Building Climate Adaptation Capacity in Amazon Floodplain Communities

By Antonio Oviedo, WWF-Brazil

This story is part of a series on adaptation in the Brazilian Amazon.

Located in the lower Amazon floodplain of Brazil, the Santarém region harbors important fisheries that many people depend on for employment, food security, government tax revenues, and items to export to both domestic and foreign markets. Climate change is creating difficulties, but not without hope and new opportunities as well.

These fisheries and the services that they provide are known to be sensitive to shifts in the climate. Precipitation patterns are shifting in the Santarém region, with the amount of annual rainfall generally decreasing and floods and droughts becoming more common. Livelihoods for most people around these lakes combine farming and fishing, both of which will be negatively affected by a reduction in rainfall. Less rain will have an especially big impact on the local economy through the quantity of fish that are locally harvested. If regional climate forecasts are accurate, rural livelihoods in lakeshore regions will become increasingly precarious over time.

Because of these shifts in climate, many people are migrating in the Santarém region from lake to lake in search of fish. And more people are even moving from rural regions to cities and other areas of greater economic opportunity. The rate people leave their traditional homes will probably increase as rainfall becomes increasingly variable.

Conflicts also arise over the governance of floodplain resources that so many individuals around Santarém depend on. The issue of how to determine rights to resources in lakes and rivers throughout the region is increasingly contentious.  Should they be monitored and regulated by the state control, or should communities decide how and when fish are harvested? Or should all of these decisions be settled by individuals? So far, neither the state nor the market has been uniformly successful in solving common-pool resource problems.

While access to certain “subsistence lakes” is restricted to rural, local communities, the establishment of formal regulation of open-access resources such as fisheries may be an important means to avoid over-exploitation and the resulting degradation of the resource base, in the same way that many harvests of wild species are regulated through hunting or fishing permits globally.

The community of Igarapé do Costa is located on a low sandbank, surrounded by three floodplain lakes called Pacoval, Aramanaí, and Itarim (Figure 1). About 90 families depend on fishing, small gardens and farms, and cattle ranching. Of these, fishing is the main productive activity for 94% of families (Figure 2). During the rainy season, the sandbank is covered by the waters of the Pacoval and Aramanaí lakes, linking the Amazon river and the community. But during the dry season the community is cut off by a massive sandbank and the lakes shrink in size, leaving them 5 km (3 miles) from the mainstream of the river, which is their source of water, transportation, and sustenance. The decreasing amounts of rainfall — especially during drought years — mean that the periods when these communities are separated from the mainstream of the river are getting longer.

The lives of the people of Igarapé do Costa are typical of many people in the Amazon floodplain, especially those located in low sandbanks, far from upland on the banks of river. The key aspect of the Amazon that has determined the ways of life for these communities is the dependable flood pulse that comes every year. Like a clock, it helps regulate the fish species of the Amazon, and the fish regulate the traditional livelihoods and economy for millions of people.

Changes in the rain result in changes in the flood pulse, which alters seasonal fish movement between the river’s mainstem and the surrounding lakes and wetlands and disrupts the livelihoods of the people. These characteristics make the record of the environmental aspects of climate change and responses of the community´s floodplain a critical element for social environmental sustainability in the region in the coming decades. The implementation of the Climate Witness Project in the community of Igarapé do Costa gives an important contribution to the generation of knowledge.

In my future entries I will present results of the Climate Witness Project that has been implemented in the community of Igarapé do Costa and Santarém region. My analysis considers the study of environmental and social adaptations to climate change at the local level in light of the inherent variability of floodplain ecosystems and the community’s capacity for adaptation.