People in the Amazon Rainforest
By Rhett A. Butler [citation]
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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 Inca 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, and land developers.
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 everyday life. Some groups make handicrafts to sell to the boatloads of tourists that pass through, 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 conducted in the traditional manner.
Largest Cities in the Amazon:
The bulk of the human population in the Amazon Basin is found in a cities which have emerged from the surrounding rainforest to become significant population centers. Outside the cities and towns, the Amazon is sparsely populated.
Today almost no forest Amerindians live in their fully traditional ways. Perhaps only a few small groups in the Amazon basin can still claim to do so. One of these, the Tageri (part of the Waorani group), is highly threatened by oil development in Ecuador. Its plight has become an international battle among environmentalists, human rights activists, the government, and the oil industry.
Indian social mobilization of American indigenous peoples has attained the highest organization of any rainforest region. Forming ethnic organizations is one way to protect themselves, their culture, and their natural forest resources. 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 has risen since the mid-1990s. Loggers are increasingly trespassing on indigenous lands in search of mahogany, which can no longer be legally logged 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 significant 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.
Using Google Earth and other technology to protect indigenous rights in the Amazon
Deep in the most remote jungles of South America, Amazon Indians (Amerindians) are using Google Earth, Global Positioning System (GPS) mapping, and other technologies to protect their fast-dwindling home. Tribes in Suriname, Brazil, and Colombia are combining their traditional knowledge of the rainforest with Western technology to conserve forests and maintain ties to their history and cultural traditions, which include profound knowledge of the forest ecosystem and medicinal plants. Helping them is the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), a nonprofit organization working with indigenous people to conserve biodiversity, health, and culture in South American rainforests. [more]
Brazil has set aside large tracts of forests—roughly 12.5 percent of Brazil's total land area and 26.4 percent of the Amazon basin—for the indigenous population, which is made up of about 450,000 Indians or 0.25 percent of the total population. These indigenous reserves—set forth under Brazil's 1988 constitution—have helped the country's Indian population to rebound after centuries of decline. According to The Economist [Feb 2nd 2006], 60 percent of Brazil's Indian population lives in the Amazon.
These protected areas are not popular among poor farmers, landowners, and developers, who have tried to fight the establishment of new parks and indigenous reserves and are known to illegally exploit forest resources—especially mahogany and other valuable timber—within the boundaries of protected areas. Nevertheless, a 2006 study conducted by researchers at the Woods Hole Research Center and the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazonia, found that parks and indigenous reserves in the Amazon help slow deforestation. Using quantitative analysis of satellite data, the research concluded that deforestation and the incidence of fires was significantly lower inside the perimeter of reserves and demarcated indigenous lands.
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|Recent articles on people in the Amazon
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Peru has delayed auctioning off 27 oil blocs in the Amazon in order to conduct legally-required consultations with indigenous groups in the region, reports the Guardian. Perupetro S.A., Peru's state oil and gas company, has announced it will auction 9 blocs off the Pacific coast, but will hold auctioning off the controversial oil blocs in the Amazon rainforest at least until later this year.
NGO: conflict of interests behind Peruvian highway proposal in the Amazon
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
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
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.
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Judge halts military-backed dam assessment in Brazil's Amazon
A federal court in Brazil has suspended the use of military and police personnel during technical research on the controversial São Luíz do Tapajós Dam in the Brazilian Amazon. The military and police were brought in to stamp down protests from indigenous people living along the Tapajós River, but the judge decreed that impacted indigenous groups must give free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) before any furter studies can be done on the proposed dam. However, the decision is expected to be appealed.
Landowner who allegedly ordered Amazon murders acquitted
Jose Rodrigues Moreira, a Brazilian landowner who allegedly ordered the killings of Amazon activists Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife Maria, was acquitted this week due to lack of evidence. But, the two men who carried out the assassinations, Lindonjonson Silva Rocha and Alberto Lopes do Nascimento, were found guilty and sent to 42 and 45 years of jail respectively.
Indigenous group: Brazil using military to force Amazon dams
An Amazonian community has threatened to "go to war" with the Brazilian government after what they say is a military incursion into their land by dam builders. The Munduruku indigenous group in Para state say they have been betrayed by the authorities, who are pushing ahead with plans to build a cascade of hydropower plants on the Tapajós river without their permission.
After decades of turning a blind eye, Peru declares state of emergency due to oil contamination in Amazon
The Peruvian government has declared an environmental state of emergency after finding elevated levels of lead, barium, and chromium in the Pastaza River in the Amazon jungle, reports the Associated Press. Indigenous peoples in the area have been complaining for decades of widespread contamination from oil drilling, but this is the first time the Peruvian government has acknowledged their concerns. Currently 84 percent of the Peruvian Amazon is covered by potential oil blocs, leading to conflict with indigenous people and environmental degradation.
Tribe rejects payment from electricity company behind destructive Amazon dam
Leaders of more than two dozen Kayapó indigenous communities have rejected a $9 million offer from Brazilian state energy company Eletrobras to fund development projects in their region due to the the firm's involvement in the construction of the Belo Monte dam, reports Amazon Watch, an activist group fighting the hydroelectric project.
Long lost tribe spotted in the Colombian Amazon
The March 2013 issue of Smithsonian magazine features an account of the flight that confirmed the presence of an isolated indigenous tribe in a remote part of the Colombian Amazon.
Featured video: Saving the Amazon through maps
In a new video ethnobotanist, Mark Plotkin, talks about recent—and historical—efforts to preserve the Amazon rainforest through map-making and technology. Today scientists like Plotkin are teaching indigenous people how to digitally map their territory to win land rights over the forest they've used for centuries.
Fossil fuel company looking to exploit deposits in Manu National Park
Pluspetrol, an Argentine oil and gas company, is eyeing a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Amazon rainforest for gas production, according to documents seen by the Guardian. Manu National Park in eastern Peru is considered one of the most biodiverse places on Earth and is home to indigenous tribes living in voluntary isolation.
From slash-and-burn to Amazon heroes: new video series highlights agricultural transformation
A new series of short films is celebrating the innovation of rural farmers in the Manu region of Peru. Home to jaguars, macaws, and tapirs, the Manu region is also one of the top contenders for the world's most biodiverse place. It faces a multitude of threats from road-building to mining to gas and oil concessions. Still the impact of smallscale slash-and-burn farming—once seen as the greatest threat to the Amazon and other rainforest—may be diminishing as farmers, like the first film's Reynaldo (see below), turn to new ways of farming, ones that preserve the forest while providing a better life overall.
Miners win ruling over indigenous groups in Guyana
A judge in Guyana's high court has ruled that indigenous groups do not have the right to expel legal miners from their land. The judge, Diana Insanally, found that if the miners in question held a government-approved license than the local community had no right to dispute the mining. The ruling has sparked protests by indigenous groups and is expected to be appealed.
Gold mine approved in French Guiana's only national park
Tensions have risen in the small Amazonian community of Saül in French Guiana after locals discovered that the French government approved a large-scale gold mining operation near their town—and inside French Guiana's only national park—against their wishes. Run by mining company, Rexma, locals and scientists both fear that the mine would lead to deforestation, water pollution, and a loss in biodiversity for a community dependent on the forest and ecotourism.
Colombia to double the size of massive Amazon reserve to include uncontacted tribes' land
Colombia may more than double the size of the remote and poorly-known Chiribiquete National Park to make it the biggest protected area in the Colombian Amazon, reports El Espectador. Chiribiquete best known for its unusual rock formations, including mesa-like tepuis and dramatic waterfalls, but also features at least 32 cave painting sites with some 250,000 drawings, making it a key center for indigenous culture.
Brazil sues to block unlicensed REDD deal between Irish company and indigenous group
Brazil's Attorney General Office has filed a lawsuit against an Irish company and an indigenous group for unlicensed sales of carbon credits generated from an reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD+) project, reports Reuters Point Carbon.
Uncontacted tribes still exist, but extinction threat looms
The world is more interconnected than ever. Globally, there are six billion cell phone subscribers and 900 million Facebook users. Nearly 32 million people follow Lady Gaga on Twitter. Given this content it may seem hard to believe that there remain people who have never had contact with the outside world. Yet such people do exist today. Most of them live in the most remote parts of the world's wildest forests. One of this year's best paperback books takes a close look at one uncontacted group — the Arrow People of the Brazilian Amazon. Written by veteran journalist Scott Wallace, The Unconquered is a gripping first-person account of a journey to learn more about this little-known tribe.
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THE AMAZON RAINFOREST