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Climate change’s hunger cost

Xingu National Park (Brazil), July 25: As the naked, painted young men of the Kamayurá tribe prepare for the ritualised war games of a festival, they end their haunting fireside chant with a blowing sound — “whoosh, whoosh” — a symbolic attempt to eliminate the scent of fish so they will not be detected by enemies.

For centuries, fish from jungle lakes and rivers have been a staple of the Kamayurá diet, the tribe’s primary source of protein.

But fish smells are not a problem for the warriors anymore. Deforestation and, some scientists contend, global climate change are making the Amazon region drier and hotter, decimating fish stocks in this area and imperiling the Kamayurá’s very existence.

Like other small indigenous cultures around the world with little money or capacity to move, they are struggling to adapt to the changes.

“Us old monkeys can take the hunger, but the little ones suffer — they’re always asking for fish,” said Kotok, the tribe’s chief, who stood in front of a hut containing the tribe’s sacred flutes on a recent evening. He wore a white T-shirt over the tribe’s traditional dress, which is basically nothing.

Chief Kotok, who like all of the Kamayurá people goes by only one name, said that men can now fish all night without a bite in streams where fish used to be abundant; they safely swim in lakes previously teeming with piranhas.

Responsible for 3 wives, 24 children and hundreds of other tribe members, he said his once-idyllic existence had turned into a kind of bad dream.

“I’m stressed and anxious — this has all changed so quickly, and life has become very hard,” he said in Portuguese, speaking through an interpreter. “As a chief, I have to have vision and look down the road, but I don’t know what will happen to my children and grandchildren.”

The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change says that up to 30 per cent of animals and plants face an increased risk of extinction if global temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius in coming decades. But anthropologists also fear a wave of cultural extinction for dozens of small indigenous groups — the loss of their traditions, their arts, their languages.

“In some places, people will have to move to preserve their culture,” said Gonzalo Oviedo, a senior adviser on social policy at the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Gland, Switzerland. “But some of those that are small and marginal will assimilate and disappear.”

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