Climate change is already driving migration in the Brazilian Amazon

The state of the art on climate-induced migration

As the climate crisis takes centre stage in presidential elections, trade talks and United Nations debates, climate-related migration is rising as a critical issue demanding global attention. The World Bank predicts that by 2050, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America alone will generate 143 million internal climate migrants - defined as people who are forced to move within their countries' borders due to the slow-onset impacts of climate change on livelihoods, owing to shifts in water availability and crop productivity, or to factors such as sea level rise or storm surge. And these numbers leave out those who migrate to a new country altogether, as well as people displaced by sudden-onset events.

Yet, policy debates still fail to capture the climate dimension of migration.  This failure masks an important reality: climate-driven mobility, through voluntary movements, seasonal migration, or displacement, is already taking place. Main reasons to flee range from sudden-onset climate and weather-related disasters such as floods, forest fires and intensified storms and hurricanes, to slow-onset processes, which include desertification, temperature rise, rainfall pattern shifts, sea level rise, air pollution and loss of biodiversity.

Even though climate-induced migration and displacement are global phenomena – from  wildfires on the western coast of the United States, to the worst storm in Mozambique’s historyin 2019 – their impacts are unevenly distributed. Populations with high rates of poverty, poor access to public services, as well as those who rely on natural environments to ensure their basic livelihoods, are not only placed at higher risk by climate change, but are also more critically affected when its effects take place.

 

Climate change is triggering migration in the Brazilian Amazon

With stark inequalities, record levels of forest fires, increasing temperatures, significant changes in rainfall patterns and growing environmental degradation fuelled by major infrastructure projects and widespread environmental crimes, the Amazon basin combines all the major, interlinked, socio-economic and climate-related triggers of migration.

Despite a scarcity of research and data quantifying the climate-migration nexus in the Amazon region, there is growing evidence that climate-related events, such as prolonged droughts and periods of heavy rainfall, are already provoking soil erosion and land degradation, hampering access to drinking water, reducing fish and agriculture stocks, and exacerbating competition over natural resources. In the Brazilian Amazon, droughts compromise river navigation and, consequently, the local communities' access to services such as health and education, as well as the supply of water, food and fuel.

This combination of factors severely disrupts the livelihoods, health and food security of Amazonian forest inhabitants, especially indigenous peoples, riverside dwellers, fishermen and other traditional communities. For indigenous groups, whose identities rely on the collective access to the land and waters traditionally occupied by their ancestors, migration as a climate adaptation strategy is the very last resort. However, it is also often the only viable survival strategy due to a combination of climate and security risks. This has been the reality faced by uncontacted indigenous tribes who, in order to protect themselves from the rampant fires in the Brazilian Amazon, are being forced to move to different forest areas, or even to cities, where they end up marginalized and discriminated against.

These climate migration dynamics are even starker for Amazonian women, girls, female African descendants (quilombolas) and LGBTI+ people, who already face deep, historical gender inequalities and vulnerabilities. For example, indigenous women, in addition to suffering from unequal access to land, are also disproportionately affected by climate-related health complications, including anemia and malnutrition, which are linked to food, water and agricultural production scarcity. Children suffer the most from respiratory diseases associated with droughts, increased fire incidence, enhanced aerosol emissions and degrading air quality. In the first half of 2019, over 30,000 children were hospitalised in the Brazilian Amazon due to respiratory problems. Eventually, the combination of health insecurity and long-term loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation makes it impracticable for children and their families to remain in rural areas of the Amazon, forcing them to move to nearby towns and cities.

At the same time, Amazonian peoples, including women, also play a significant role in coming up with innovative and creative solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change and, consequently, prevent displacement. In one of the few remaining intact areas of the Amazon forest in the Brazilian state of Maranhão, indigenous women from the Guajajara ethnicity – known as forest warriors – are organising periodic patrols with the use of drones to monitor and protect an area of 173 thousand hectares, which has seen a sharp decrease in deforestation since the patrols were introduced in 2018. Indigenous communities there are also at the forefront of forest conservation and environmental regeneration initiatives, including reforestation, planting and exchanging native seeds and medicinal plants, as well as revitalising rivers and river sources.

 

How to help Amazonian people tackle climate change and prevent climate-induced migration?

Firstly, it is essential to encourage and invest on research on and around the triggers, trends, and dynamics of climate-induced migration in the Amazon region. Without reliable and disaggregated data to identify the groups of people most affected by the climate and migration nexus, policy responses to address their needs and demands are unlikely to emerge. External actors and the international community can act as important players in this knowledge production process. They could do so both by facilitating cooperation between Global North and Global South institutions and research programmes that value and integrate local expertise and professionals, as well as by funding initiatives led by Amazonian universities and research institutes.

Secondly, policymakers should not view migration and planned relocation as the only climate adaptation strategies available, and instead consider implementing other mitigation, adaptation and resilience measures to allow those who consider migration as a last resort to remain in their places of origin. Climate diplomacy can help by bringing affected communities to the table, and opening communication channels between government agencies, civil society and population groups. Diplomacy and mediation strategies should prioritise establishing consensus to facilitate the creation of norms, legislation and public policies that clearly define the multiple forms of climate-related mobility, and identify the key needs and rights of affected communities. Finally, it is time for climate migration and its interlinked drivers in the Amazon to emerge from their relative invisibility; both policymakers and the international climate community must no longer treat this phenomenon as a future and distant possibility, but as a present reality that requires urgent action.

 

Maiara Folly is Programme Director of Plataforma CIPÓ, a new research institute based in Brazil aimed at promoting climate action, better global and regional governance and peacebuilding in Brazil and Latin America and the Caribbean. Erika Pires Ramos is the Founder of RESAMA, the South American Network for Environmental Migrations, and a researcher at the Latin American Observatory on Human Mobility, Climate Change and Disasters (MOVE-LAM).