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Amazonian biodiversity protects health, livelihoods

Striding along an overgrown path in the woods, Micaela Fachín stops beside an ishpingo tree (Amburana cearensis), strokes the bark and squints up the tall, straight trunk. “I planted this years ago,” she says. “I won’t see it grow to maturity, but it will be here for my children or their children.”

Her grove of banana trees — for family consumption and for sale — is not far away, and there are some papaya trees here and there. But all around are forest species that have particular and, in some cases, peculiar uses. Some sprouted naturally, while others grew from seedlings she planted.

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Fachin-1. Micaela Fachín stands in a grove of bolaina trees that have grown up in a fallow field near her home in the Shipibo community of Roya, in Peru’s Ucayali region. (Photo by Barbara Fraser)

Bolaina (Guazuma crinita), which is one of the first species to grow in a field left fallow, will be ready to be used for building in a few years. The red and black seeds of the huayruro (Ormosia coccinea) are prized for making jewelry and other handcrafts. There is slow-growing cedar, along with a shrub called chacruna (Psychotria viridis) and a woody vine, Banisteriopsis caapi. Shamans mix these last two to make ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew used in rituals.

Like countless generations of Amazonian people before her, Fachín relies on a combination of food crops and forest products to provide for her family. This diversity—both natural and agricultural—provides a varied diet and an assortment of goods ranging from natural dyes and medicines to palm fronds for roof thatch.

The variety is partly due to the seasonal changes along rivers like the Ucayali in eastern Peru, where Fachín lives in the small Shipibo Indian community of Roya. Although precipitation occurs year-round in the Amazon region, there is a “dry” season and a “rainy” season.

The rainy season, which begins around November, is marked by a steady rise in water levels, as rivers overflow their steep banks, and flood forests and villages.

The flooding can bring hardship, washing away or rotting banana and cassava plants, staples of the Amazonian diet. Game becomes scarcer as animals retreat to higher ground.

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Fishermen check their nets in high water on a tributary of Peru’s Ucayali River. (Photo by Barbara Fraser)

But the flood season also brings bounty. High water connects the rivers to oxbow lakes where fish spawn. And when the waters subside, beginning in May or June they leave a layer of nutrient-rich sediment in the forest and in riverside fields where people will plant the next year’s banana, cassava and rice crops.

People have traditionally taken advantage of those crops during the dry season, storing what they can in order to provide sustenance through the rainy season. They also harvest seasonal products, such as aguaje, the fruit of the Mauritia flexuosa palm. They sell surplus crops and fruit to traders who ply the rivers in long wooden boats.

By cultivating crops and gathering forest fruits, along with hunting and fishing, people who live in villages along Amazonian rivers have adapted to a world that may appear difficult, or even hostile, to someone who was raised in a city.

But those traditional lifeways are now threatened by a combination of economic factors, social shifts and climate change. In 2005, the Peruvian Amazon suffered a drought so severe that scientists thought it would only  happen about once a century. Five years later, however, it happened again.

The next year, 2011, brought river levels that were higher than usual. The flooding even damaged crops in places that villagers considered high ground. Those events, combined with economic need, forced more people to move to Pucallpa, the nearest city, where traditional ways of gathering food from field and forest are impossible, says Mya Sherman, who studied how people in one Shipibo community adapt to climate change as part of a three-country research project sponsored by McGill University in Montréal and Canada’s International Development Research Centre.

If extreme drought and severe flooding become more frequent with climate change, as some climate models predict, they could affect the diversity of forest vegetation. That could make some game animals scarcer, with an impact on human nutrition and human health that could ripple through several generations.

Besides being the main source of protein for villagers in the Amazon region, fish and wild animals provide important micronutrients such as calcium, iron and Vitamin C, according to a study led by Nathalie van Vliet of the Center for International Forestry Research.

If those animals disappear because of severe flooding or because changes in the forest reduce their food supply, people would have to settle for less protein, purchase other types of meat, raise animals such as chickens, or migrate to the city in search of jobs.

All of those options are likely to result in poorer nutrition, researchers say.

Meanwhile, Fachín is banking on her mix of farm and forest, and the trees she has planted. She hopes her foresight will ensure a better life for her grandchildren.

Read here about Chief Salaton Ole Ntutu who lives on another continent — Africa. He started a tourist camp and cultural center to educate visitors and locals about traditional Maasai knowledge, medicinal plants, and corridors for wildlife migrations. He notes that there is a need to create harmony between people and their natural surroundings, and between people and the animals that share the same land.

Barbara Fraser Bio Photo
Barbara Fraser

Twenty-five years of living and traveling in Latin America have taught Barbara Fraser how closely people’s lives are intertwined with their environment and how climate and “development” are changing that relationship for better or for worse. She has told stories from communities high in the Andes Mountains, up remote Amazonian rivers and on an island at the very southern tip of South America. You can see more of her work at www.barbara-fraser.com