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.
AMERICAN FOREST PEOPLES TODAY
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.
Amazon shaman in Brazil [by Sue Wren]
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.
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.
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
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
Display articles >>
- How has life changed for most forest dwellers over the past 50 years or so?
- Who are the Yanomani?
Other versions of this page
print version | spanish | french | portuguese
| chinese | japanese
Continued / Next:
Other pages in this section:
NGO: conflict of interests behind Peruvian highway proposal in the Amazon
(05/16/2013) As Peru's legislature debates the merits of building the Purús highway through the Amazon rainforest, a new report by Global Witness alleges that the project has been aggressively pushed by those with a financial stake in opening up the remote area to logging and mining. Roads built in the Amazon lead to spikes in deforestation, mining, poaching and other extractive activities as remote areas become suddenly accessible. The road in question would cut through parts of the Peruvian Amazon rich in biodiversity and home to indigenous tribes who have chosen to live in "voluntary isolation."
Tribesmen launch 'occupy' protest at dam site in the Amazon rainforest
(05/03/2013) On Thursday roughly 200 indigenous people launched an occupation of a key construction site for the controversial Belo Monte dam in the Brazilian Amazon. The protestors, who represent communities that will be affected by the massive dam, are demanding immediate suspension of all work on hydroelectric projects on the Xingu, Tapajós and Teles Pires rivers until they are properly consulted, according to a coalition of environmental groups opposing the projects.
Indigenous tribes say effects of climate change already felt in Amazon rainforest
(04/30/2013) Tribal groups in Earth's largest rainforest are already being affected by shifts wrought by climate change, reports a paper published last week in the British journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. The paper, which is based on a collection of interviews conducted with indigenous leaders in the Brazilian Amazon, says that native populations are reporting shifts in precipitation patterns, humidity, river levels, temperature, and fire and agricultural cycles. These shifts, measured against celestial timing used by indigenous groups, are affecting traditional ways of life that date back thousands of years.
Amazon: the world's greatest rainforest or internet giant?
(04/25/2013) When you see the word "Amazon", what's the first thing that springs to mind—the world's biggest forest, the longest river or the largest internet retailer—and which do you consider most important? These questions have risen to the fore in an arcane, but hugely important, debate about how to redraw the boundaries of the internet. Brazil and Peru have lodged objections to a bid made by the US e-commerce giant for a prime new piece of cyberspace: ".amazon".
Featured video: Earth Day message from indigenous tribes in the Peruvian Amazon
(04/23/2013) A new video by Alianza Arkana includes an Earth Day message from the indigenous peoples in the Peruvian Amazon who are facing the existential threats of logging and fossil fuel development on their traditional lands.
More rainforest news