How the Shawi communities of the Peruvian Amazon are adapting to climate change

People | Communities

By Isabel Rowbotham, Co-Editor in Chief

Published December 2nd, 2021

Climate change is taking its toll on the Peruvian Amazon and the Shawi communities living in the Loreto Region of Peru. A study by the Indigenous Health Adaptation to Climate Change (IHACC) project has discovered to what extent climate change has impacted the water systems of these communities, particularly looking at water quality and availability. In short, there is much work to be done to help these communities become more resilient to increasing rainfall, flooding and deforestation in the area.

Climatic changes are occurring at an accelerating rate. These cause rises in sea levels, precipitation and exacerbate extreme weather, such as floods. It is important to assess the impact these changes have on communities around the globe and how these may alter their health and livelihoods.

The Peruvian Amazon is being affected by climate change, increasing the rates of floods that impact indigneous communities living near the Paranapura basin and its many rivers. | Aah-Yeah / Flickr

Scientists from universities in Peru, Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as the Indigenous Health Adaptation to Climate Change (IHACC) project; which also includes researchers from Uganda, have come together to assess the impact of climate change on indigenous communities and empower them to intervene.

‘Projections indicate that the Amazon will experience an increase of 4°C in annual mean surface temperature by 2070’

This collaboration focused on water systems adaptations in the Peruvian Amazon, such as water quality and supply for drinking and other activities, including provisions for droughts and flooding. In terms of weather patterns, the eastern Amazon is expected to get drier, while the western Amazon will get wetter.

A young woman wearing traditional Shawi woven clothing. The Shawi community express concerns about how the changing weather patterns in the last 15 years threaten their livelihoods and access to clean water. | Macoyzv / Instagram

The Shawi community

The Shawi or Chayahuita indigenous communities reside in the Loreto Region of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest. The area has many floodplains and lakes, and the community members use boats as means of navigation. There are approximately 25,000 Shawi who called this place home, some settled near the riverbanks of various rivers in the Paranapura basin (tributaries of the Amazon River). They hold a spiritual relationship governed by reciprocity with the land. In terms of agriculture, most of the Shawi people practice slash and burn as part of their cultivating activities, which predominantly include the banana and the yucca plant.

Loreto is the northernmost district of Peru, a region home to many Shawi communities.| Torres-Slimming / 2021

The project interviewed 64 members of the Shawi community and conducted data collection with the approval of community chiefs. The first part of the interviews allowed researchers to document their experience regarding water security in their daily lives.

Shawi community climate change observations

The Shawi are aware of climate change and how it impacts their communities, most noticeably in the last 15 years.

The communities living around the Paranapura River are concerned about less irregular raining patterns and increased flooding. | debdowd / Unsplash

One of the most important concerns is flooding. A large proportion of families reported that the Armanayacu River, which is the main water source for these communities, had higher levels of water than in previous years due to seasonal changes.

The impact on Shawi livelihoods

More than half of the interviews have observed that even though it rains less often, when it does rain, the chances of flooding are higher. This is consistent with recent reports of extreme floods in the Lower Amazon jungle which threaten access to safe water, access to farming and fishing, and the families’ abilities to diversify their livelihoods.

‘The Armanayacu River, which is the main water source for these communities, had higher levels of water than in previous years due to seasonal changes.’

Additionally, these types of events increase the incidence of airborne infectious diseases such as Dengue, Zika, Chikungunya, Malaria, and other waterborne diseases, including typhoid fever, salmonellosis, enterocolitis and shigellosis.

Climate change in the Peruvian Amazon has made many community members more careful when undertaking even menial activities such as bathing, since water is too hot the current is becoming increasingly stronger. | debdowd / Unsplash

Daily activities such as bathing have also changed, as more often the Shawi are aware of strong currents in the river making swimming more dangerous. Others have noticed the water is too hot to bathe during the day, meaning they have to wait until the evening when the water has cooled down.

Another important concern reported by families is food security; many farmers are rapidly losing plantation crops due to flooding.

Lastly, many locals highlighted their reliance on groundwater, and pointed out two species of palm trees, aguaje and pijuayo, which are important indicators of groundwater availability. This is because they store large quantities of groundwater, and are often used by the community in this regard. Unfortunately, as a result of deforestation, there are fewer palm trees, meaning the locals are losing one of their means of water storage Another reason may be these trees cannot reach the water.

‘As a result of deforestation, there are fewer palm trees, meaning the locals are losing one of their means of water storage.’

Rural communities need better preparedness plans

Many individuals in the community report not having any plans for extreme weather conditions, and in the past have not received support from local authorities. In 2014, for example, the southwestern region of the Amazon rainforest experienced unusually intense weather conditions, having adverse impacts on the unprepared residents.

Shawi families remember a traumatic flood in 2014, many of whom were not prepared for the intense flooding. | Elena Greenlee and Marcos Santos / Impact A Village

It was noted that many rivers overflowed during this period, and water rose 50 centimetres in the Loreto region. Despite this, no efforts were made by local authorities to alert residents. This highlights the need for a rigid preparedness plan by both the government and communities together.

Preventing floods in the area

Deforestation is the main concern for the Shawi’s water system becoming more vulnerable, since it causes floods to have a much more adverse impact. Without deforestation, normally trees would line the banks of the river and provide support and structure when water levels rise. Additionally, when trees are cut down, it results in erosion and river edges collapsing.

‘...when trees are cut down, it results in erosion and river edges collapsing.’

If the problem of deforestation is not addressed soon, the Amazon may reach a 'tipping point', after which the local ecological system could be irreversibly altered. Deforestation is known for affecting water security; a study in 2015 found that deforestation caused by the construction of new roads was affecting the water quality of other indigenous communities of the Peruvian Amazon.

Deforestation is one of the biggest threats which affects riverbanks and their capacity to withstand increasing water levels during flooding. | Diego Giannoni / Flicker

With the expected temperature rise in the area, the lack of trees means there is less shading to the soil. This is another cause of erosion and riverbank instability and collapse.

There have been many calls for the government to intervene to reduce the amount of garbage thrown into the rivers which end up in the Amazon tributaries.

Takeaways from the study

The Shawi community, and other isolated communities in the Peruvian Amazon, require more support from local governments and NGOs to fill in the gaps of current adaptation plans.

The IHACC recommends an alert system for floodings and means of communication for these communities to prepare better.

Deforestation needs to be reduced, especially near riverbanks, which would improve flooding resilience, help keep soil and water temperatures lower and prevent erosion. Another problem to address is the amount of garbage polluting the rivers.

Finally, there is a need to invest in systematic means to monitor weather conditions at the local level, including the use of community-based monitoring programmes.

How you can help

Allies of the Shawi communities have created the Shawi Project, a means for them to preserve their heritage, including language, culture and land. They have partnered with Shawi communities to provide elementary schools for children, solar power and other technologies such as laptops and secure funding for medical clinics. They are also helping to set up aquaculture practices in rivers, clothing and weaving manufacturing centres and are promoting sustainable forestry and woodwork practices.

You can donate here: Shawi Project Go Fund Me

Support Schools in Peru here: Impact A Village

Support Eda Zavala, a Peruvian curandera and learn more about her Indigenous Projects.

Featured Image: Anna & Michal | Flickr / Macoyzv | Instagram

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