It is estimated there are 250,000 pureblood Indians in Brazil, comprising about 180 tribal groups speaking nearly as many languages and dialects. Their numbers are getting smaller all the time. When the Portuguese arrived in 1500 there were an estimated 5 million Indians from 900 tribes. There are four main language groups of Brazil's Indians. The most widely spoken is the complex Gé family of languages.

Originally there were two kinds of Indians in the Amazon: ones that lived in villages and got around by canoe; and others called "foot" Indians who lived a nomadic way of life. Soon after the arrival of Europeans the riverine Indians were wiped out by disease or forced from their villages to make room for rubber plantations.

Indigenous people of the rainforest have been killed outright by guns, poisons and bombs; inadvertently killed with introduced diseases such as measles and tuberculosis; and driven off their land by loggers, ranchers and farmers. Lose of tribes and indigenous people is not only tragic in its own right it also tragic because we lose their knowledge about the forest and life.

Websites and Resources: Rainforest Action Network ; Rainforest Foundation ; World Rainforest Movement ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Forest Peoples Programme ; Rainforest Alliance ; Nature Conservancy ; National Geographic ; Rainforest Photos ; Rainforest Animals: Rainforest Animals ; ; Plants ;Books: “The Private Life of Plants: A Natural History of Plant Behavior” by David Attenborough (Princeton University Press, 1997); “Portraits of the Rainforest” by Adrian Forsythe. National Geographic articles “Rainforest Canopy, the High Frontier” by Edward O. Wilson, December 1991 ▸; “Tropical Rainforests: Nature's Dwindling Treasures”, by Peter T. White, January 1983 ∩

Amazon-Dwellers Lived Sustainably for 5,000 Years

A study that examined the history of human impact on the Amazon rainforest by studying soil samples found that indigenous people lived there for millennia with "causing no detectable species losses or disturbances". The BBC reported: “Scientists working in Peru searched layers of soil for microscopic fossil evidence of human impact. They found that forests were not "cleared, farmed, or otherwise significantly altered in prehistory". The research is published in the journal PNAS. [Source: Victoria Gill, BBC News, June 8, 2021] . 20120513-Amazonas_floating_village Iquitos.jpg
Amazon floating village near Iquitos, Peu
“Dr Dolores Piperno, from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Balboa, Panama, who led the study, said the evidence could help shape modern conservation — revealing how people can live in the Amazon while preserving its incredibly rich biodiversity. “Dr Piperno's discoveries also inform an ongoing debate about how much the Amazon's vast, diverse landscape was shaped by indigenous people.

“Some research has suggested the landscape was actively, intensively shaped by indigenous peoples before the arrival of Europeans in South America. Recent studies have even suggested that the tree species that now dominates the forest was planted by prehistoric human inhabitants. Dr Piperno told BBC News, the new findings provide evidence that the indigenous population's use of the rainforest "was sustainable, causing no detectable species losses or disturbances, over millennia".

“To find that evidence, she and her colleagues carried out a kind of botanical archaeology — excavating and dating layers of soil to build a picture of the rainforest's history. They examined the soil at three sites in a remote part of northeastern Peru. “All three were located at least one kilometre away from river courses and floodplains, known as "interfluvial zones". These forests make up more than 90% of the Amazon's land area, so studying them is key to understanding the indigenous influence on the landscape as a whole.

“They searched each sediment layer for microscopic plant fossils called phytoliths — tiny records of what grew in the forest over thousands of years. "We found very little sign of human modification over 5,000 years," said Dr Piperno. "So I think we have a good deal of evidence now, that those off-river forests were less occupied and less modified."

“The scientists say their findings also point to the value of indigenous knowledge in helping us to preserve the biodiversity in the Amazon, for example, by guiding the selection of the best species for replanting and restoration.

“"Indigenous peoples have tremendous knowledge of their forest and their environment," said Dr Piperno, "and that needs to be included in our conservation plans".

Hunting in the Rainforest

Undisturbed by roads or hydroelectric dams, and largely forgotten by the rest of the world, the remote Caura covers a section of southern Venezuela larger than Belgium. Only about 3,500 indigenous people from two forest tribes, the Ye’kuana and Sanema, live in its rain forest and savannas, which are fed by rivers flowing down from the Venezuelan table-top mountains known as tepuis that geologists think are remnants of the mountains of the Gondwana supercontinent. The Ye’kuana and the Sanema cling to their way of life here by hunting peccary, spider monkey and tapir. They farm manioc and use barbasco, a vine poison, to rouse fish from streams. [Source: New York Times, November 30, 2009]

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Describing hunters in the region around the village of Edowinña. the New York Times reported: “The hunt for the tapir, a large mammal that roams the remote Caura forest in southern Venezuela, began at dawn. Sunlight peeked through the tree canopy, a piece of one of South America’s last virtually pristine river basins. Menace lurked on branches in the form of inch-long bullet ants, called “veinticuatro” since the intense pain from their sting lasts 24 hours. The shed skin of a bushmaster viper decomposed on the ground. Resonating moans of howler monkeys drowned out the buzzing of sand flies, which transmit a dreaded spleen-enlarging disease.

“Temblador,” said Romero González, 18, a Ye’kuana tribesman, grasping a machete in one hand and a 16-gauge shotgun in the other. He pointed at the carcass of a six-foot-long electric eel his hunting party found in a stream a day earlier. They sliced off part of the eel’s head and ate it quickly for good luck. Then they came across a black curassow, a bird resembling a wild turkey, and promptly shot it. “The curassow is my favorite bird,” said Mr. González, referring to the roasted meat consumed for dinner the previous night.

Threats to Indigenous Forest People

Describing threats on two forest tribes, the Ye’kuana and Sanema, in southern Venezuela the New York Times reported: Among the daunting challenges they face are a thriving illicit bush-meat trade, incursions by gold miners and the government’s resistance to requests by the Caura’s forest dwellers that they be given greater administrative control over their land. [Source: New York Times, November 30, 2009]

“The two groups have survived countless trials. Carib slavers from what is now Guyana’s coast led 17th-century raids in the Caura, delivering captives to the Dutch. More recently, the Ye’kuana and Sanema fought a brutal war in the 1930s, apparently over Sanema raids for metal and women, forcing the Sanema into a subservient role in some Ye’kuana villages. Somehow, the forests in which the two groups live were not felled. Historians credit this slip of fate to the Caura’s remoteness, and to the country’s overwhelming dependence on a different natural resource: oil. Projects to dam rivers were drawn up, then forgotten. Scientific research stations in the forest lie abandoned.

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miner shantytown
“A glimpse of one possible outcome for the groups, assimilation, can be seen in Maripa, a town of about 4,000 residents six hours by canoe from Edowinña. A strong military presence there — ostensibly to combat illegal gold mining in the Caura that is polluting rivers with mercury and resulting, in some cases, in miners burning the huts of the Ye’kuana and Sanema — serves as a source of tension. Last month, residents responded to a shooting episode by army soldiers, which wounded three people, by setting fire to the town’s main military checkpoint.

But the government also brings resources that are impossible to refuse. One recent Saturday morning, officers in an armed civilian force nurtured by Mr. Chávez, the Bolivarian Militia, led about 30 recruits, nearly all Ye’kuana or Sanema, in reciting their official hymn. Officers said the recruits would receive about $6 for showing up.They meekly chanted: “All of Venezuela’s people must grip their rifles. Man’s true peace is his nation’s progress.”

Progress in Maripa, or what passes for it, manifests itself in a slum that serves as home for Ye’kuana who left Chajuraña, a village deep in the interior. “We want money to buy things,” said Silverio Flores, 49, who moved to Maripa’s squalor three years ago. “If we join a mission,” he said using the term for Mr. Chávez’s social welfare programs, “maybe we’ll get a monthly payment of some kind.”

At a truck stop in Maripa, a dealer in illegal bush meat listed his products: tapir, agouti (a coveted rodent), curassow and peccary. He said prices ran about $4 a kilogram for the wild animals, which had been killed near indigenous communities by poachers. As others encroach on their land, the Ye’kuana and Sanema go on with their lives. They farm. They fish. They hunt. The results are not always promising. On the day of Romero González’s hunt, the desired tapir was elusive. A day later, the hunters’ canoe drifted past a clearing in the forest where poachers had left the innards and bones of a freshly killed tapir to decay. The canoe’s pilot, Mocuy Rodríguez, a 23-year-old Ye’kuana, pondered the significance. “Call it our reality,” he said, as the rapids of the river swirled around his canoe. “Call it the end of our reality if it is not stopped.”

Rainforest Settlers

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deforested land
By one estimate 1.2 billion people worldwide depend on the forest for their livelihood. The large number of poor people in tropical areas presents one of the great challenges to improving reforestation efforts and forest management. Pekka Kauppi of the University of Helsinki and one of the authors of the above study told the Times of London, “The main obstacles to forest transition are fast-growing poor populations who burn wood to cook, sell it for quick cash and clear forest for crops. Harvesting biomass for fuel also forestalls the restoration of land to nature. Through paper recycling and a growing reliance on electronic communication, people help the transition by lessening demand for wood products.”

In the Amazon settlers often work the land for a few years and then sell it off or abandon it. Often they are followed by cattle ranchers whose herds can feed on vegetation that grows on depleted land and by soy bean farmers that can afford chemical fertilizers. Prices of beef and soybeans are primary forces behind deforestation. When they go up so too does deforestation.

Cacao, the source of chocolate, can be grown in a rainforest. Most crops however require the forest to be cut down so there is enough sunlight for the crops to grow.

Yerba Mate, the source of tea-like drink popular in Argentina, grows well in rainforests that have been partially cleared. In Paraguay a company called Guayaki is raising yerba mate on partially deforested land through a partnership with the Ache Guayaki, an indigenous group in eastern Paraguay.

In many cases it is unclear who actually owns the owns the rainforest. A couple of decades ago Brazil began selling huge swaths of land, mostly to foreign companies, to develop.

Deforestation and Peasant Farmers

A large number of trees are cut down for agriculture and firewood. Most peasants can't afford kerosene for cooking stoves and, for the most part, they don't raise animals like cows which can provide them with dung, a fuel used in many other parts of the world. That leaves firewood and charcoal as the most accessible and inexpensive fuels for cooking and heating water.

Trees are cut down in deforested areas mainly for fuel and charcoal and to make way for agricultural land. In many places forest have been replaced by expanses of elephant grass and eroded gullies and rocky ravines.

Fuel wood consumption is increasing at an alarming rate. People have little choice to down forest for building materials and firewood. No alternative fuels and building materials are provided. Fuel wood consumption in the developing world increased 35 percent between 1975 and 1986.

Floods and landslides kill lots of people. Erosion and deforestation caused by loggers and villagers collecting firewood and practicing slash and burn agriculture exacerbate the problem. In prehistoric times the land was covered with forests, but these trees were cut down long ago.

Deforestation in some countries has been exacerbated by land reform legislation passed that allowed people to claim undeveloped land if they cleared it and put it into production.

Charcoal and Deforestation

A considerable amount of rainforest timber ends up as charcoal. One Amazon settler who sells four-dollar, 50-kilogram bags of charcoal made from cut down trees told the Los Angeles Times, ?I know its wrong to cut down the trees. But I have no other way to make a living.”

Charcoal is the porous, black brittle substance produced when woods or bones are partially burned. It is an impure variety of carbon, which is able to absorb large quantities of gases. Charcoal production and use creates greenhouse gases.

Charcoal is preferred to wood because it is slow burning, produces little ash, gives off relatively little smoke, produces a hot even heat ideal for cooking, and is easy to transport.

Charcoal is made by slowly burning hardwoods for three days under a blanket of wet leaves and earth. It is a dirty process. Using the traditional method, wood is placed in a pit in a pyramid-like pile and covered by the earth-leaves blanket. Holes were left at the bottom for air to enter and at the top for a chimney.

The wood burns slowly. When fully burned, the heap is covered and left to cool for two or three days. Using this method the weight of the charcoal is about 20 percent of the wood used to make it. These days charcoal is often made in special ovens. With this method the weight of the charcoal is about 30 percent of the wood used to make it.

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Deforestation and charcoal making

Rainforest and Disease

Nathan Wolfe, a professor of epidemiology at Stanford University, found that 60 percent of pathogens he was studying in Africa had animal origins. Wolfe is studying bushmeat eaters in the forests of Cameroon to discover new diseases and contain them. “If you find diseases before they’ve really emerged,” he told the New York Times, “you can control them early on, before you get a major epidemic.”

Wolfe collects blood samples from bush meat hunters to get an idea of what animal diseases the hunters are exposed to and to get an idea of what animal viruses present the greatest threat to humans. He has come across several viruses never before seen in humans, including retroviruses in the same family as HIV. HIV and Ebola have documented primate origins.

Image Source: Mongabay ; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “The Private Life of Plants: A Natural History of Plant Behavior” by David Attenborough (Princeton University Press, 1997); National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2022

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