- Living along the rivers of the Amazon rainforest, many imagine, would make for a sustainable diet packed full of freshwater fish. But a recent study finds this is not the case. A combination of interacting factors is now causing many poor families in riverine communities to go hungry.
- Researchers found that Amazon fish catch rates are naturally 73% lower in the highwater season. In the past, this lull was supplemented by hunting. But Brazilian deforestation, increased under former Pres. Michel Temer and now under Pres. Jair Bolsonaro, has replaced biodiverse forests with soy and other kinds of plantations.
- Add to this Bolsonaro’s and Temer’s rapid deconstruction of internationally-lauded social welfare programs, implemented by Presidents Lula and Rousseff and their Workers’ Party, which fed many riverine families when fish catches dropped.
- Figure in climate change too: its deep droughts harm forest and river diversity, while extreme floods keep stream levels high and fish catches low, and for longer. Now, COVID-19 has come to the Amazon, with food shopping trips made from rural riverine settlements to cities now requiring a serious element of risk.
Cash-poor riverine households in the Brazilian Amazon — once able to live sustainably from hunting and fishing — are going hungry as they struggle to catch enough fish to feed their families during the highwater season that runs yearly from roughly April to September, a recent study reveals.
Hunger is intensifying due to many interacting factors: as COVID-19 assails the Amazon; Jair Bolsonaro’s government shreds once effective social welfare programs and cheerleads forest destruction; and climate change-driven extreme floods and droughts are on the upswing. Experts warn that these circumstances intensify threats to food security for the poor in remote riverine communities.
“With a third of households skipping meals, and a sixth not eating for a whole day during [the highwater] season, food security can be classed as severe,” concluded the authors, who interviewed 556 households along 1,267 kilometers (787 miles) of river in the Brazilian states of Pará and Amazonas.
The study is the first to show that food insecurity among Amazonian ribeirinhos — as riverside dwellers are called — is determined by seasonal crashes in fish catch rates in combination with social inequalities and the shredding of the social welfare safety net.
Lacking sufficient fish during the flood season, many riverine families are forced to make a tough choice: travel by boat to nearby cities to restock food supplies, putting their lives at risk from the COVID-19 pandemic that has already claimed more than 7,500 lives in the 9 states comprising Legal Amazonia, or face hunger at home.
Poor families who need to retrieve welfare benefits, along with a Brazilian government-provided US$110 emergency COVID-19 stipend to buy food, also need to travel to nearby cities, according to lead author and ecologist Daniel Tregidgo.
As the pandemic has worsened, so has food insecurity, a situation exacerbated by Bolsonaro’s policies. Since coming to power in January 2019, the president has made deep cuts to social welfare and his inflammatory rhetoric has encouraged Amazon land grabbers, resulting in skyrocketing deforestation rates which have impacted biodiversity, and by extension hunting and forest food gathering.
Bolsonaro cuts programs fighting hunger
Lauded for its efforts in eradicating hunger over the last two decades, Brazil — first under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), and then under President Dilma Rousseff (2011–2016) — saw millions pulled out of extreme poverty through government welfare programs. But many of these measures were, and continue to be, reversed, first under President Michel Temer, and more so today under Bolsonaro.
“All the programs that contributed towards Brazil exiting the [UN World] Hunger Map in 2014, have been destroyed,” Tereza Campello, an economist who was Brazil’s Minister of Development and Food Security from 2011 to 2016, told Mongabay in a telephone interview.
On Bolsonaro’s first day in office on January 1st, 2019, he abolished the Council for Food and Nutrition Security (CONSEA), considered a “fundamental driving force” in Brazil’s dramatic reduction of hunger according to a 2019 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
“The extinction of CONSEA means we’re unable to monitor the [food security] situation. There is less infrastructure and less information,” explained Flavia Mori Sarti, a nutritionist and economist at the University of São Paulo who specializes in studying food security. Mori Sarti added that rising deforestation has reduced biodiversity and the number of plants and animals available as food. Along the Amazon’s so-called Arc of Deforestation, a crescent-shaped region stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the border with Peru and Bolivia, vast swathes of rainforest have been replaced by commodity crops such as soy, sugar cane, corn and eucalyptus.
Shredding the food safety net has meant that hunger stalks Amazon riverine families during lean portions of the year. Fish catch rates are naturally 73% lower in the highwater season, the study shows, with many riverine families counting on social benefits to buy food.
However, rural pensions have been deeply scaled back, with approval of new requests falling by a third from 2018 to 2019, according to an investigation by Reporter Brasil. And Bolsa Família, a vital monthly stipend for Brazilians in extreme poverty, now has 1.5 million families on its waiting list, despite recent government promises to expand the program.
Bolsa Verde, an innovative cash-transfer program that paid impoverished rural families who made a living off of local nuts, fish and fruit to help keep the forest thriving, was cut in 2018 under the austerity government of Michel Temer.
“People who were previously part of a virtuous cycle of the environment, strengthening social issues and vice versa, are now in a cycle of destruction, with dramatic consequences for the biome, for its people and food security,” said Campello.
In an email, the Citizenship Ministry, responsible for Brazil’s social welfare programs, told Mongabay that while CONSEA was extinguished, its role was distributed through other government departments. “With this form of administrative organization, government action has become more agile and efficient,” the Ministry wrote, “During the administration of Jair Bolsonaro, Bolsa Família has reached a record in the number of families it serves, reaching 14.27 million families in April 2020, during this period of combatting COVID-19.”
Less fish, more time spent fishing
Rapid deforestation and increased extreme weather events brought by climate change may also be causing more long-term damage to food security in the Amazon’s rural communities. “The water level is changing: [rivers are] fuller for longer [during the highwater season], with higher levels of flooding, and more unpredictable flood timing,” study lead author Tregidgo told Mongabay. “This means less fish for more time.”
Extreme flooding in the last decade has been more frequent and severe compared to the entire 20th century, going from an extreme flood event every 20 years to one every four years.
“In extreme events, you move from worrying to giving up on preferred foods for energy-poor alternatives. For example, replacing beans and fish, with flour and processed sausages,” political ecologist Luke Parry, one of the study authors told Mongabay. In some cases, floods have invaded homes and displaced entire communities, further destabilizing the food supply.
Impacts on children’s health can be drastic and long-lasting. “Children may be denied food for a whole day. That is normally rare, but in a situation like an extreme flood this becomes more common,” Parry said. “If a pregnant woman goes through an extreme rainfall event, there is a four-fold* increase of [the baby weighing] under 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds), with lifelong implications for health and development.”
Tregidgo, D., Barlow, J., Pompeu, P., and Parry, L. Tough fishing and severe seasonal food insecurity in Amazonian flooded forests. People and Nature, 2(2), 468 – 482 (2020).
Banner Image: A child looks on as fish is prepared in the rural Amazon, where food bounty is now turning to scarcity. Image by Luke Parry.
Correction: This story was corrected on June 22, 2020. Originally, the last sentence in the piece read, “there is a tenfold increase.” This has been corrected to read “there is a four-fold increase.”
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