Thu, Aug 06, 2009 - Page 14 News List

As trees fall in Amazon, tribes are unheard

Reports on climate change tend to focus on rising sea levels, economic concerns and widespread extinction of animals and plants. But anthropologists also fear a wave of cultural extinction for dozens of small indigenous groups

By Elisabeth Rosenthal  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , XINGU NATIONAL PARK, BRAZIL

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Asthe naked, painted young men of the Kamayura tribe prepare for the ritualized 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 Kamayura 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 and imperiling the very existence of the Kamayura. 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.

Kotok, who like all of the Kamayura 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 three 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 though 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 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that as many as 30 percent of animals and plants face an increased risk of extinction if global temperatures rise 2ºC 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.”

To make do without fish, Kamayura children are eating ants on their traditional spongy flatbread, made from tropical cassava flour. “There aren’t as many around because the kids have eaten them,” Kotok said of the ants. Sometimes members of the tribe kill monkeys for their meat, but, the chief said, “You have to eat 30 monkeys to fill your stomach.”

Living deep in the forest with no transportation and little money, he noted, “We don’t have a way to go to the grocery store for rice and beans to supplement what is missing.”

Tacuma, the tribe’s wizened senior shaman, said that the only threat he could remember rivaling climate change was a measles virus that arrived deep in the Amazon in 1954, killing more than 90 percent of the Kamayura.

Cultures threatened by climate change span the globe. They include rain forest residents like the Kamayura who face dwindling food supplies; remote Arctic communities where the only roads were frozen rivers that are now flowing most of the year; and residents of low-lying islands whose land is threatened by rising seas.

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