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People in the Amazon Rainforest

By Rhett Butler [citation]

(more on rainforest people)

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.

Amazonians Today

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.
CityCountryUrban Population
BelemBrazil1,912,600
ManausBrazil1,524,600
IquitosPeru349,300
MacapaBrazil301,600
Porto VelhoBrazil292,000
SantaremBrazil192,300
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 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 conducted in the traditional manner.

Today virtually no forest Amerindians live in their fully traditional ways, although there are still several dozen groups living in voluntary isolation. The "uncontacted tribes", as they are popularly known, mostly live in Brazil and Peru.

Indigenous groups living in
voluntary isolation in the Amazon

CountryUncontacted
groups
Population
estimate
Bolivia6 to 10< 500
Brazil77A few thousand
Colombia3 to 5< 1000
Ecuador3< 300
Peru12 to 15< 1000
Venezuela2 to 3A few hundred


The number of indigenous people living in the Amazon Basin is poorly quantified, but some 20 million people in 8 Amazon countries and the Department of French Guiana are classified as "indigenous". Two-thirds of this population lives in Peru, but most of this population dwells not in the Amazon, but in the highlands.

Indigenous people and conservation


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]

While indigenous populations have at times been seen as being at odds with conservation, today policymakers realize the importance of incorporating indigenous people in conservation efforts. In fact there is evidence in some parts of the Amazon that indigenous territories have lower deforestation rates and incidence of encroachment than conventional protected areas. For example, 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.

The findings shouldn't come as a surprise, according to ethnobotanist Mark Plokin, who runs the Amazon Conservation Team, a conservation group.

"As an illegal logger or miner, would you rather invade a national park that has two rangers in a hut miles away from its borders or an indigenous reserve full of people armed with spears and poison-tipped arrows who will defend their forest home with their lives?"

Indigenous Amazonians are presently at the forefront of conservation efforts, even embracing technology and new policy mechanisms to safeguard their forests and traditions.

Brazil's indigenous population

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 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. 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.


Waura Indians in the Brazilian Amazon



Waura boy



Kaiapo shaman in the Amazon



Waura mother and child



Waura indians dressed in ceremonial costumes




Amerindian girl

Waura father with child in the Amazon



Waura shaman



Waura shaman in the Amazon rainforest




(more on rainforest people)


Recent articles on people in the Amazon

9 months after Amazonian oil pipeline spill, effects and fears linger

(03/30/2015) When Peru's state-run oil company pulled out of this small Kukama Indian village in mid-December after cleaning up an oil pipeline spill, residents thought life could slowly return to normal. But more than three months later, wisps of oil floating down the Cuninico River—along with a larger spill in the neighboring community of San Pedro—are a reminder that the problems are not over.


Photos: expedition to Amazon’s white sands may have found new primate

(03/24/2015) Most people think of the Amazon rainforest as one massive, homogenous ecosystem—a giant castle of green. However, within the Amazon rainforest lie a myriad of distinct ecosystems, sporting unique characteristics and harboring endemic species. One of the rarer ecosystems in the Amazon is the white sands forest.


Photo essay: filming in the remote Amazon

(03/09/2015) You wake up at 4:30 AM, a little before the first rays of tropical sun begin to dance behind the treetops. You put on your wet clothes from the previous day, pack your bag, and pick up your tripod. The jungle is shrouded in a thick mist from the previous nights rain. As you walk, you recognize many of the strange calls that echo between the trees.


Partnering for conservation benefits Tacana people, Bolivian park

(02/25/2015) Kneeling in a small clearing amid tropical trees, Baldemar Mazaro skillfully arranges a circle of sticks and a noose of cord in the community of San Miguel de Bala. He hands a branch to a tourist and asks her to prod the sticks as if the branch were the nose of an animal snuffling around, looking for food.


Brazilian indigenous populations grow quickly after first contact devastation

(02/18/2015) Indigenous communities in South America have long experienced devastating impacts from contact with Western society. In the Sixteenth Century, European colonists brought slavery, war, and violence, but disease proved the most devastating. In all, European contact destroyed over 95 percent of the native population.


Drones to scan the Amazon rainforest for hidden civilizations

(02/18/2015) Researchers are planning to use drones equipped with vegetation-penetrating lasers to scan the Amazon rainforest for signs of past civilizations, reports the University of Exeter.


How do parks affect the poor? Jury’s still out, some experts say

(02/13/2015) In Peru’s vast northeastern region, where roads are scarce and forests abundant, crackdowns on the illegal plundering of timber, fish, and wildlife are sporadic and expensive. To fill the gap, the Peruvian National Park Service and non-profit conservation organizations encourage community groups to patrol their lakes and forests and control fishing and hunting.


Innovating Brazil nuts: a business with roots in the rainforest

(02/11/2015) Scientist and entrepreneur turn to Brazil nuts to protect Peru's threatened forests. Sofía Rubio was eight years old when she decided she wanted to be a biologist. 'I would skip school to go to the woods with my father or mother,' who did research in what is now the Tambopata National Reserve in the southeastern Peruvian Amazon, she says.


Video: innovative tourism helps protect forests in Amazonian Peru

(02/05/2015) A new short documentary highlights the innovative, locally-grown tourist ventures sprouting up in the buffer zone around Peru's Tambopata National Reserve. Not only do these tourist adventures--some specializing in rehabilitating wildlife, others in finding out how locals live, and some even in jungle yoga--help provide jobs and income in a region dominated by extractive industries, but they are also help to keep forests standing.


Mercury fish: gold mining puts downstream communities at risk in Peru

(02/02/2015) Artisanal, often illegal gold-mining, has swept across portions of the Peruvian Amazon over last decade, driven in part by a rising price in gold. The unregulated industry has resulted in widespread deforestation leading to an environmental disaster. Now a new study finds that mercury pollution has moved rapidly downstream and could be impacting communities at least 560 kilometers away.


Community tourism fills niche around Tambopata National Reserve

(01/29/2015) When Víctor Zambrano retired from the military and returned to his family’s old homestead outside the fast-growing jungle town of Puerto Maldonado in Peru, he got an unpleasant surprise. Strangers had moved in and cleared the trees to raise cattle. As Zambrano tells it, he ran up the Peruvian flag, chased the invaders off, and set to work planting 19,000 native tree seedlings.


Environmental wisdom: keeping indigenous stories alive

(01/21/2015) Enchanted lakes and magic hills: how traditional stories support conservation and abundance. 'Long ago, when animals were gente...' Those words, uttered countless times by indigenous Amazonian storytellers, blur the boundary between humans and other creatures in the forests and rivers, revealing a different view of the way human and non-human worlds intertwine.


Amazon tribe attacks oilfield in Ecuador

(01/15/2015) Indigenous leaders are calling for the release of six tribesmen implicated in a raid on an oilfield in Eastern Ecuador that left six soldiers injured, reports Andina and El Comercio.


Top 10 Environmental Stories of 2014

(12/23/2014) In 2014, the unimaginable happened: companies representing the majority of palm oil production and trade agreed to stop cutting down rainforests and draining peatlands for new oil palm plantations. After years of intense campaigning by environmentalists and dire warnings from scientists, nearly two dozen major producers, traders, and buyers established zero deforestation policies.


Indigenous leader murdered before he could attend Climate Summit

(12/08/2014) Days before José Isidro Tendetza Antún was supposed to travel to the UN Climate Summit in Lima to publicly file a complaint against a massive mining operation, he went missing. Now, the Guardian reports that the body of the Shuar indigenous leader has been found, bound and buried in an unmarked grave on the banks of the Zamora River.


Giant stone face unveiled in the Amazon rainforest (video)

(12/04/2014) A new short film documents the journey of an indigenous tribe hiking deep into their territory in the Peruvian Amazon to encounter a mysterious stone countenance that was allegedly carved by ancient peoples. According to Handcrafted Films, which produced the documentary entitled The Reunion, this was the first time the Rostro Harakbut has been filmed.


Threatened indigenous forests store more than half the Amazon's carbon

(12/02/2014) A new study released today finds the total carbon load locked up in parts of the Amazon rainforest held by indigenous groups to be much higher than previously estimated – an amount that, if released, would be capable of destabilizing the earth’s atmosphere. But because of flimsy land rights, these areas stand at risk of deforestation.


What we can learn from uncontacted rainforest tribes

(11/26/2014) If you have ever wondered about the connection between hallucinogenic frogs, uncontacted peoples, conservation, and climate change — and who hasn't? — check out this TED talk from ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin. An ethnobotanist by training, Plotkin serves as President of the Amazon Conservation Team. Plotkin took a few minutes from his busy schedule to answer a few questions from Mongabay.


A tale of 2 Perus: Climate Summit host, 57 murdered environmentalists

(11/18/2014) On September 1st, indigenous activist, Edwin Chota, and three other indigenous leaders were gunned down and their bodies thrown into rivers. Chota, an internationally-known leader of the Asháninka in Peru, had warned several times that his life was on the line for his vocal stance against the destruction of his peoples' forests, yet the Peruvian government did nothing to protect him—or others.


Brazilian tribes demarcate territory in bid to block dams

(11/06/2014) Indigenous communities in Brazil have taken the unusual step of demarcating their own land — without the approval of the Brazilian government — in a bid to block two dams they say threaten their territory and traditional livelihoods, report International Rivers and Amazon Watch, advocacy groups that are fighting the projects. Last week the Munduruku people annexed the 178,000-hectare Sawré Muybu territory after authorities failed to recognize their claims.


more news on Amazon people




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KEY ARTICLES
  • Brazil could halt Amazon deforestation within a decade
  • Concerns over deforestation may drive new approach to cattle ranching in the Amazon
  • Are we on the brink of saving rainforests?
  • Amazon deforestation doesn't make communities richer, better educated, or healthier
  • Brazil's plan to save the Amazon rainforest
  • Beef consumption fuels rainforest destruction
  • How to save the Amazon rainforest
  • Oil development could destroy the most biodiverse part of the Amazon
  • Future threats to the Amazon rainforest
  • Half the Amazon rainforest will be lost within 20 years
  • Can cattle ranchers and soy farmers save the Amazon rainforest?
  • Globalization could save the Amazon rainforest
  • Amazon natives use Google Earth, GPS to protect forest home



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