Indigenous Peoples and the Perception of Global Warming in Latin America

The first time that western countries gathered to talk about global warming and the importance of the environment was in 1972 during the Stockholm conference. By that time, indigenous communities had known for several decades that global warming and climate change was occurring, having seen first-hand the impact on their environment. Indigenous people are mainly farmers, fishers and hunters that possess a hereditary environmental knowledge and foster a close relationship with their natural environment. With their experience and knowledge, they can notice even the slightest changes in water cycles, soil, flora and fauna, and weather.  (Cherrington, 2010)

Since 2000, Indigenous groups have been noticing a gradual increase in the Amazon’s temperature both day to day and yearly. In previous years, it was noted that around 6 p.m each day the temperature would drop. Currently however, the heat continues throughout the night. Similarly, annual weather patterns have also been observed to be changing; historically, the Amazon begins to get cooler in the middle of the year during the winter period in July, signaling the beginning of a new year for many Indigenous groups. Around this time the Miriti fruits mature and serve as food for animals in the forest, birds stop singing, many fish in the river die, and it gets colder and windy. According to indigenous peoples this is when earth “menstruates” and the winds come to impregnate it with fruits, animals and humans. (Kronik and Verner, 2010, pp. 17-20)*

However, many indigenous groups claim that the seasons have changed and are becoming less predictable. For example, summer in the Amazon is traditionally dry and windy but recently there has been very little or no wind during this time. There have even been instances of no summer at all, such as in 2007. Winter also seems to be shorter and arriving earlier than usual and has not been as strong as in previous decades. The rain season has also followed irregular patterns in recent years; an Araracuara Indian described it as raining when it should be dry and warm when it should be cold. River levels have also become erratic; on one occasion in 2005, the Amazon receded killing many fish. In the same year it was also extremely dry and wild fires broke out in southwest Brazil and eastern Bolivia, affecting indigenous groups around the Colombian Amazon River.  (Kronik and Verner, 2010, p.21-22)*

Surprisingly, indigenous groups take part of the blame for these changes. They say that even though “white people” are primarily responsible for polluting the atmosphere, they themselves were being neglectful for living their lives in an unsustainable manner, even though they contribute very little to greenhouse gas emission. (Kronik and Verner, 2010, p.24)*

Climate change is often seen as just a global issue, debated by governments and organizations, but these changes in the environment affect everyone, from globally to locally. As previously mentioned, indigenous people feel these changes the most acutely; climate change poses a real and tangible threat to their livelihoods through food uncertainty and debilitated health. It also disturbs the integrity of their culture and weakens the confidence they have in the solutions offered by authorities and organizations. (Kronik and Verner, n.d)

* Kronik, J., & Verner, D. (2010). Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon. Indigenous peoples and climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean (pp. 15-41). Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

*This Article is adapted from my master’s thesis: ‘Sustainable Development & Green Economy: the planet’s future or greening indigenous communities into oblivion?’ which was completed as part of the Master’s Curriculum at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Erfurt, Germany.

*Cover image ‘Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest’ by  CIFOR

2 responses to “Indigenous Peoples and the Perception of Global Warming in Latin America

  1. Catherine,
    There was a documentary from, oh, ten years ago that was filmed in South America which dealt with climate changes. A tribe that very rarely had contact with outsiders understood the severity of the problem from seeing the profound decrease in snow on the mountains (Andes maybe?), so they allowed a film crew in to give a warning to the world. I think it was on LinkTV’s “Global Spirit” and the tribe was Yanumami (I think). From their view, because the snow provided the water for life, all life on Earth was at risk. It was a powerful message and film.
    After seeing you attended Willy Brandt School, it reminded me of picking up a book he wrote and learning for the first time that 30-40,000 children die every day of starvation and curable disease. The thought never left me that, up until reading Brandt’s book, I had absolutely no idea of this obscene statistic – I had never seen anything on TV reporting this world reality.

  2. Thanks for the comment Jerry, glad you liked the article.
    Indigenous people are always in contact with nature, so they are the first ones to feel and be affected by any changes in the environment.
    The tribe you mentioned will probably be the Yanomami tribe, they live in a stretch of land on the border between Brazil and Venezuela, a remote location and lightly protected. I had a look on youtube and discovered that there was a film about this tribe in 2000 called Painted Spirits – Yanomami. I didn’t manage to watch it yet but I definitely will.

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