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.

Amazonian Home, Brazil 1999

Colonists' homes in the Brazilian Amazon
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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Amazonian girl

Amazonian colonist children

Amazonian children

Amazon boy

Amazonian colonist children

Amazonian colonist children
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

Suggested reading
  • The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey Of Richard Evans Schultes by Andrew Weil, Chris Murray, and Wade Davis
  • Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures by Wade Davis
  • Last Place on Earth by Mike Fay and Michael Nichols
  • One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest by Wade Davis by Wade Davis

  • Satellite view of Deforestation in Brazil (courtesy of DigitalEarth)

    Review questions:

    • What is happening to traditional indigenous cultures of rainforest peoples?
    • Who are the new "people of the rainforest"?

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    Continued / Next: Deforestation

  • Estimates for Amerindian population before the arrival of Europeans are found in A. Roosevelt, Parmana. New York: Academic Press, 1980; Smith, N.J.H. "Anthrosols and human carrying capacity in Amazônia," Annals of the Association of American Geographers 70: 553-566, 1980; Dobyns, H., Their Numbers Became Thin, University of Tennessee Press: Knoxville, 1983; MacDonald, T., "People of the Central and South American Forests," Rainforests: The Illustrated Library of the Earth. ed. N. Myers, Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1993; Smith, N.J.H. et al., Amazonia - Resiliency and Dynamism of the Land and its People, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995; and Diamond, J., Guns, Germs, and Steel New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.
  • The history of settlement in the Amazon, including the development of pottery and agriculture is discussed in A. Roosevelt, Parmana, New York: Academic Press, 1980; Roosevelt, A., "Resource management in Amazônia before the conquest: Beyond ethnographic projection," Advances in Economic Botany 7: 30-62, 1989; Bush, M. A., D. R. Piperno, and P. A. Colinvaux, "A 6,000 year history of Amazonian maize cultivation," Nature 340: 303-305, 1989; Roosevelt, A., Moundbuilders of the Amazon: Geophysical archaeology on Marajo Island, Brazil, San Diego: Academic Press, 1991; Smith, N.J.H. et al., Amazonia - Resiliency and Dynamism of the Land and its People, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995; Nishizawa, T. and J. I. Uitto, eds., The Fragile Tropics of Latin America: Sustainable Management of Changing Environments, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995; A.C. Roosevelt, et al., "Paleoindian cave dwellers i n the Amazon: The peopling of the Americas," Science 272:373-384, 1996; and Diamond, J., Guns, Germs, and Steel New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.
  • Large-scale forest clearing and management by pre-Colombian populations is reviewed in Richards, P.W.," Tropical forests and woodlands: An overview," Agro-Ecosystems 3: 225-238, 1977; Dufour, D.L., "Use of tropical rainforests by native Amazonians," Bioscience 40: 652-659, 1990; Denevan, V.M., "The pristine myth: The landscape of the Americas in 1492," Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82: 369-385, 1992; and Meggers, B.J., "Archaeological perspectives on the potential of Amazonia for intensive exploitation," in Nishizawa, T. and J. I. Uitto, eds., The Fragile Tropics of Latin America: Sustainable Management of Changing Environments, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995. At least 11.8% of terra firme forests are believed to be of an anthropogenic form according to Balée, W., "The culture of Amazonian forests," Advances in Economic Botany 7: 1-21, 1989; and Nishizawa, T. and J. I. Uitto, eds., The Fragile Tropics of Latin America: Sustainable Management of Changing Environments, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995.
  • The notion of a sparsely populated Amazon is a testament to the best weapon possessed by Europeans in their conquering of the New World: their diseases. These diseases, especially smallpox, devastated unsuspecting native populations native populations, killing as much as 95%. The massive Amerindian die-off is described in innumerable works, but this book draws on the following sources: Prescott W.H., History of the Conquest of Peru, New York 1847; McNeill W.H., Plagues and Peoples, New York: History Book Club, 1976; H. Dobyns, Their Numbers Became Thin, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983; Caufield, C., In the Rainforest, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984; A.W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism-The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986; Nishizawa, T. and J. I. Uitto, eds., The Fragile Tropics of Latin America: Sustainable Management of Changing Environments, New York: United Nations University Press, 1995; and Diamond, J., Guns, Germs, and Steel New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998. A history of the Mayan civilization can be found in Sharer, R.J., The Ancient Maya, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994. It has been suggested that deforestation may have been one of the causes behind the downfall of this great civilization.
  • An overview of forest people today is found in Moran, E.F. "Following the Amazon highways," In Julie S. Denslow and Christine Padoch (eds.), People of the tropical rain forest, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988.
  • Wade Davis (One River, New York: Touchstone, 1996) describes research by Kaplan, J.E., et al., ("Infectious Disease Patterns in the Waorani, an Isolated Amerindian People," American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 29(2): 298-312, 1980), Larrick, J.W., et al., ("Snake Bite Among the Waorani Indians of Eastern Ecuador," Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygeine 72: 542-543, 1978), and Larrick, J.W., et al., ("Patterns of Health Among the Waorani Indians of Eastern Ecuador," Medical Anthropology 3: 147-91, 1979) which found remarkably good health among unacculturated indigenous people.
  • According to MacDonald, T., ("People of the Central and South American Forests," Rainforests: The Illustrated Library of the Earth. ed. N. Myers, Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1993) virtually no native group in the Amazon obtains the majority of their food by traditional nomadic hunting and gathering.
  • The brutal treatment of native people by the conquerors, religious leaders, and rubber barrons is depicted in Davis, W., One River, New York: Touchstone, 1996.
  • The sharp 1996 increase in land incursions by loggers and miners on indigenous territories was publicized by Schomberg, W., "Brazil's Indians Face Rising Land Invasions Report," Reuters, 12/5/97.
  • The Brazilian government plan to reduce the threat of garimpeiros to the Yanomani is reported in Schomberg, W., "Brazil Clears Miners in Bid to Save Yanomani," Reuters, 1/14/98 and Schomberg, W., "Brazil's Yanomani See Life After Gold Rush," Reuters, 2/28/98.
  • The Rainforest Action Network (1990-1996) reports on conflicts between miners and native Yanomani, while Clay, J.W. ("Indigenous Peoples: The Miner's Canary for the 20th Century," In Lessons of the Rainforest, Suzanne Head and Robert Heinzman, eds., Sierra Club Books) notes some of the techniques - such as distributing disease-infected blankets - employed by miners to clear lands of indigenous people.
  • Mercury pollution and disease among local residents resulting from gold mining in the Amazon is discussed in Hecht, S.B. and A. Cockburn, The fate of the forest: Developers, destroyers, and defenders of the Amazon. London: Verso, 1989; Malm, O., Pfeiffer, W.C., et al.: "Mercury Pollution Due to Gold Mining in the Madeira River Basin, Brazil," Ambio19(1):11-15 (1990); Thornton, l., D. Cleary, S. Worthington, and N. Brown, Mercury contamination in the Brazilian Amazon: A report for the Commission of the European Communitie (Directorate General l-K-2, Environment). Brussels, 1991; Lebel J., Mergler D., et al. "Evidence of early nervous system dysfunction in Amazonian populations exposed to low levels of methylmercury," Neurotoxicology, 17(1): 157-167, 1996; Pearce, F., "A nightmare revisited," The New Scientist, 2/6/99.
  • Official land demarcation for indigenous Brazilians is reported in Borges, B., "Brazil Legalizes Indigenous Land Titles," Environmental News Network 11/28/97 and Moffett, M. "Native empowerment and economic growth collide in rural Brazil,"The Wall Street Journal 8/19/99.
  • The botanical genius of native rainforest peoples is articulated in Caufield, C., In the Rainforest, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984; Cox, P.A. and Balick, M.J. "The Ethnobotanical Approach to Drug Discovery," Scientific American, June 1994; Davis, W., One River, New York: Touchstone, 1996; and
    Davis, W., Shadows in the Sun, Washington, D.C.: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 1998.
  • The internal conflict over development in the Bahineimo tribe of Papua New Guinea is described in Hanley, C.J., "Aboriginal Peoples Choosing Between Heritage, Money," Associated Press, 5/29/96.
  • The plight of the Ashanainka tribe in Peru is documented in Speer, L.J., "Amazon Tribe's Last Stand," San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service, 1/9/95.
  • The battle between Occidental Oil and the U'wa of Colombia is discussed in Rainforest Action Network literature (1995-1999) and Waldman, G. "A rain-forest tribe brings its eco-battle to corporate America,"The Wall Street Journal, 6/7/99.