Rural Amazonians living in poverty report going hungry despite living in one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, suggesting that food insecurity hits the poorest hardest.
A social group known as the Ribeirinhos are among some of the poorest people in Brazil and rely heavily on subsistence hunting and fishing to support their isolated lifestyle. Members of this isolated group live along the Purus River, a “seasonally transformed ecosystem” that experiences one of the largest yearly variations in water levels on the planet. When submerged during the flood season, large swaths of the forest become submerged, dispersing difficult-to-catch fish throughout its waters.
A large portion of their caloric and nutrient intake comes from catching fish. Ribeirinhos live in small, dispersed communities that spread over thousands of kilometers in Amazonian floodplains, located far from shops, power grids, and in regions that lack the capability to support livestock.
Researchers studying the group say that it is “paradoxical” for people who live in forests that are “biologically rich and have low human population densities” to struggle with food insecurity. To collect data on fishing, hunting, and perceptions on food security, an international team of scientists interviewed residents from more than 550 households in 22 communities spanning a distance of more than 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) along the river. Each community was located at least 13 kilometers (8 miles) from each other.
During the high-water season, fish catch rates were 73 percent lower and the probability of not eating for an entire day was four times higher than during the low-water season, according to the findings published by the British Ecological Society. At least one-third of households reported skipping meals while one-in-six say they may go an entire day without eating. During the flood season, study respondents were also more likely to resort to hunting for bushmeat, which could eventually lead to an “increase in hunting pressure on land animals.”
Experts previously assumed that large tropical areas contained enough food sources to supply rural populations, however food security relies on having “stable access to sufficient food.” Such seasonal variations could partially explain why malnutrition and its lifelong health impacts are seen among many Amazonian groups, particularly pregnant women and young children.
"The study highlights how the food security of marginalized rural communities living in a biologically rich area relies heavily on the stable supply of wildlife. Seasonal floods bring severe food insecurity among wildlife-reliant people by disrupting that supply despite being in an area of great natural wealth,” said lead author Daniel Tregidgo, of the Federal University of Lavras in Brazil and Lancaster University, in a statement.
"This study's findings indicate that we may be overlooking food instability in areas around the world where people are reliant on wildlife for food. This instability is potentially very common and dangerous for human health.”