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Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu, Peru. Click image for more Machu Picchu pictures. (Photo by R. Butler).


By Rhett Butler   |  Last updated July 31, 2012

The American rainforests were once home to some of the world's most developed civilizations of antiquity including those of the Incas (Andes), Mayas (Central America), and Aztecs (Central America). These peoples created vast metropolises and made great developments in agriculture and the sciences. However all this changed with the arrival of Europeans in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

An estimated 7-10 million Amerindians (the term for American indigenous peoples) lived in American rainforests, half of them in Brazil, at the time of European arrival. When Pizarro arrived in Peru, more land was under cultivation and more food was being produced in the Andean region than today. The grandest civilizations with expansive cities, wealth of gold, and technological achievements, existed in the Andes, though many Amerindians also lived in the Amazon.

The Amazon has a long history of human settlement. Contrary to popular belief, sizable and sedentary societies of great complexity existed in the Amazon rainforest [Amazon Civilization Before Columbus]. These societies produced pottery, cleared sections of rainforest for agriculture, and managed forests to optimize the distribution of useful species. The notion of a virgin Amazon is largely the result of the population crash following the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth century. Studies suggest that 11.8 percent of the Amazon's terra firme forests are anthropogenic in nature resulting from the careful management of biodiversity by indigenous people. However, unlike those using current cultivation techniques, these Amazonians were attuned to the ecological realities of their environment from five millennia of experimentation, and they understood how to sustainably manage the rainforest to suit their needs. They saw the importance of maintaining biodiversity through a mosaic of natural forests, open fields, and sections of forest managed so as to be dominated by species of special interest to humans.

Many of these populations existed along whitewater rivers where they had good means of transportation, excellent fishing, and fertile floodplain soils for agriculture. However, when Europeans arrived, these were the first settlements to be affected, since Europeans used the major rivers as highways to the interior. In the first century of European presence, the Amerindian population was reduced by 90 percent. Most of the remaining peoples lived in the interior of the forest: either pushed there by the Europeans or traditionally living there in smaller groups.

From Pizarro's conquest of the Incan empire until the end of the Brazilian rubber boom around the beginning of World War I, the Spanish and Portuguese, in the name of Catholicism with the blessing of popes, continued the long tradition of abuse against these people—one that would be continued by colonists, rubber tappers, loggers, ranchers, and land developers.


Amazon shaman in Brazil [by Sue Wren]

Today, despite the population decimation, natives peoples still live in American rainforests, although virtually all have been affected by the outside world. Instead of wearing traditional garb of loin cloths, most Amerindians wear western clothes, and many use metal pots, pans, and utensils for every day life. Some groups make handicrafts to sell to tourists, while others make routine trips to the city to bring foods and wares to market. Almost no native group obtains the majority of its food by traditional nomadic hunting and gathering. Nearly all cultivate crops, with hunting, gathering, and fishing serving as a secondary or supplementary food source. Usually a family has two gardens: a small house garden with a variety of plants, and a larger plantation which may be one hectare in area planted with bananas, manioc, or rice. These plantations are created through the traditional practice of slash and burn, a method of forest clearing that is not all that damaging to the forest if practice in the traditional manner where forest is used on a rotational basis and allowed to regenerate prior to re-clearing.

Conflict in Brazil in the 1990s and early 2000s

Amerindians have faced a long, bitter battle against development of their land by outsiders, and today these organizations monitor these incursions on their lands. The Indian Missionary Council, CIMI, reported that land invasions of Brazilian Indian reservations by loggers and miners rose in the late 1990s, coinciding with a boom in industrial soy farms and demand for mahogany, legal logging of which was banned in Brazil. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, clashes between indigenous peoples and loggers, miners, and oil developers received some exposure in the Western press, notably the on-going saga between the native Yanomani of Brazil and Venezuela and thousands of small-scale miners, known as "garimpeiros" in Brazil, who often illegally mine on the natives' demarcated lands.

The far-flung Yanomani Indian tribe inhabits a France-sized area of forest in northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. The Yanomani lived in virtual isolation after they were first documented by anthropologists in the 1920s until the 1970s when large numbers of gold miners invaded their territory. The miners introduced diseases, like measles, tuberculosis, the flu, and malaria to the resistant-deficient Yanomani, resulting in a serious decline in their population. Whereas an estimated 20,000 Yanomani lived in Brazil in the late 1970s, fewer than 9,000 existed in 1997. Violence between the Yanomani and the armed garimpeiros has also taken its toll resulting in many fatalities. Further, the garimpeiros disrupt the traditional Yanomani way of life by using mercury which pollutes local rivers, wildlife, and the Yanomani themselves. The miners' planes scare away the wildlife the Yanomani depend upon for food. The garimpeiros have also brought guns to the Yanomani meaning that inter-village disputes today are more likely to end in shootings.

Brazil struggled protecting the rights of the Yanomani, initiating several campaigns to oust the garimpeiros. In November 1997, the government began "Operation: Yanomani" to flush hundreds of gold miners off Yanomani lands. Instead of resorting the old tactics of simply deporting or arresting garimpeiros for a few days, the government used a new approach which it hopes will keep miners permanently off Yanomani lands. The plan established controls on aviation fuel and tightens the monitoring of airspace to limit air traffic to airstrips near the mining areas.
Today very few Amerindians live in their fully traditional ways, although there remain dozens of "uncontacted" groups living in remote parts of Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, and possibly Ecuador and Bolivia. Uncontacted tribes are generally small bands that have splintered off tribes that have contact with the outsider world. In Brazil, Peru, and Colombia, these groups are granted substantial territories to enable them to continue living in isolation should they choose. However, conflict is still known arise between outside parities and these groups. In Brazil, invasion of lands belonging to uncontacted tribes is generally illegal — trespassers are usually cattle ranchers, loggers, miners or drug traffickers. In Peru and Ecuador, there are allegations of incursions into indigenous territories by oil and gas developers that have won exploration licenses from the government.

Other tribes having varying degrees of interaction with Western/urban culture. Some operate cattle ranches and have larger farms, while others live somewhat traditionally on reservations.

Indian social mobilization of American indigenous peoples has attained the highest organization of any rainforest region. Forming ethnic organizations is one way indigenous groups have been better able to protect themselves, their culture, and their natural forest resources.


More than 500,000 Brazilians classify themselves as indigenous, according to a 2006 census by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). FUNAI, the country's indigenous affairs bureau, estimates there are 67 uncontacted indigenous groups in the country.

Brazil therefore has the largest number of indigenous forest people living in traditional ways. It also has what are perhaps the strongest protections for indigenous rights, which were enshrined under the country's 1988 constitution. These include rights to their traditional ways of life and possession of their "traditional lands", which are recognized through a legal demarcation process as "indigenous territories".

As of 2010, indigenous territories covered about 22 percent of the Brazilian Amazon or about one million square kilometers. Additional claims are pending approval, although in 2012, Brazilian Congress moved to give more control to mining and agroindustrial interests in determining whether demarcation of new indigenous territories would proceed.

Although demarcated lands are legally protected, in practice, they are sometimes not respected. There are numbers cases of indigenous territories being invaded by illegal loggers and ranchers. For example Marãiwatséde, a territory belonging to the Xavante in Mato Grosso, has been nearly entirely destroyed by outside ranchers and land speculators.


Indigenous groups in the Colombian Amazon long suffered deprivations at the hands of outsiders. First came the diseases brought by the European Conquest, then abuses under colonial rule. In modern times, some Amazonian communities were virtually enslaved by the debt-bondage system run by rubber traders: Indians could work their entire lives without ever escaping the cycle of debt. Later, periodic invasions by gold miners, oil companies, colonists, and illegal coca-growers took a heavy toll on remaining indigenous populations. Without title to their land, organization, or representation, indigenous Colombians in the Amazon seemed destined to be exploited and abused.

But new hope would emerge in the 1980s, thanks partly to the efforts of Martin von Hildebrand, an ethnologist who would help indigenous Colombians eventually win control over 260,000 square kilometers (100,000 square miles) of Amazon rainforest—an area larger than the United Kingdom.

Von Hildebrand first visited the Colombian Amazon in 1970, spending four months living amongst remote indigenous communities. He found them exploited by rubber traders and deprived of basic human rights. Indigenous communities were in decline as youths abandoned their homeland for towns and traditional knowledge was lost with each passing elder.

Living with tribes during the 1970s, von Hildebrand learned of the traditional land management practices of indigenous societies as well as their philosophies of co-existing with the rainforest. He helped free communities from the tyranny of rubber and started developing an education system for the indigenous. Inspired to help them win title to their territory and therefore greater autonomy, von Hildebrand joined the Colombian government in 1986, as Head of Indigenous Affairs and adviser to President Virgilio Barco Vargas. In government von Hildebrand helped push through legislation that would lead to the establishment of 20 million hectares of collective indigenous territory—a move that would become a fundamental part of the country's 1991 constitution.

Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Venezuela, the Guianas

Background information for the current status of forest tribes and indigenous groups is in development. In the meantime, some recent articles

+ News articles on indigenous forest people in Latin America

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Suggested reading
  • The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey Of Richard Evans Schultes by Andrew Weil, Chris Murray, and Wade Davis
  • Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures by Wade Davis
  • Last Place on Earth by Mike Fay and Michael Nichols
  • One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest by Wade Davis by Wade Davis

  • Review questions:

    • How has life changed for most forest dwellers over the past 50 years or so?
    • Who are the Yanomani?

    Other versions of this page

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    Continued / Next:

    Forest Peoples Overview

    Other pages in this section:

    Forest People
    African Forest People
    Asian Forest People
    American Forest People
    Forest People Overview
    Incas - Wade Davis
    Incan Achievements
    - - - - -
    Indigenous Health
    Lessons from the Maya
    Forest people plant knowledge
    A Brief Social History of Borneo
    Forest people today
    Tri-country Amerindian summit
    Indigenous people estimates
    Varzea vs Terra settlements

    - - - - -
    Kids version of this section
    - Who lives in the rainforest?
    - Great rainforest civilizations
    - Medicinal plants and native people
    - What happened to the people of the Amazon?
    - Kids in the rainforest

    Selection of information sources

  • The "Indigenous Population in Selected Latin American Countries" table comes from Commission of Development and Environment for Amazonia 1992, Amazonia Without Myths, Inter-American Development Bank and UN Development Programme, Washington, D.C. 1992.
  • In his One River {New York: Touchstone, 1996), Wade Davis provides an fascinating look into the genius of the Inca including their complex cultivation techniques and highly developed political bureaucracies. They managed the land to suit their needs and when When Pizarro arrived in Peru, more land was under cultivation and more food was being produced in the Andean region than is today. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998) offers a further insightful look into Incan culture and the early history of their civilization.

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