The Amazon Rainforest is a diverse ecosystem that covers five and a half a million square kilometers (1.4 billion acres) across eight countries. Plants and animals are not the only ones who inhabit the forest and need it to survive. Around 30 million people live in the Amazon, including over 300 indigenous groups.
It is important to realize that people have been living in the Amazon for thousands of years and their lives depend on the health and presence of the forest. Here is an introduction to just a few of the tribes that can be found in the Amazon Rainforest today:
Five people – that is how many individuals are left in the last surviving tribe of the Akuntsu people. They live in communal houses called malocas made out of straw. They hunt wild pig and tapir, fish in creeks, gather forest fruits and vegetables and cultivate gardens. Their ceremonies feature people decorated with urucum (annatto dye), arm bands and anklets made of palm fiber. Wooden flutes are used in dances and rituals. Today they live on a small patch of forested land that is legally recognized and demarcated by the Brazilian government.
The Awá are a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers who live in the forested areas of northeastern Brazil. They are skilled hunters, and while some have taken to using confiscated shotguns from illegal poachers, others still hunt with 6 foot (2 meter) long bows. They have an intimate relationship with and a deep understanding of the forest. Animals are only eaten at certain times of the year to ensure the survival of the forest, and some are avoided completely – like the bat, which is said to cause headaches. They are also great at keeping pets, the favorite being monkeys who if brought into the family as babies are breast-fed and will never be eaten but instead seen as hanima, or part of the family.
They are self-sufficient people, and everything they need from baskets to bow and arrows comes from the forest. Without the forest, they cannot be. This is why illegal loggers and ranchers pose the biggest threat to the Awá, because they are cutting down and burning the land with which they coexist.
In Western Brazil in the state of Mato Grosso, the Enawene Nawe tribe has been living and fishing for hundreds of years. When they were first contacted in 1974 there were only about 97 individuals. Today their population is about 500, but that number is in danger of decreasing with the arrival of new threats. They live in large communal homes that surround the center of the village where ceremonies and rituals are performed. Since they do not eat red meat and have a spiritual life that revolves around fishing rituals, proposals for new hydroelectric dams are putting their way of life in danger.
They are expert fishermen but only take what they and their family need. During the dry season they use spears and poison made from forest vines, and during the wet season they build boats and dams. They believe the natural resources belong to the spirits of the underworld, and that if the Enawene Nawe finish them off they will be killed – a belief that has taught them the importance of coexisting with nature.
Today the Guarani people can be found living in seven of the states in Brazil, with many others living in neighboring countries. The population of 51,000 is divided into three groups: Kaiowá, Ñandeva and M’byá. The largest is the Kaiowá which means ‘forest people’. They are meant to be wanderers, who are described as having a “constant desire to seek new lands, in which they imagine they will find immortality and perpetual ease” – a land without evil. Today, however, they are forced to live on small patches of land surrounded by ranches and farms. Because they live in overcrowded areas where the land has been deforested, disease and malnutrition are major threats. The conditions they are forced to live in are so drastically different from what their ancestors and spirituality dictate; they have a high suicide rate with over 517 Guarani people committing suicide since 1986.
The Matsés tribe has always lived on the shores of the Yaquerana River that marks the international border between Brazil and Peru. The estimated 2,200 who live on the border depend on the river and local animals for food but also grow crops such as plantain and manioc in their gardens. The Matsés healers have a deep understanding of how forest plants can be used in their day to day lives. Matsés believe that plants and animals have spirits just like they do, and can help (or hurt) the human body and mind. Howler monkey meat can be used to treat sore throats and the green tree frog “acate” secretes a fluid that increases hunting ability by providing a sense of clarity and strength. Now their threats are loggers and oil companies who want to build roads and seismic lines to search for oil in areas that would affect the headwaters of three major rivers the Matsés live near.
The Yanomami people live in the forested mountains of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. Their territory in Brazil is twice the size of Switzerland and over 9.6 million hectares, while in Venezuela they live in the 8.2 million hectare Alto Orinoco Casiquiare Biosphere Reserve. These areas form the largest forested indigenous territory in the world. The Yanomami live in large communal houses called yanos, some of which can hold up to 400 people. Hunting accounts for only 10% of their food, with 80% of it being grown by women in gardens. They strongly believe in the equality among people and do not have tribe chiefs. Instead, communities are dependent of one another and decisions are made by the group as a whole after everyone has been heard.
Illegal mining is the biggest threat to the Yanomami people. These gold miners spread disease such as malaria and pollute the rivers with mercury. It is believed that there is a group of uncontacted Yanomami called Moxateteu, who are believed to be living in the area with the highest concentration of illegal goldminers.
The Zo’é are a small tribe of about 256 individuals who live deep in the Amazon in northern Brazil. They live in large rectangular thatched houses which are open on all sides, and their communities are often started in groves of the Brazil nut tree. These areas are surrounded by large gardens where food is grown. Cotton is also cultivated to use in the making of hammocks or baby slings. In the Zo’é society people are polygamous and everyone is considered an equal. They are easily distinguishable from other tribes by the ‘m’berpót’, a long wooden plug in the lower lip. It is one of their most important ceremonies and is a rite of passage for young boys and girls.
One quarter of their population was wiped out by disease between 1982 and 1988 after missionaries made contact with them after an airplane spotted one of the Zo’é communities. Hunters, minters, nut collectors, and missionaries are now the ones posing threats to the Zo’é people. Today their population is stable, but they face the challenge of interacting with the outside world without compromising their health or land.