Amazon with the lowest and highest concentrations of species that are extracted by traditional communities, on a scale ranging from blue (0) to red (18). In the bottom map, the same areas are analyzed with the climate changes forecasted for 2050: the blue areas grow and the red areas, considered the most suitable for diversity, shrink.

Conservation as a priority

“We evaluated the entire Amazon Basin inside Brazilian territory and found that in the central Amazon there are areas more suitable for species, both in the current climate scenario and especially in the future climate scenario,” says Eisenlohr. “This emphasizes the fact that we need more conservation units there.”

The study indicates that positive growing conditions in the central Amazon stem from it being farther from the forest’s peripheral areas that are more heavily affected by encroaching agricultural and livestock frontiers, habitat fragmentation, fires and other pressures.

The Eixo Forte Settlement where farmer Ladilson Amaral resides is close to such dense forest areas the study says should be prioritized for conservation, but its proximity to the urban center of Santarém has caused it to nevertheless suffer from the impacts of deforestation and microclimatic changes – hence the loss of Brazil nut and açaí trees.

“Since the settlement was created in 2005, we started to work on a reforestation project to recuperate that which brings in more revenue,” he says. “Açaí was the centerpiece.” Families here, according to Amaral, also depend on the forest’s cupuaçu, cassava, coffee and peach palm trees, in addition to personal gardens, chickens and handicrafts.

The study’s scientists advise decision-makers to not only protect existing conservation areas but also to create new ones. They further suggest more scientific research to develop climate resilient plant varieties and distribution of their seeds to extractivist families, as well as programs to manage the existing species most commonly used by traditional communities, including monitoring their populations and storing their seeds.

According to the authors, some of these plants could be what they call “plants of the future” species that are particularly apt for restoration in the transition areas between the biomes of the Cerrado, a tropical savanna in Brazil, and the Amazon. In the northern region of the state of Mato Grosso, the Instituto Centro de Vida (ICV) has a restoration program that places priority on promising species, still under research.

“In addition to ensuring that the forest remains standing and helping to reduce greenhouse gases, we also consider it extremely important that restoration policies are implemented, especially in agricultural frontier lands,” says Eisenlohr. “Here in northern Mato Grosso state, we have a series of restoration programs and projects aimed at providing theoretical support for the best species to be utilized in the reforestation process – those with better chances of withstanding climate change.”

Distribution of some of the main Amazonian native species extracted by the communities in a current and future climate scenario (2050). A: tucumã; B: murumuru; C: babaçu; D: peach palm; E: Brazil nut; F: andiroba; G: copaíba; H: açaí; I: açaí-solteiro J: rubber tree; K: buriti; L: patauá; M: bacaba; N: bacuri; O: cajá; P: cocoa; Q: cupuaçu; A: ucuuba.

This story was produced in collaboration with Landscape News to raise awareness of topics relevant to the upcoming Global Landscapes Forum’s Amazonia Digital Conference: The Tipping Point (September 21-23, 2021). Join here.

Banner image of Brazil nut. Image by Marco Simola/CIFOR.   

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