Sea level rise threatens the Orinoco Delta
A culture under threat
Written by Will
The Warao are a river people. Found in the delta of the Orinoco, they live between the expansive ranches ringing the upper delta and the mangrove swamps of the coast. They are quite literally people of the canoe. But sea level change is becoming an ever-pressing concern, threatening their way of life and unique knowledge they hold.
The 25000 Warao that populate the delta have lived in intimate contact with the Orinoco for hundreds of years, developing industry and craftsmanship from the plants and fish that share the river. Everything in their lives comes from the jungle, shaped and woven with techniques passed down through generations. It is knowledge derived from a particular time, a particular relationship to the land and a particular set of resources.
“They are extremely in contact with the water” says Christophe Charbonnel who has lived amongst them for eight years, “they read the water, if there is a movement they know if it is something fishing, if there is an otter, if there is a fresh water dolphin around.”
But their environment is precariously situated between the worlds of salt and fresh water, at once separated from the ocean and umbilically connected to it. The plants and animals on which the Warao depend – the Moriche palm, the Orinoco catfish, the piranha - are freshwater species. But 80km from the coast there is still a tidal range of one metre and this affects the movement of fish and people in the delta
Everything exists in a fragile balance with the delta’s salinity. And this balance is shifting.
“This last dry season has been very hard”, explained Maria Cabrella who lives in the heart of the delta, “the water was transparent, because of the salt coming in from the sea. And we are now seeing mangroves in places where we have never seen them before. And this means something.”
For the Warao, encroachment of salt water means a loss of drinking water. “We saw them in their boats going to look for water. Many had to move away for a while because they couldn’t drink the water and they were getting a lot of problems on their skin.
If this trend continues, then we could see the slow and tragic decline of the Warao. They will be forced to move, away from the water’s edge and away from the environment that has defined them. “Their entire culture is tied to the jungle and the river” said Maria. “The salt water coming means the end of Warao culture.”
The Warao people will survive, re-settling in villages and towns outside the delta. But the tragedy will be the loss of knowledge. The practices of weaving, fishing, hunting; the knowledge of how to translate the palms and trees into hammocks, houses, and canoes; the language and song which pertained to all of these things.
These intangible facets of a culture will disappear. And we will be all the poorer for it.