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Climate change and an unpredictable Amazon

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Climate change impacts go beyond sea-level rise. Inland areas unaffected by sea-level rise have instead been struck by increasingly extreme weather.

Fishermen with harpoons out on one of the varzea lakes in search fruit-eating fish in the Flooded forest near Santarem, Para, Brazil. Communities that rely on the flood cycles of the Amazon are increasingly grappling with deluge and drought.

Brazilian communities in the Amazon are struggling with flooding, high winds and drought. “Growing food here has become very difficult,” says Marlene Rêgo Rocha. “The wet season strikes too early—and evermore strongly—and there is not enough time to plant and harvest anything.”

Rocha, 51, lives in Igarapé do Costa, a village in northern Brazil on the margins of the Amazon River. The area experiences only two seasons: winter, when it pours, and summer, the dry season.

Climate change has made the weather ferocious and increasingly unpredictable. “In the winter, the river rises almost three meters, leaving everyone separated by the water,” says Rocha. “During the summer, we must walk up to three kilometres to reach the waters of the Amazonas.”

Traditionally farmers worked around the monsoons. “When I was young, I used to work in the fields with my mother,” says Rocha. “We grew cassava and jute—our family and many others lived on these products.”

But growing these crops has become impossible. “The river’s waters rise too early and much faster than in the past.” To grow tomatoes, onions, wild mustard and other fresh produce for her family, Rocha plants, in the soil, in the summer but then must transfer everything to a styrofoam container in a suspended field behind her house. Her chickens similarly live on a suspended platform for half the year.

On the várzea, or floodplains, of the lower Amazon in northwest Brazil, floods have also been a way of life. Natural water level fluctuations can be as much ten metres. Again, climate change has made these natural cycles erratic and intense, with devastating consequences. Unsustainable land use has exacerbated the problem and deforestation has depleted natural resources, leaving the land vulnerable. Health, homes and livelihoods are under threat.

Last year, in 2014, northwest Brazil experienced the worst floods in a century. Extreme flooding normally occurs in 10-year cycles. However, there were significant overflows in 2012 and 2013. Recent years have also seen severe droughts.

WWF has worked in northern and northwest Brazil for over 20 years, helping its residents to develop sustainable livelihoods and protect biodiversity. In the várzea, WWF has helped build better homes on new, higher stilts; planted reeds as protective buffers around properties and crops; and also helped to protect and monitor key species, such as the pirarucu–a large catfish prized by commercial fisheries.

Environmentalists have also helped the communities to organise and work cooperatively to protect their interests. “With community cohesion people are more organised, take better decisions, are vigilant about exploitation and engage better with government,” says Damian Fleming, head of the WWF’s Amazon programme.

“I hope our village can stay here for ever, in this exact place,” says Rocha. “It is good to be near nature and my family and that is why we have to do everything possible to be able to live here.”

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