n September 2014, a report published by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) found that 20.6 million people were displaced by extreme weather events in 2013. That’s almost three times as many as those fleeing current conflicts.
The number one cause of global relocation now is climate change – yet there is no international recognition for the status of climate change refugees, and no insurance policies for them. They are in the shadows of international media, and often have little access to support in their home countries.
In a cruel irony, some of the world’s most fragile communities – the ones most closely connected to the natural world, who have lived most sustainably and have had the least impact on our changing climate – are the first to suffer as a result of its changes.
In October, I travelled for three days to visit two Yawanawá indigenous communities deep in the Amazon. We slept in hammocks in wooden houses, enjoyed the company of friendly people, and spent time with the village shaman, who told us of birds freezing in trees the week prior to our arrival owing to excessive cold at night. When I thanked one of the women for hosting us, she said: “We don’t own this land; we are merely its caretakers. So our house is open to visitors, and you are always welcome.”
A few weeks after we left, the Gregório river oveflowed, wiping out five villages, destroying four years worth of handicrafts and carpentry and leaving hundreds of people homeless. The cause of the flooding is unknown but it is suspected to be related to the intense deforestation of the land, with local areas of illegal logging a possible contributory factor.
A local shaman, Yawa, who is 101 years old, said that he had never seen or heard of a flood of this magnitude. Given the large-scale deforestation and degradation of the environment, Yawa spoke about “a huge revenge from nature in many places”. Mutum’s chief, Tashka Yawanawá, carried a similar warning message: “We have lived in this territory from time immemorial, and this has never happened. Never in our history. How we see it is that the whole climate is changing. Nature reacts differently now.”
For centuries, the Yawanawá have practised a culture that has only recently been restored after a century of slavery and abuse under rubber-tapper barons and missionaries. The Yawanawá have traditionally lived in close interdependence with the forest around them - they fetch drinking water from wells, eat local plants and animals, build their houses from trees, and even use the local plants medicinally.
Like many indigenous communities, they are at an interesting moment in their history right now: fighting to preserve and embolden the beauty of their culture, yet accepting the practicalities of some technology and working in and with the western capitalist systems that surround them.
Since the 1980s they have had legal rights to the land, and the government is helping to educate them, training teachers in the Yawanawá language. They have an annual festival that brings multiple indigenous communities together, in which outsiders are welcome to partake of their culture. They have temperamental wifi, shared computers and motorboats for the river. However, these elements of modernity did not protect the Yawanawá from the devastating flood. “The water came so fast and strong,” said Tashka. “For three or four days, it was all under water. That was really scary. We lost almost everything we had.”
Their simple wooden houses were destroyed. No one has house insurance.
Indigenous communities are the world’s best conservationists. Asked, at TEDGlobal in October why the Yawanawá have so much land, Tashka explained that they use very little of it and protect the rest. Having lived off the land for thousands of years, they arguably appreciate our human interdependence with nature more than most other cultures do. Unfortunately, the beauty of the Yawanawá’s dependence and coexistence with nature reveals a cruelty, as water tears apart the fragile structures they have built. This is made all the more cruel by the fact that vulnerable communities such as the Yawanawá are some of the first to pay the price for the toys and tools of progress we have played with elsewhere.
Those who live closest to nature are the least likely to have caused climate change, yet they are the first to feel the effects of change.
“What has happened to [the] Yawanawá,” Tashka says: “it’s just a little piece of what is really happening in the world because of climate change and global warming. A lot of people do not believe that this is really happening right now. But people like us, who live with the struggle, know what is happening.”
This article was published by the Guardian in 2014