Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Indigenous People May Be the Amazon’s Last Hope

Popular
Indigenous People May Be the Amazon’s Last Hope
This combination of pictures shows portraits of (L to R up) Suwerika Waiapi, Eriana Aromaii and Sykyry Waiapi; (L to R down) Kurija Waiapi, Ruwana Waiapi and Siurima Waiapi at the Waiapi indigenous reserve in Amapa state, Brazil on Oct.14, 2017. The tiny Waiapi tribe is resisting moves by the Brazilian government to open the region of pristine rainforest known as Renca, National Copper Reserve to international mining companies. APU GOMES / AFP / Getty Images

Brazil's divisive President Jair Bolsonaro has taken another step in his bold plans to develop the Amazon rainforest.


A bill he is sponsoring, now before Congress, would allow transportation infrastructure to be built on indigenous territory. Such lands cover 386,000 square miles of the Brazilian Amazon — one-fifth of the jungle. Here, Native people are constitutionally entitled to exercise sovereignty over resource use.

The right-wing Bolsonaro administration says "opening" the Amazon will boost its economy. But environmentalists, indigenous leaders and other concerned Brazilians say that the move will promote mining, logging and other damaging activities.

As evidence, they cite Bolsonaro's appointment of a Brazilian general who last year served on the board of the Canadian mining giant Belo Sun to lead Brazil's federal agency for indigenous peoples.

Our research on social movements in the Amazon takes us to areas affected by infrastructure development. There, we have witnessed the disheartening aftermath for Native people and met the indigenous leaders fighting to save their homelands.

Riches Now in Reach

The Amazon possesses a wealth of minerals including gold, diamonds, iron ore, manganese, copper, zinc and tin. But the region is so remote, with its southern edge lying 1,000 miles from Rio de Janeiro, that resource extraction was long limited by transportation costs.

This began to change in the 1970s, when Brazil's military government built several new highways through the Amazon. It paid little heed to the desires or safety of the 140,000 Native people living there.

Terrible abuses occurred, including the military's systematic killing from 1967 to 1977 of up to 2,000 Waimiri-Atroari people to make way for a road to the Amazonian capital of Manaus.

The territorial aggressions culminated in the 1980s, when up to 40,000 wildcat miners invaded the Yanomami homeland looking for gold. An estimated 20% of the resident indigenous population perished from disease and violence over a seven-year period. Today there are about 900,000 indigenous people in Brazil.

After democracy was restored in 1985, Brazil got a new constitution that codified indigenous rights, including the right to aboriginal homelands. Because so much of the Amazon is indigenous territory, indigenous sovereignty became instrumental to Brazilian environmental policy.

The connection between indigenous communities and conservation is global. Indigenous people make up 5% of the world's population, but their homelands hold 85% of its biodiversity. This can make indigenous people extremely effective environmental defenders, because in fighting for their ancestral territory they protect some of the world's most pristine places.

A World in Peril

At the turn of the millennium, Brazil was generally considered a good steward of the Amazon.

About a decade into the 21st century, however, environmental policy began to weaken to allow more infrastructure development in the Amazon. By 2016, some 34,000 square miles of the Brazilian Amazon had lost its previously protected status or seen protections reduced.

Indigenous sovereignty, however, was never called into question — until now. Since taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro has also cut funds for the enforcement of Brazil's strict environmental laws, leading Amazon deforestation to spike.

Brazil's president has long seen protected indigenous land as a treasure trove of resources. In 2015 then-Congressman Bolsonaro told the newspaper Campo Grande News that "gold, tin and magnesium are in these lands, especially in the Amazon, the richest area in the world."

"I'm not getting into this nonsense of defending land for the Indians," he added.

Bolsonaro defends his current efforts to build in the Amazon as a means of assimilating native Brazilians so they will no longer need their territorial homelands.

"The Indian has changed, he is evolving and becoming more and more a human being like us. What we want is to integrate him into society," he said in a video posted to social media in January.

The statement prompted a lawsuit by indigenous Brazilians accusing the president of racism, a crime in Brazil.

Resistance as Conservation

Accelerating deforestation under Bolsonaro has sparked violence in the Amazon.

Seven indigenous land activists were killed in 2019, according to the Brazilian not-for-profit Pastoral Land Commission, the most in over a decade. Indigenous environmental leaders in the Colombian and Ecuadorian Amazon have also been murdered.

Such killings mostly go unsolved. But Brazil's Indigenous Peoples Association says one indigenous activist killed in 2019, Paulo Guajajara, was gunned down by illegal loggers in November for defending Guajajara territory as part of an armed group called Guardians of the Forest.

"We are protecting our land and the life on it," Guajajara told Reuters shortly before his murder. "We have to preserve this life for our children's future."

Indigenous Brazilians have also defended their land in court.

In 2012, the Munduruku sued to stop the construction of mega-dams and waterways in the Tapajós River Valley — projects that would have ended life as they know it. Federal prosecutors agreed, filing in support of the Munduruku and calling for the suspension of the largest dam's environmental license.

Under legal pressure, the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources in their April 2016 decision curtailed the entire infrastructure plan, conserving 7 percent of the Amazon Basin.

Amazon’s Last Hope

Not every indigenous Brazilian is a born environmentalist. Many mix traditional livelihoods like hunting, fishing and gathering with agriculture and ranching.

Like other farmers who clear forest to plant more crops, indigenous farmers stand to benefit from Bolsonaro's environmental deregulation. The president recently announced his administration would offer credit to indigenous soybean farmers who want to expand their operations.

In Roraima state, the Raposa Serra do Sol people live on land rich with gold, diamonds, copper and a slew of lesser-known metals that Bolsonaro regards as strategic to Brazil's metallurgical economy. Royalty payments to Native peoples who open their land to miners could be substantial.

So far, however, indigenous groups are united in their resistance to federal and corporate interference. They may be the Brazilian Amazon's last hope.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A bald eagle flies over Lake Michigan. KURJANPHOTO / iStock / Getty Images Plus

A Michigan bald eagle proved that nature can still triumph over machines when it attacked and drowned a nearly $1,000 government drone.

Read More Show Less
The peloton ride passes through fire-ravaged Fox Creek Road in Adelaide Hills, South Australia, during the Tour Down Under cycling event on January 23, 2020. Brenton Edwards / AFP / Getty Images

A professional cycling race in Australia is under attack for its connections to a major oil and gas producer, the Guardian reports.

Read More Show Less
UQ study lead Francisca Ribeiro inspects oysters. The study of five different seafoods revealed plastic in every sample. University of Queensland

A new study of five different kinds of seafood revealed traces of plastic in every sample tested.

Read More Show Less
Cottongrass blows in the wind at the edge of Etivlik Lake, Alaska. Western Arctic National Parklands / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

A large patch of leaked oil and the vessel MV Wakashio near Blue Bay Marine Park off the coast of southeast Mauritius on Aug. 6, 2020. AFP via Getty Images

The environmental disaster that Mauritius is facing is starting to appear as its pristine waters turn black, its fish wash up dead, and its sea birds are unable to take flight, as they are limp under the weight of the fuel covering them. For all the damage to the centuries-old coral that surrounds the tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean, scientists are realizing that the damage could have been much worse and there are broad lessons for the shipping industry, according to Al Jazeera.

Read More Show Less

Trending

A quality engineer examines new solar panels in a factory. alvarez / Getty Images

Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.