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Human Strategies for Coping with El Niño Related Drought in Amazônia

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Abstract 
This article reports on findings of a research project examining farmers' coping strategies in the Brazilian Amazon in response to El Niño related weather events. We examine the extent of vulnerability of small and large farmers to these events in a tropical rainforest environment. Little attention has been given to the impact of ENSO events in Amazônia, despite evidence for devastating fires during ENSOs. Although we found a range of locally developed forecasting techniques and coping mechanisms, farmers have sustained significant losses, and we suggest that increased access to scientific forecasts would greatly enhance the ability of the farmers in our study area to cope with El Niño related weather events.

In Amazônia the El Niño phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate pattern leads to an extended period of reduced rainfall (Hobbs et al., 1998). This period of reduced rainfall can result in significant agricultural losses for farmers and ranchers in the area and in increased forest flammability. We have found that the majority of our study population uses several methods of forecasting, coping with, and adapting to drought events – and they recognize the economic losses they can experience and the loss of forests through the accidental spread of fire. The poorest farmers in our study area experience El Niño related drought events as a serious threat to their livelihoods. Their vulnerability is heightened during extreme climate events and our observations revealed that all of the farmers in our study would benefit from increased availability of improved forecast information relevant to their locality and their current farming strategies. This paper examines the availability and use of forecasts, the occurrence of accidental fires and techniques to prevent fire related losses, and the coping mechanisms for dealing with El Niño related drought in the agricultural regions surrounding the cities of Altamira and Santarém, in Pará State, Brazil. Distribution of an El Niño Prediction Kit at the end of the study and a series of workshops may lead to better local information on rainfall variability and create a farmer-maintained grid of collecting stations to sensitize farmers to the variability of precipitation in the region, and on their property.

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