Stories articles Amazonia

Riverboat trapped on a sandbank during one of the worst droughts ever recorded in the Brazilian Amazon.

Boat trapped on a sandbank in the Brazilian Amazon during one of the worst droughts ever recorded in the region. Photo: © Greenpeace / Daniel Beltrá

November 3, 2023

Historic Drought Threatens Indigenous Lives and Ecosystems in the Amazon

As extreme climate-related events exert an increasingly significant impact on the planet, Indigenous Peoples bear a disproportionately heavy burden.

"Our Indigenous science, which is the result of thousands of centuries of management and coexistence with the forest, has for years warned of the risks to which an unsustainable and outdated development model, which seeks only profit, exposes the Amazon, its people – in villages and cities – and their biodiversity. We, Indigenous Peoples, have been experiencing the effects of climate change for a long time and have been talking about it to the world for years, but many insist on not listening. When we fight against projects that violate our rights, our territories and our ways of life, we are fighting for our Mother Earth. The planet depends on the health of the Amazon, and it is sick. Anyone who doubted our original knowledge can now witness the environmental collapse here in Amazonas. Therefore, the Articulation of Indigenous Organizations and Peoples of Amazonas (APIAM) and the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (Coiab) reinforce: We are experiencing a CLIMATE EMERGENCY!"

The passage above is an excerpt from an open letter authored by the Articulation of Indigenous Organizations and Peoples of Amazonas (APIAM) and the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (Coiab) in the Brazilian Amazon. It sheds light on the numerous adverse consequences of the ongoing historic drought in the region, which poses a significant threat to the lives of Indigenous Peoples, local communities and entire ecosystems there.

As a result of the drought in the Amazon, numerous rivers have now reached their lowest water levels in decades. Water tributaries have completely disappeared, leaving several Indigenous and riverine communities without potable water or access to navigation routes.

Simultaneously, the drought is causing the destruction of crops and the disappearance of animals that are important for the sustenance of Indigenous Peoples. There is also a shortage of basic supplies, such as food and mineral water, in urban regions like the town of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, in the Upper Negro River region, where the vast majority of the population is Indigenous.

Extreme situations such as this underscore the multifaceted risks that the climate crisis poses to the Earth and all living beings in the present and future.

The rise in sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, attributed to El Niño, has amplified the ebb currents of Amazonian rivers. Nevertheless, scientists anticipate that climate change will lead to an increased frequency and severity of such events, including in the Amazon region.

Deepening Impact on People, Waters, Air and Fish

In the Brazilian state of Amazonas, one of the most heavily affected by the drought, the Articulation of Indigenous Organizations and Peoples of Amazonas (APIAM) is calling for immediate action to safeguard the well-being of all 63 local Indigenous communities highly vulnerable to ever-more evident extreme climate-related events.

Mariazinha Baré (Baré People), who serves as the coordinator of APIAM, has reported that Indigenous communities are grappling with respiratory ailments and gastrointestinal issues. These health problems come as consequences of exposure to air pollution, contaminated water sources, and smoke emanating from unlawful fires both within and outside Indigenous territories.

“We live in the largest freshwater river basin in the world, but we don’t have quality water in the villages. As the streams have dried up, many people are isolated in their territories. Children cannot travel to other communities to attend school,” reports Mariazinha Baré from Manaus, Brazil. “We will have to pay attention to the many impacts that the drought is bringing. We think these changes will happen more frequently, so we have to be prepared.”

The Rio Negro, one of the main tributaries of the Amazonas River, has hit its lowest water level in 121 years. Merely two years after enduring the most substantial flood on record, local communities have expressed to Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) that the current drought feels akin to "the water boiling" before their eyes.

The rising water temperatures have been responsible for the reported deaths of millions of fish. Notably, the Tefé River in the Brazilian state of Amazonas has reached approximately 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), which drove scientists to relocate the region's rare red dolphins and tucuxis in a bid to ensure their survival.

Whereas authorities estimated that the drought had affected over 500 thousand people in the state of Amazonas by mid-October, experts estimate it may continue for as long as January 2024.

Indigenous Peoples and local communities are among those who suffer the most from the impacts of climate change. They are, however, the least responsible for the climate crisis as they have acted as guardians of much of the world’s ecosystems since time immemorial.

“Everyone suffers the negative impacts of a natural imbalance, but we are the ones most impacted. We are the first affected because we are on the front line,” said Baré. “If we still want to have the Amazon, a change of attitude will be necessary. Countries need to fulfill the commitments they make at the COP. Now is the time to act.”

Multiple Indigenous Struggles

As signs of human vulnerability in the face of the climate crisis become more evident, threats to Indigenous Peoples, ecosystems, and the climate mount. Indigenous Peoples face numerous social and political challenges in the defense of their rights in Brazil, where the agribusiness sector holds significant power in Congress.

In recent weeks, the Indigenous resistance against the 'Time Frame' bill, also referred to as 'Marco Temporal' in Brazil, has garnered international recognition and solidarity. Brazil's President Lula da Silva vetoed certain portions of the bill. However, Indigenous Peoples continue to battle against risks stemming from the approved parts of the bill or any potential efforts by Congress to push forward and advance perilous proposals that could undermine Indigenous rights.

In essence, political efforts to jeopardize Indigenous ancestral land guardianship pose a threat to the immediate and long-term welfare of Indigenous communities, as well as to the overall well-being of the planet and humanity as a whole.

In the face of these multiple struggles, Indigenous Peoples are urgently calling for their voices to be heard, advocating for the preservation of their rights, and emphasizing the profound significance of their cause for the well-being of all life on Earth and, ultimately, the shared future of humanity.