“Our home, not a cause: the climate crisis leaves riverside communities stranded in the Amazon.”
Pedrina Brito de Mendonça walks through sandy terrain under the hot midday sun, passing by shrubs and driftwood. In the distance, there are sandbanks and cracked mudflats with a line of trees on the horizon. Around an almost stagnant water channel, there is fresh grass growing.
The barren scenery would be attractive if it didn’t serve as a harsh reminder of the impact of the climate crisis on the vast Amazon rainforest. Mendonça is trekking along the parched riverbed of Brazil’s Rio Negro, a once-mighty Amazon tributary now greatly diminished due to a severe drought.
In Manaus, the capital of the Amazon, temperatures have reached over 40C and boats are left in disarray in the dry port. In Tefé, located 500km to the west, abnormally warm waters have led to the death of fish and put endangered dolphin species at risk. The entire rainforest is experiencing an uncommonly dry season, causing concerns for the health and means of living for the traditional populations of the Amazon, including isolated riverine and Indigenous communities who have a delicate and interconnected relationship with their vulnerable ecosystem.
Mendonça, a 40-year-old resident of Saracá, describes the current situation as cruel. The community, which is located near the river, has been abandoned due to the lowering water levels.
Approximately 600,000 individuals have been impacted by the dry spell in Amazonas, the largest state in the Brazilian Amazon region, where rivers function as transportation routes. The number has increased due to a continued decrease in water levels. On October 16th, the Rio Negro reached its lowest point in 121 years at 13.59 meters and continued to lose about 10 centimeters of depth each day in the following week.
Abilio Lopes, a resident of the Indigenous Baré community of São Tomé (although he is Kokama), describes the sudden rise of the beach that blocked the streams and river mouth, creating a difficult situation for them.
In Saracá, residents on the other side of the river are facing a difficult journey to reach the Rio Negro. They must traverse sand and mud for hundreds of meters, cross a shallow section of the river in a canoe, and then climb over a dune to reach the shores. This makes it nearly impossible for large boats to make the two-hour trip to Manaus. Even smaller motorboats face the risk of getting stuck in the shallow waters. For many communities along the river, access is even more difficult as they are now kilometers away from the water’s edge.
This situation is catastrophic for the community that relies on the rivers for sustenance, medicine, drinking water, healthcare and education services, as well as economic endeavors such as fishing, tourism, and selling crops.
Nelson Brito, the leader of the Santa Helena do Inglês community, shared that they are able to produce flour from manioc and fish, but they must purchase other food items in Manaus. The community is typically a 10-minute boat ride from Saracá, but due to the dry riverbed, it now takes a 2km walk. This has caused disruptions such as school closures, suspension of medical visits, and fear of serious illnesses among residents.
Adriana Azevedo de Siqueira, the manager of the community-run guesthouse in the hamlet, mentions that they have a small motorboat but it is currently stuck in a pond. It is impossible to retrieve it and even if they could, the expense of traveling to Manaus would be approximately 800 reais (£130). She questions where they would obtain such funds without a source of income.
Living within the Rio Negro sustainable development reserve, a conservation area, the 200 or so inhabitants of Saracá and Santa Helena do Inglês rely on fishing and tourism for subsistence. The former is getting harder, while the latter has ground to a halt.
Unfortunately, Siqueira had to terminate all future bookings and shut down the guesthouse in late September due to inaccessibility. This closure of tourism resulted in an estimated loss of 200,000 reais (£33,300) for the local communities.
Siqueira acknowledges that our reliance on Bolsa Família, a social program that offers a monthly 600 reais stipend to low-income households, is due to the lack of income from tourism.
Donations from churches, NGOs, and the state government has so far kept the threat of food shortages at bay. “And, thank God, our well hasn’t had a problem yet,” says Siqueira. Access to drinking water is a challenge for many forest communities, with some, like Lopes’s, resorting to drinking the silty water from wells dug in the uncovered mud flats.
Brito remarks that there are individuals who are not as fortunate as us, as he looks out at the dry terrain that would typically be covered by the Rio Negro’s murky waters.
According to scientists, the unusually low levels of precipitation during this dry season can be attributed to the cyclical El Niño weather pattern overlapping with the warming of the tropical North Atlantic Ocean above the equator.
According to Ayan Fleischmann, a researcher at the Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development in Tefé, the combination of two factors often results in a drought in central Amazonia. He states that while they were aware of a potential drought, the severity of it was unexpected. One contributing factor to this extreme drought is believed to be an abnormally hot area in the Atlantic Ocean. Experts attribute the alarming rise in surface temperatures in the North Atlantic to human activities that release heat-trapping gases.
There are other elements that contribute to the severity of the current drought for Amazon communities. This is true even in regions where water levels are higher than the lowest recorded levels during the last extremely dry season in 2010, such as in the upper and middle portions of the Solimões River.
According to Fleischmann, the current situation is more than just a drought. It involves extreme temperatures, an unprecedented amount of fires, and landslides caused by the erosion of riverbanks. A combination of various factors, some related to global warming and others not, have led to this calamity and devastating impact on the environment and human lives.
According to Virgilio Viana, the director of Fundação Amazônia Sustentável (FAS), an NGO in Manaus, this is a situation of climate inequality where the communities that cause the least damage are the ones suffering the most consequences. FAS is currently leading efforts to provide aid packages to riverine communities throughout Amazonas.
October marks the beginning of the rainy season in the Amazon basin, but this year it will take longer for relief to come. According to Marília Guedes, a meteorologist at Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research, the rain has begun but it is not as strong as usual. The forecast predicts that the amount of rain will remain significantly lower than expected until the start of 2024.
The Brasília government has allocated 627 million reais (£104 million) to address the drought. These funds will be used for humanitarian aid, clearing parts of the Solimões and Madeira rivers to improve river navigation, and combating the 3,556 fires that were started in October. However, experts point out that the government is not planning for the future and implementing sufficient policies to help forest communities cope with more frequent and severe weather events.
Aline Radaelli, a sociologist studying the impact of severe weather events on the Indigenous and riverine communities in the Amazon, expresses concern about the current situation and its potential to worsen without proper interventions from public policies.
Lopes from São Tomé expresses distress as he discusses the state of the forest and rivers in his community. He sadly notes how the açaí palms have withered, leading to the relocation of elderly and ill members of the 30 Indigenous families to the city for easier access to medical care.
The 56-year-old traveled to Manaus this month with his wife who was heavily pregnant. He had to pull his boat for over 5km and face a difficult journey, made even more perilous by the dense smoke from the forest fires. Lopes expresses concern for his family and home back in their hometown, and also for his pregnant wife. They are currently staying in a cramped studio as they wait for their new baby to arrive.
Mendonça grew up on the shores of the Rio Negro and the thought of living outside of the forest is unimaginable to her. She explains, “While the Amazon may be a cause for those outside, for us it is our home.”
The entrepreneurial mother-of-three runs a crafts workshop and a restaurant in Saracá, community-based tourism initiatives developed with support from the NGO FAS and resources from the internationally backed Amazon Fund as an alternative to logging after the area became a reserve in 2008.
In the face of the ever-changing climate, she is concerned about what lies ahead. “I am curious about what actions we can take to secure a better future, as the current trajectory looks challenging. I am anxious about our living conditions.”