Amazon rising: Adaptation begins at home

Years of coping with external shocks have left river communities in the Brazilian Amazon adapting to climate change their own way.
Smallholders living along the Amazon river in Brazil have got used to adapting. Neil Palmer/CIAT

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For hundreds of thousands of rural families eking out a living in Brazil’s Amazon estuary, living with flooding is a daily reality.

But with climate change tipped to hasten sea-level rise, tidal inundation is set to worsen.

How can local government help smallholders—known locally as caboclos—to adapt?

According to Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), part of the answer could be right under policymakers’ noses.

“Adaptation is already happening on the ground,” said Pinedo-Vasquez, one of the authors of a new study on land-use change in the Amazon estuary.

The study was conducted under the direction of scientists from the Núcleo de Altos Estudos Amazônicos (Center for Amazonian Studies) at Universidad Federal do Pará with the financial support of Canada’s International Development Research Centre.

Smallholders in the estuary area have encountered a number of external shocks since World War II: market fluctuations, unstable land tenure and, in the past decade, an increase in extreme flood events, locally known as lançantes.

But by maintaining a high degree of flexibility both in their land-use decisions and in the way they live their lives, smallholders have been able to adapt, the study argues.

This flexibility, Pinedo-Vasquez said, shouldn’t be ignored when governments and civil society groups design and implement mitigation and adaptation programs.

“Their style of flexibility is completely different from what [international] adaptation systems are trying to design, which is a top-down approach,” he said.


To help local policymakers, Pinedo-Vasquez and his colleagues analyzed how smallholders in two municipalities of the Amazon estuary have responded to external shocks since World War II.

Researchers studied market booms and busts in Mazagao and Ponta de Pedras, which lie on either side of the estuary in the eastern Amazonian region of Brazil.

Drawing on more than 50 years of trade data, as well as 30 years of remotely sensed land cover data (aerial photos and satellite images), the authors plotted land-use change.

The study found that since the war, smallholders have grown and gathered a range of products, largely in response to the whims of market booms and busts.

Products have ranged from rubber tapping and harvesting Brazil nuts to, most recently, the production of açai, a palm cultivated primarily for its fruit.

Smallholder households were highly mobile, according to the study, and frequently moved to the city when times were tough.


Interestingly, researchers also found that on land managed by smallholders, there has not been major change in forest cover.

The caboclos have instead maintained an “agricultural–fallow–forest landscape mosaic”, which balances intensive production of one product with extensive management of other resources.

This diverse mosaic landscape, along with the mobility of smallholders, has helped communities adapt to external shocks, according to the study.

“That flexibility lets them move from annual cropping—planting tomatoes, corn and beans—to long-term land-use activities: engaging in agroforestry, forest management and fisheries,” Pinedo-Vasquez said.

Currently, both municipalities are dominated by intensive and extensive management of fallow land and forests for the production of timber, acai and other fruit.

The trend away from agriculture to long-term land-use activities such as agroforestry is increasing, too.

Their flexibility is completely different from what international adaptation systems are trying to design.

Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez

Pinedo-Vasquez said farming in the estuarine area will eventually become impossible due to sea-level rise. But with support from local government, other land-use models can take over.

“We are saying that sea-level rise does bring risks, but it also brings opportunities,” he said.

“In this case, it is to engage in agroforestry and forest management as the main source of income.”

He said communities that had more “livelihood options” would adapt to external threats better—and forests had an important part to play.


For long-term land-use models such as agroforestry to succeed, however, Pinedo-Vasquez said smallholders must have access to resources. Help is coming through the Brazilian government’s Conditional Cash Transfer initiative, part of the national Income Transfer Program, which offers direct cash transfers to alleviate poverty.

“That money helps subsidize them to switch from dependence on agricultural activities—like corn, rice and beans—to move into agroforestry and forest management for the production of multiple terrestrial and aquatic products such as acai and fish and shrimp,” he said.

As a result, the conditional cash transfers were providing some environmental benefits too, he added.

The authors of the study say that more work is needed to identify which factors make it easier or harder for smallholders to adapt to sea-level rise and other socio-climatic events.

In the meantime, Pinedo-Vasquez hopes local policymakers will be able to translate this new information into tools and systems for monitoring adaptation processes.

“Our main goal is that local policymakers can come with this resource knowledge from their own people, from their societies and neighbors, and not depend on UN-type discussions, or IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] discussions,” he said.

“Our interest is in bringing information from the ground into the process of adaptation.”

For more information on this topic, please contact Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez at
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