Satellite view of Deforestation in Brazil (courtesy of DigitalEarth)
Forest People Today
By Rhett Butler | Last updated July 31, 2012
Tropical rainforests have supported humans since ancient times. Although forest life cannot be described
as easy, these peoples have built their lives around the surrounding forest and its systems. Consequently, they are a great storehouse of the knowledge about the forest. They know the medicinal properties of plants and understand the
value of the forest as an intact ecosystem. As forests fall, these indigenous peoples lose their homes and culture. Conflicts with settlers, who also bring disease and domestic animals, has resulted in the decline of the native population in many areas.
In the past, commercial firms, settlers, and governments developed forest lands without the permission of the original indigenous inhabitants. Even today, in countries like Brazil and Bolivia, private interests illegally encroach on the lands
of native peoples.
Sometimes, tribal groups are given the choice whether to allow their lands to be developed or left in a natural state. If developed, indigenous people generally expect that they will receive some of the benefits of "civilized" life, including better education for their children, access to health care, and infrastructure like roads and electricity. Other times, the group may choose to keep their more familiar, natural lifestyle in the forest by rejecting development. More often, an indigenous group is split between the two choices and a bitter rift forms within the community. Sometimes a development firm will sign an agreement with those who support development while ignoring the demands of those who want to keep the status quo.
For example, in Papua New Guinea, some Bahineimo tribesmen chose to sell off their land to logging firms in the 1990s. After the agreement was signed, it emerged that many of the signatures were forged and the government suspended the deal. Similarly, in Ecuador, oil companies have worked to influence high-ranking members of indigenous organizations to permit oil development on native lands while ignoring those who oppose development.
"Divide and conquer" tactics are frequently used to factionalize indigenous organizations, weakening their power and capitalizing on the traditional animosity between tribal groups. Indigenous groups end up battling one another instead of developers.
Sometimes indigenous elders are tricked into signing contracts that grant their lands as concessions to developers. For elders it can be difficult to understand the "sale" of land, since within their traditional community, land, along with other material objects, are considered communal property and responsibility. Likewise, children who lose a parent or are abandoned are usually adopted and raised by the group as a communal responsibility.
Colonists' homes in the Brazilian Amazon
Historically the governments of tropical countries have sided with economic development over the interests of "marginal" native peoples. Thus, the government often encourages native peoples to yield to firms, emphasizing the incentives that development will bring over the potential costs. Though less frequent in today's increasingly democratized society, some governments still unilaterally grant indigenous lands to firms for development. Several countries still refuse to recognize indigenous land rights, no matter how small or legitimate their lands claims are.
Today many indigenous peoples choose to be slowly assimilated into the outside society. They seek the apparent
conveniences of cotton T-shirts, metal pots, and Tupperware. They are impressed with the dugouts fitted with outboard
motors and the wrap-around sunglasses that visiting tourists wear. As they turn towards this culture, elements of
their own are lost. As youths increasingly leave the forest, native ways are forgotten and considerable knowledge
about the interwoven fabric and complexity of the rainforest is lost forever. Gone is knowledge of medicinal plants.
Gone are the unique methods of cultivation in the rainforest which could be useful today. Gone is the understanding
of the ecological value of the rainforest along with the acknowledgement that forests can be sustained and used
for human benefit. Gone are the unique cultures that have dwelled in the forest for thousands of generations.
Whether these indigenous people find what they are seeking when they leave the forest can only be known to them.
Sadly it seems that many indigenous people harbor misconceptions about life outside the rainforest. As they move
into cities or government agricultural projects, they enter an unfamiliar environment where they are often shunned.
Lacking the skills valued by society and adequate Western education, indigenous peoples are often destined for
a life of poverty as part of the lowest rung of the wage-earning class. Very few people leaving the forest for
the city successfully make the transition on their own and many find themselves returning to their native lands
in one capacity or another.
Indigenous participation in rainforest conservation
Amazon tribe establishes first indigenous forest carbon fund
(12/04/2010) A half-century ago, Brazil's Suruí people knew little of the world beyond their cluster of villages – and nothing of the European settlers who dominated their continent. By 2006, that world beyond had engulfed them – a fact their young chief, Almir Narayamoga Suruí, saw all too clearly the first time he logged onto Google Earth.
Losing nature's medicine cabinet
(10/04/2010) In all the discussions of saving the world's biodiversity from extinction, one point is often and surprisingly forgotten: the importance of the world's species in providing humankind with a multitude of life-saving medicines so far, as well as the certainty that more vital medications are out there if only we save the unheralded animals and plants that contain cures unknown. Already, species have provided humankind everything from quinine to aspirin, from morphine to numerous cancer and HIV-fighting drugs. "As the ethnobotanist Dr. Mark Plotkin commented, the history of medicine can be written in terms of its reliance on and utilization of natural products," physician Christopher Herndon told mongabay.com. Herndon is co-author of a recent paper in the journal Biotropica, which calls for policy-makers and the public to recognize how biodiversity underpins not only ecosystems, but medicine.
Increasingly, instead of being encouraged to migrate into cities or agricultural plots, native peoples are being
incorporated into community management schemes and multiple-use reserves. Under this system, tribal groups can
remain living in a traditional manner should they desire, but still earn an income. Several NGOs have initiated
projects that encourage native peoples to keep some ties to their past so that their knowledge of the forest ecosystem
does not die along with their culture.
It is important to note that conservation initiatives have not always benefitted forest people, whether they are traditional indigenous groups or settlers. People have been forcefully displaced from their traditional lands and communal forests for the purpose of establishing protected areas.
The new rainforest dwellers
Increasingly "rainforest people" describes colonists who have recently emigrated to rainforest areas. In the process, they have displaced indigenous forest people and conducted activities that are not in sync with the rainforest environment. Not knowing the best way to cultivate rainforest lands, they rely on slash-and-burn subsistence agriculture while introducing domesticated animals and foreign disease. While their presence is tough on indigenous groups and their surrounding ecosystem, these colonists also suffer at the hands of large-scale forest developers and land speculators.
Violence between small farmers and large landholders is commonplace in the Amazon. The Pastoral Land Commission, a nongovernmental group working in the Amazon Basin, found that in 2004 land battles in Brazil's countryside reached the highest level in at least 20 years. According to the annual report by the organization, documented conflicts over land among peasants, farmers, and land speculators rose to 1,801 in 2004 from 1,690 conflicts in 2003 and 925 recorded in 2002.
Such conflicts made international headlines in 2005 with the slaying of Dorothy Stang, an American nun who worked to protect the rights and interests of small farmers in the Brazilian state of Para. Her murder sparked an international outcry to stop death-squad activities and deforestation in the Amazon, and moved the Brazilian government to establish new protected areas and send thousands of troops to the region. Stang's killers, allegedly hired by local landowners, were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms in December 2005.
More on Stang: Comment from Stang's brother | Sentence
- What is happening to traditional indigenous cultures of rainforest peoples?
- Who are the new "people of the rainforest"?
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In landmark ruling, Indonesia's indigenous people win right to millions of hectares of forest
(05/17/2013) In a landmark ruling, Indonesia's Constitutional Court has invalidated the Indonesian government's claim to millions of hectares of forest land, potentially giving indigenous and local communities the right to manage their customary forests, reports Mongabay-Indonesia. In a review of a 1999 forestry law, the court ruled that customary forests should not be classified as "State Forest Areas". The move is significant because Indonesia's central government has control over the country's vast forest estate, effectively enabling agencies like the Ministry of Forestry to grant large concessions to companies for logging and plantations even if the area has been managed for generations by local people.
Indigenous association to sue to shut down Panama's REDD+ program
(05/17/2013) Panama's largest association of indigenous people will sue the Panamanian government to shut down the country's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) program.
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."
Rainforest tribe urges Norwegian king to recall energy executive
(05/13/2013) In an unusual bid to stop a series of dams that will flood their rainforest home, a group of tribesmen in Borneo are urging King Harald V of Norway to call one of his subjects home. The subject is Torstein Dale Sjøtveit, a Norwegian citizen who is the CEO of Sarawak Energy, a Malaysian firm that is building several dams in the state of Sarawak. The hydroelectric projects are controversial because they require the forced displacement of indigenous communities and will flood large tracts of rainforest.
Central America's largest forest under siege by colonists
(05/06/2013) In the last four years, invading land speculators and peasants have destroyed 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres) of rainforest in Nicaragua's Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, according to the Mayangna and Miskito indigenous peoples who call this forest home. Although Nicaragua recognized the land rights of the indigenous people in 2007, the tribes say the government has not done near-enough to keep illegal settlers out despite recent eviction efforts.
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