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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

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.


An impossible balancing act? Forests benefit from isolation, but at cost to local communities

(10/07/2014) The indigenous people of the Amazon live in areas that house many of the Amazon’s diverse species. The Rupununi region of Guyana is one such area, with approximately 20,000 Makushi and Wapishana people living in isolation. According to a recent study published in Environmental Modelling & Software, a simulation model revealed a link between growing indigenous populations and gradual local resource depletion.


Turning point for Peru's forests? Norway and Germany put muscle and money behind ambitious agreement

(09/24/2014) From the Andes to the Amazon, Peru houses some of the world's most spectacular forests. Proud and culturally-diverse indigenous tribes inhabit the interiors of the Peruvian Amazon, including some that have chosen little contact with the outside world. And even as scientists have identified tens-of-thousands of species that make their homes from the leaf litter to the canopy.


Brazil cancels Tapajos dam auction due to indigenous concerns

(09/19/2014) Brazilian authorities have suspended the auction of the centerpiece of the massive Tapajos hydroelectric complex, reports Agencia Brasil.


'The green Amazon is red with indigenous blood': authorities pull bodies from river that may have belonged to slain leaders

(09/17/2014) Peruvian authorities have pulled more human remains from a remote river in the Amazon, which may belong to one of the four murdered Ashaninka natives killed on September 1st. It is believed the four Ashaninka men, including renowned leader Edwin Chota Valera, were assassinated for speaking up against illegal logging on their traditional lands.


4 Ashaninka tribesmen killed by loggers in Peru

(09/08/2014) One of those killed was Edwin Chota, the leader of the Alto Tamaya-Saweto indigenous community who won fame for fighting illegal loggers. As such, Chota was a top target for assassination, according to a conservationist familiar with the situation.


Brazil releases video showing first contact with rainforest tribe

(07/31/2014) The Brazilian government has released footage showing 'first contact' with an isolated group of indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest.


Phone-based logging alert system eyes expanding to the Amazon

(07/23/2014) After exceeding an ambitious fundraising target to launch a near-real time forest monitoring system in the Congo Basin, a San-Francisco based start-up is now eyeing expansion in the Amazon where it hopes to help an indigenous rainforest tribe fight illegal logging.


A garden or a wilderness? One-fifth of the Amazon may have been savannah before the arrival of Europeans

(07/09/2014) The Amazon is the largest tropical forest on the planet, covering about 6.5 million square kilometers, although much has been lost in recent decades.Yet new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) finds that quite recently—just 500 years ago—a significant portion of the southern Amazon was not the tall-canopied forest it is today, but savannah.


Using Google Earth to protect uncontacted tribes in the Amazon rainforest

(06/19/2014) In 2008, images of an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil created ripples. With bodies painted in bright colors, members of the tribe aimed their arrows at a Brazilian government plane flying overhead, occupants of which were attempting to photograph the tribe to prove their existence. Now, a new study has found another way to survey such tribes safely and remotely—using satellite images.


Of jaguars and loggers: new film to showcase one of the least-known regions in the deep Amazon

(06/02/2014) In August, three young filmmakers will go on the expedition of a lifetime. They plan to spend six months filming in one of the most remote, most spectacular, and most endangered ecosystems on the planet: the Las Piedras River system. This unprotected swathe of Amazon jungle contains massive anacondas, prowling jaguars, and even uncontacted indigenous people.


53 indigenous activists on trial for police-protester massacre in Peru

(05/15/2014) In the summer of 2009, on a highway in Peru known as Devil's Curve: everything went wrong. For months, indigenous groups had protested new laws by then President Alan Garcia opening up the Amazon to deregulated logging, fossil fuels, and other extractive industries as a part of free trade agreements with the U.S.


New report reveals human rights abuses by corporations, governments in the Amazon

(05/14/2014) Regnskogfondet (the Rainforest Foundation of Norway) recently released a 52-page report that gives an in-depth account of the conflicts activists and indigenous peoples (IPs) are having with corporations and governmental agencies. It relays a situation that does not look good.


Stolen information may derail Yasuni drilling referendum

(04/30/2014) Environmental activists in Ecuador are accusing the country’s National Electoral Council of breaking into sealed boxes to interfere with completed petitions that call for a referendum on oil drilling in the Amazonian region of Yasuní. The environmentalists had spent six months collecting signatures to oppose Rafael Correa’s plans to extract oil in the eastern portion of the country.


Small monkeys take over when big primates have been hunted out in the Amazon

(04/21/2014) The barbecued leg of a spider monkey might not be your idea of a sumptuous dinner, but to the Matsés or one of the fifteen tribes in voluntary isolation in Peru, it is the result of a successful hunt and a proud moment for the hunter's family. However, a spider monkey tends to have only a single infant once every 30 months, which necessarily limits the number of adult monkeys available to subsistence hunters.


Ecuador will have referendum on fate of Yasuni after activists collect over 700,000 signatures

(04/16/2014) In what is a major victory for environmentalists, campaigners with United for Yasuni have collected 727,947 signatures triggering a national referendum on whether or not oil drilling should proceed in three blocs of Yasuni National Park in Ecuador.


Featured video: celebrities speak out for Yasuni

(04/02/2014) A group of celebrities, including recent Academy Award winner Jared Leto, Law and Order's Benjamin Bratt, and Kill Bill's Daryl Hannah, have lent their voices to a new Public Service Announcement to raise signatures to protect Ecuador's Yasuni National Park from oil drilling.


Mother of God: meet the 26 year old Indiana Jones of the Amazon, Paul Rosolie

(03/17/2014) Not yet 30, Paul Rosolie has already lived a life that most would only dare dream of—or have nightmares over, depending on one's constitution. With the Western Amazon as his panorama, Rosolie has faced off jaguars, wrestled anacondas, explored a floating forest, mentored with indigenous people, been stricken by tropical disease, traveled with poachers, and hand-reared a baby anteater. It's no wonder that at the ripe age of 26, Rosolie was already written a memoir: Mother of God.


New $20,000 reporting grant explores benefits of Amazonian protected areas

(02/21/2014) With six Special Reporting Initiatives (SRI) already under way, Mongabay.org is excited to announce a call for applications for its latest journalism grant topic: Amazonian protected areas: benefits for people. The Amazon’s system of protected areas has grown exponentially in the past 25 years. In many South American nations, the mission of protected areas has expanded from biodiversity conservation to improving human welfare. However, given the multiple purposes and diverse management of many protected areas, it is often difficult to measure their effect on human populations.


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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