A modern Yakruna: climate change and Indigenous Peoples

An aerial view of the Parque Nacional Natural Chiribiquete showing lots of cliffs
Parque Nacional Natural Chiribiquete (c) Carlos Castaño Uribe via Wikimedia

Ricardo Grandas Vargas, an alumnus of the MSc Climate Change, Management and Finance course at Imperial College London, blogs on why Indigenous Peoples have a crucial role to play when it comes to unveiling the secrets of the Amazon rainforest, and why their voices must be included in the policymaking process.

Embrace of the Serpent, an award-winning film by Colombian director Ciro Guerra, tells the story of two parallel journeys to the Amazon rainforest made three decades apart. Both explorers guided by Karamakate, the last member of an Amazonian Tribe, and are searching for a sacred plant called “Yakruna”, which, according to them, can either heal a deadly illness or help someone who has never dreamt.

So how does this film relate to the impact of climate change in Colombia’s Amazon region? Well, metaphorically, scientists and policymakers may also be looking for a Yakruna in the Amazon basinand not just a single plant, but an entire ecosystem that can support governments with reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement.

To date, there has been a lot of research on the role of the Amazon rainforest as a carbon sink. As a result, tipping points, together with the rainforest’s ability to absorb carbon, are hot research topics. In contrast, there is limited research on the impact of climate change on Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon. This is alarming, considering that these communities are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In addition, any disruptions to the human systems in the region could have a big impact on the vegetation and the climate system. Similarly, Indigenous Peoples have a crucial role to play when it comes to unveiling the secrets of this unique rainforest.

The keepers of the ‘Climate Yakruna’

Indigenous Peoples of Colombia’s Amazon Region are the protectors of up to 24.7 million hectares of legally recognised territories that can store tonnes of carbon dioxide. Among them are Murui Muina, one of the most important but vulnerable groups of Indigenous Peoples living around the Putumayo and Caquetá rivers. This group could be the keepers of the ‘Climate Yakruna thanks to their unique understanding of the natural world. Their entire lifestyle follows the pulse of the natural world, structured around natural cycles that are described with ecological calendars.

Courageous but vulnerable

A report released in 2010 suggested that climate change is disrupting these ecological calendars, which is affecting indigenous livelihoods. Field research carried out in 2018 in the Caquetá River came to the same conclusion. This fruitful but limited research outlined some of the impacts of climate change – including disorganised rain patterns, stronger than expected winds, unpredictable alterations in river levels and an unusual number of droughts or floods. Similarly, members of the Indigenous Community have evidenced that some natural markers, such as birds, are now less frequent, and cases of stomach and respiratory diseases are increasing, as are wildfires. For them, this is clear signal that something is changing in their territories. These changes to natural cycles have impacted social systems, by affecting fishing, the harvesting of wild fruits, the success of crops and ritual practices, which are essential for the social stability of Murui Muina. Murui Muina women have also told researchers that higher average temperatures in the region, currently predicted to increase from 1.3 °C to 1.6 °C, make it almost impossible for them to work on “Chagras” (crop areas) after midday.

It is evident that climate change affects food security, health and cultural practices of Murui Muina. These factors, combined with other direct stressors, such as discrimination, lack of property rights over their lands and the lack of government intervention, could potentially lead to forced displacement of these Guardians of the Forest. In turn, this internal displacement would have consequences for the forest itself. For instance, a recent publication evidenced that the post-conflict period in Colombia has resulted in 177% increase in the rate of deforestation in National Parks and Indigenous Peoples territories. This was mainly caused by cattle ranching, where land was taken from Indigenous territories due to the absence of armed groups that, paradoxically, had a form of control on the forest.

How can we protect Indigenous Communities?

Acknowledging the remarkable role of Murui Muina and other Indigenous Communities in the region, some organisations have focused on helping Indigenous Communities adapt to the changing climate by producing an updated ecological calendar along with other environmental monitoring programmes (see outcomes here). Local Indigenous Peoples, and others around the world have also worked on their ecological calendars as a result of disruptions caused by climate change.

In 2017 Murui territories were extended by more than 567,890 hectares, connecting their territories with UNESCO Heritage Site National Serranía del Chiribiquete, as described in this interactive infographic (Murui-Muina – Middle Caquetá section). Similarly, at COP26, governments acknowledged the role of Indigenous Communities in protecting biodiversity, and committed to invest US $1.7 billion “to support land tenure and tenure rights”. It was also announced that Colombia will receive over $30 million to fight deforestation.

This is remarkable progress, but not enough to protect the social structures of Murui Muina. The high government-level initiatives announced at COP26 contrast with the weak participation of Indigenous Peoples at the summit. Indigenous leaders must be included in the policymaking processes regarding their territories. Incorporating their extensive knowledge and understanding of the Amazon dynamics is the only way for us to find the climate Yakruna.

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