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A Struggle to Survive

How climate change is threatening the existence of small tribes in the Amazon and other traditional cultures across the globe

By Elisabeth Rosenthal in Xingu National Park, Brazil


As the naked, painted young men of the Kamayurá tribe in the Amazon prepare for the ritualized war games of a festival, they end their fireside chant with a "whoosh, whoosh" blowing sound. It's a symbolic attempt to eliminate the scent of fish—long a staple of the Kamayurá diet—which in times of war signaled their presence to their enemies.

But fish smells are not a problem for the warriors anymore. Deforestation and, many scientists say, global climate change are making the Amazon region drier and hotter, decimating fish stocks and imperiling the Kamayurá's existence. Like other small indigenous cultures around the globe with little money or ability 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," says Kotok, the tribe's chief. Chief Kotok, who has three wives and 24 children and like all of the Kamayurá goes by only one name, says men can now fish all night without a bite in streams where fish used to be abundant. As a result, he says his once-idyllic existence has 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 says in Portuguese, Brazil's primary language. "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 Kamayurá aren't alone in fearing for their futures. If global temperatures continue to rise, anthropologists are worried about a wave of cultural extinction for dozens of small indigenous groups.

Cultures threatened by climate change span the globe. Rainforest residents like the Kamayurá face dwindling food supplies. In the Arctic, some Eskimo communities have lost their only roads—frozen rivers that are now flowing most of the year—and melting sea ice is threatening to wash away coastal communities. Residents of low-lying islands, many in the South Pacific, could lose their land altogether to rising sea levels.

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

"In some places, people will have to move to preserve their culture," says Gonzalo Oviedo of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in Switzerland. "But some of those that are small and marginal will assimilate and disappear."

Eating Ants & Monkeys

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 the 2-million-square-mile Amazon forest have been cut down annually in recent years, according to the Brazilian government. With far less foliage, there is less moisture in the regional water cycle, making seasonal rains unpredictable and leaving the climate drier and hotter.

That has upended the cycles of nature that long regulated Kamayurá life. Fish stocks began to dwindle in the 1990s and "have just collapsed" since 2006, says Chief Kotok, who is now 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, so they are not reproducing.

To make do without fish, Kamayurá children are eating ants on their traditional spongy flatbread, made from tropical cassava flour. Sometimes members of the tribe kill monkeys for their meat, but, Chief Kotok says, "You have to eat 30 monkeys to fill your stomach."

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

The tribe's agriculture has also suffered. Last year, families had to plant their cassava four times—it died in September, October, and November because there wasn't enough moisture in the ground. It wasn't until December that the planting took.

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 says. "We had nowhere to escape. We suffered along with the animals."