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Rivers run dry as drought hits Amazon

Droughts are growing more severe. Has the world's largest rain forest reached its tipping point?

“The ecosystems here have become so dry that instead of a being a barrier to fire, the forest became kindling,” he said. “We’ve changed from a situation where a relatively small part of the region would be susceptible to fire to the entire region being susceptible to fire.”

Burned forests aren't the only evidence of drought. This year, one of the Amazon River’s biggest tributaries, the Rio Negro, dropped 13 feet below its dry-season average — to the lowest level on record. Channels in some areas have become little more than winding belts of mud — leaving boats stranded and remote communities cut off from supplies.

In response, the Brazilian government announced last month it was releasing $13.5 million in emergency aid. The Amazonas state government reported it had distributed 600 tons of food aid by boat and plane, after nearly half its municipalities declared a state of emergency affecting more than 62,000 people.

Further west in the state of Acre, rivers remained navigable, but only just. The remote community of Mutum is home to about 650 people who live in a thatch-roofed homes grouped beside a riverbank. The place is normally six hours by boat from the nearest road. At the height of this year’s drought, the trip took 12 hours.

But it wasn’t boating that had village chief Mariazinha Yawanawa worried. Her people are sustained by the forest. They hunt in the woods, fish the rivers and grow crops in the clearings where they live.

They have felt the ground become dusty and hard, she said, and they’ve seen the smoke on the horizon.

“I’ve never seen a year like this,” she said. “Every morning, when all the family members meet, we’re asking each other, 'What is happening?'"

Mariazinha, 41, had overcome ancient obstacles to become the community’s first female chief. Explaining how she managed it, one tribal leader shrugged and said, “She’s tougher than the men.”

But the subject of weather left this brawny, confident woman sounding distraught.

“Everything has changed. We don’t know when we can plant. We plant and then the sun kills everything,” Mariazinha said. “If it continues like this, we expect a tragedy.”

And the point she pressed upon her visitors was, perhaps they should be worried, too.

“I ask you,” she said, “as someone who lives in the outside world who knows the tragedy that’s happening there — is there anything we can do?”