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Published May 1, 2013 06:21 AM

Climate Change is Already Affecting the Amazon

Tribal groups in Earth's largest rainforest are already being affected by shifts wrought by climate change, reports a paper published last week in the British journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.


The paper, which is based on a collection of interviews conducted with indigenous leaders in the Brazilian Amazon, says that native populations are reporting shifts in precipitation patterns, humidity, river levels, temperature, and fire and agricultural cycles. These shifts, measured against celestial timing used by indigenous groups, are affecting traditional ways of life that date back thousands of years.

"Indigenous groups who have lived in the Amazon for centuries, even millennia, are seeing signs that the climate is changing there," said Steve Schwartzman, lead author of the study and director of tropical forest policy at Environmental Defense Fund. "Indigenous people are telling us rainfall and river levels have changed; the fires they’re dealing with are different now; and the climate systems they used to depend on for growing crops have become unpredictable."

In particular, indigenous interviewees mention concerns about drier conditions making it more difficult to control fires traditionally used for small-scale rotational agriculture. For generations, indigenous farmers set fires based on the position of stars in the sky — reflecting the time of year — with the expectation that the fires wouldn't spread into humid forest areas. But drier conditions today mean that savanna fires can easily move into rainforests, damaging them and reducing their capacity to withstand drought and future burning.

Amazon fisherman image via Shutterstock.

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