Indigenous People of the Rainforest

Rainforests are very rich in natural resources, but they are also very fragile. For this reason, indigenous people have become instinctive conservationists. For them, conservation is literally a way of life.

A Garden of Eden?

Rainforests are very rich in natural resources, but they are also very fragile. For this reason, rainforest peoples have become instinctive conservationists. For them, conservation is literally a way of life. If they were to take too much food in one year, the forest would not be able to produce enough new food for them to be able to survive in the next year. Many rainforest tribes gather their food from small garden plots, which are shifted every few years. This method is less productive than intensive agriculture, but is also much less harmful to the rainforest environment.

Rainforest CanopyThe rainforest lifestyle may sound like a kind of paradise, a Garden of Eden for the lucky few who live there. It certainly has its advantages. There is little stress, little mental illness and little high blood pressure among rainforest dwellers. Physical fitness is generally good, and few people need to work for more than four hours a day to provide themselves and their families with adequate food and other necessities. 

However, life is far from perfect. One in every two children born in the rainforest dies before their second birthday, and if they make it to forty years of age they are considered tribal elders. Most rainforest dwellers who make it through childhood tend to die from a disease trivial to western medicine.

It is estimated that the Amazon rainforest supported about six million tribal people before 1500AD.  By 2000, there were less than 250,000 of them left.  Over 90 tribes are thought to have disappeared from the Amazon alone during the 20th Century.  Many were wiped out when western settlers brought diseases they had never encountered before - like measles - which wiped out thousands of tribespeople. According to Survivial, there are 1 million tribal people divided into around 400 tribes..

A way of life under threat

TribeIndigenous peoples' way of life has gone on uninterrupted for centuries, but is now under threat because of the invasion of the rainforest by outsiders - logging companies, mining operations and ranchers looking to make a quick profit by exploiting the natural resources to be found in the rain forests around the world. 

Each group of indigenous people is unique, has its own language, culture, mythology, religious beliefs, art and ritual.  It is already known that there are a vast number of as yet undiscovered plants and animals in the rain forest. Indigenous healers may hold in their heads the key to curing many of the world's as yet incurable diseases by using undocumented chemical compounds found in species of rain forest plants.  What is more, indigenous people have been able to live in the forests while causing minimal damage to them - something that others seem incapable of doing.

Even more frustrating is the knowledge that rainforest soil is very poor for growing crops and can turn to virtual desert within five to seven years of losing its protective canopy of trees and the anchoring effects of tree roots, with the topsoil washed away in the rains. 

Governments know this, yet still allow logging and ranching to continue on a huge scale. It is true that in the short term, huge amounts of money can be made from exploiting the rain forest in this way. But in the longer term - perhaps in as little as ten years -there will simply be vast areas of desert where once there was rain forest.

Let us turn now to the fortunes of possibly the most famous of all the indigenous people of the rainforest, the Yanomami of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. By looking at this one example in detail, we can examine the problems which face indigenous people all over the world.

The Yanomami People

As the largest tribal group in the Amazon, there were around  38,000 Yanomami still living in the rainforest in 2020.  Their traditional homelands were in the mountainous highlands of Brazil and Venezuela, away from the big rivers and relatively inaccessible. For this reason they were spared the ravaging effects of the previously unknown diseases brought by the Spanish conquistadors to South America during the seventeenth century, which wiped out many of the riverine tribes completely. Since then their territories have expanded into the lower valleys, but despite this, until recent times the only contact the Yanomami have had with outsiders had been through the occasional visits of scientists or missionaries. A report in June 2015 states that the Yanomami and other tribes are having to protest against the incursion into their land of violent mining gangs. Their land is being ravaged, and their water is being poisoned. Although the Venezuelan government recognises the Yanomani rights to their ancestral lands, they have not protected them from the miners and are planning to open up some of their land to mining.

Back in 1985, a gold-rush on Yanomami lands in Brazil led to the influx of tens of thousands of miners and prospectors, overwhelming the small populations of local people. So far the Yanomami have been able to maintain their traditional customs, despite outside influences. After world-wide protest at the harsh treatment of the Yanomami, the Brazilian government was forced to grant the Yanomami 94,000 square kilometres of territory, an area larger than Scotland, in 1991. As has been noted above, even small groups need very large areas of territory in order to provide for themselves. The Yanomami know that if their population density increases, they will start to overuse their resources.

Despite having the supposed protection of the Brazilian government, garimpeiros - illegal gold miners - continue to prospect on Yanomami lands. They have brought with them diseases that are either lethal or very difficult to control among the Yanomami.

Indigenous people of the Rainforest - The Future

In the case of the Yanomami, there is at least some cause for optimism. They now live on reserves approved by governments and seem to be maintaining their traditions.  

Clearly there is a need for better health care and for more sympathetic policing of their lands by the military. They are perhaps the most famous of all rainforest peoples, and are therefore protected to some extent by public opinion. There would be world-wide outcry if Yanomami lands were threatened by development or mining again.

But how many other groups are struggling for survival in the rainforests of the world? How many people have heard of the Kaiapo, the Yekuana, the Iban, the Mehinacu or the Xikru? How much popular support could be rallied in their defence?  

The massive Belo Monte hydroelectric power scheme on the Xingu River of Brazil was initially blocked by a judge's decision after protests by Kaiapo Indians and the delivery of a petition containing no less than 600,000 signatures of people who opposed the scheme.  An article in The Guardian on 15 April 2015 reported that four groups of indigenous peoples faced the building of hydroelectric dams in their territory by the Brazilian government. They said, “The government builds dams without completing environmental studies, without seeking to understand the consequences of the destruction of nature in our lives. It authorizes the operation of dams without giving a response to indigenous people and leaving their lives without fish, without water, without hunting as they try to hide their negative impacts on our lives, our rivers and our territories,”

However, construction of the Belo Monte dam went ahead. It has since transpired that the dam may not even be capable of producing the electricity amounts promised by its builders. In 2019, the Xingu’s flow dropped drastically during the July to November dry season, and even with all but one of its 18 turbines operational, the plant produced a monthly average of just 568 MW in August, 361 in September, 276 in October, and 583 in November, according to Brazilian authorities.  These amounts are far less than the 11,233 MW per month promised to investors by its builders. With climate change and deforestation causing drought - the river levels could drop still further in the future. After the destruction it has caused, some people have changed the name of the dam from 'Belo Monte' ('Beautiful Hill', in Portuguese) to 'Belo Monster' (Beautiful Monster).

Indigenous people living in rainforests throughout the world are in need of protection. This protection should be granted as soon as possible by the governments of their nation states, but is bound to take time. Most groups live in poor countries. The forests are rich in natural resources and can make huge sums of money for a few years, thus making the countries involved richer. But after those few years all that remains is desert. Most former rain forest which has been exploited for other purposes will either take many years to recover, or will never recover at all. 

The only way to stop the destruction of the rainforests, of the animals and plants, and of the tribes which live in them is through greater public awareness of the problems we are creating for ourselves.  We need a world-wide realization of the importance of the rainforest and its inhabitants, and of the need for proper protection against its permanent destruction. 

There is now increasing global concern about climate change and about how destruction of the rainforest is likely to accelerate it.  This is leading to the world's governments taking a stronger interest in protecting rainforested areas for the future.  With financial assistance from the developed countries of the world, there is the potential for many areas of rainforest - and the people who live in them - to be saved for the future.  

The way of life of the forest peoples is as fragile as the forests they live in.  Most prefer to be left alone to continue living as they always have done, in harmony with their surroundings.  Their way of life could teach developed nations a great deal.

Further Information

For further information on rainforest tribes from Survival International    
- the movement for tribal peoples    www.survivalinternational.org


Image: Rainforest Tribes by International Rivers

Information sourced from:

Survival, The world's threatenedtribal peoples [online], Available from: http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes [accessed 21/07/2015].

Survival (2015), Venezuelan tribes protestagainst violent mining gangs [online], Available from: http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/10819 [accessed 21/07/2015].

Watts, Jonathan (2015) Guardian, Amazonian tribes unite to demand Brazil stop hydroelectricdams [online], Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/30/amazonian-tribes-demand-brazil-stop-hydroelectric-dams [accessed 21/07/2015].

PL 231017.

Higgins, Tiffany (2020) Mongabay. Belo Monte boondoggle: Brazil's biggest, costliest dam may be unviable [online] Available from: 

https://news.mongabay.com/2020/01/belo-monte-boondoggle-brazils-biggest-costliest-dam-may-be-unviable/ [accessed 12/11/2020]

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