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Indigenous People

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Photo by Jon Cox

Peoples of the Amazon

A multitude of tribes, customs, and cultures have evolved in the Amazon since people arrived there between 10,000-30,000 years ago. While archeologists previously assumed the size of the Amazon indigenous population was limited by poor soil quality and nomadic cultures, recent evidence indicates that pre-Columbian Amazon populations probably ranged between 8-10 million, perhaps more. 1

How did they accomplish this? Amazon indigenous people were (and continue to be) master landscapers. They employed clever environmental management strategies, including controlled burns to attract desirable wildlife; a dense network of trails and canals; fisheries management; agroforestry; and Amazonian dark earths, an artificial soil mixture of charcoal and organic materials.2 Experts today estimate that between 3-10% of Amazonia is covered with nutrient-rich Amazonian dark earth3, 4 and many of the most frequently occurring tree species in the Amazon are domesticated for human use.5

Tragically, in the early 1500’s the indigenous populations were devastated by the European’s travels in the Amazon Basin. In their quest to control gold and other natural resources, Europeans spread famine and warfare, reducing Amerindian populations by around 95%.6 Today, the Amazon region is home to nearly 50 million people and the most widely spoken language is Portuguese, followed closely by Spanish.7 Much of the Amazon’s population growth has occurred over the last century, with the population of the Brazilian Amazon rising from 2 million to 20 million from the 1960’s until the late 1990’s.8

Today about 1.5 million of the Amazon population is indigenous, distributed across 385 ethnic groups.9 In Brazil alone, there are nearly 900,000 indigenous people who speak 274 languages.10 Traditionally, indigenous groups in the Amazon venerated many different gods, animals, and objects. Most gods were linked to nature and most cultures believed in animism, meaning they thought every object and thing possesses a divine spirit. Today, some indigenous groups in the Amazon remain traditional and even uncontacted, but most have embraced at least some elements of Western society.

Indigenous-managed lands typically coincide with critical ecosystems and harbor equal or greater biodiversity than conventional protected areas, in large measure due to successful environmental stewardship.11, 12 It is important that indigenous groups are provided with adequate legal protections, which grant them their inherent rights and the capacity to effectively protect their land. Currently, indigenous groups in the Amazon occupy roughly 28% of the total Amazon basin, about 80% of which is recognized under national law. 13

Amazon indigenous cultures are also important because they are reservoirs of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), which has provided modern medicine with some of the most widely used pharmaceutical agents.14 For example, one study showed that indigenous people on the upper Negro River in the Brazilian Amazon utilize fifty-five different plant species for malaria alone.15

Unfortunately, indigenous people in the Amazon are often victims of violence. According to Global Witness, 40% of environmental defenders murdered from 2015-2019 belonged to indigenous groups, with most cases concerning disputes over mining, agriculture, dam construction, and logging. The Amazon is one of the deadliest places in the world for environmental defenders and indigenous people, with 33 people murdered in 2019 alone, about 15% of the global total of killings. 

To preserve the incredible cultural and biological diversity of the Amazon, it is crucial we protect indigenous rights and work to ensure that all Amazon peoples enjoy a full life, free of exploitation and poverty.

Works Cited

  1. Clement, C. R., Denevan, W. M., Heckenberger, M. J., Junqueira, A. B., Neves, E. G., Teixeira, W. G., & Woods, W. I. (2015). The domestication of Amazonia before European conquest. Proceedings. Biological sciences, 282(1812), 20150813. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2015.0813
  2. Erickson C.L. (2008) Amazonia: The Historical Ecology of a Domesticated Landscape. In: Silverman H., Isbell W.H. (eds) The Handbook of South American Archaeology. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-74907-5_11
  3. McMichael, C. H., Palace, M. W., Bush, M. B., Braswell, B., Hagen, S., Neves, E. G., Silman, M. R., Tamanaha, E. K., & Czarnecki, C. (2014). Predicting pre-Columbian anthropogenic soils in Amazonia. Proceedings. Biological sciences, 281(1777), 20132475. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2013.2475
  4. Mann, Charles C. (1 March 2002). “1491”. The Atlantic. Retrieved 5 August 2018.
  5. Levis et al. Persistent effects of pre-Columbian plant domestication on Amazonian forest composition. Science. 2017 Mar 3;355(6328):925-931. doi: 10.1126/science.aal0157. PMID: 28254935.
  6. Mann, Charles C. (1 March 2002). “1491”. The Atlantic. Retrieved 5 August 2018.
  7. Vallejos, P. Q., Veit, P., Tipula, P., & Reytar, K. (2020, October). Undermining Rights: Indigenous Lands and Mining in the Amazon. World Resources Institute. https://www.wri.org/publication/undermining-rights
  8. Laurance WF, Cochrane MA, Bergen S, Fearnside PM, Delamônica P, Barber C, D’Angelo S, Fernandes T. Environment. The future of the Brazilian Amazon. Science. 2001 Jan 19;291(5503):438-9. doi: 10.1126/science.291.5503.438. Erratum in: Science 2001 Feb 9;291(5506):988. PMID: 11228139
  9. Vallejos, P. Q., Veit, P., Tipula, P., & Reytar, K. (2020, October). Undermining Rights: Indigenous Lands and Mining in the Amazon. World Resources Institute. https://www.wri.org/publication/undermining-rights
  10. https://www.iwgia.org/en/brazil.html
  11. Garnett, S.T., Burgess, N.D., Fa, J.E. et al. A spatial overview of the global importance of Indigenous lands for conservation. Nat Sustain 1, 369–374 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-018-0100-6
  12. Schuster, Richard & Germain, Ryan & Bennett, Joseph & Reo, Nicholas & Arcese, Peter. (2019). Vertebrate biodiversity on indigenous-managed lands in Australia, Brazil, and Canada equals that in protected areas. Environmental Science & Policy. 101. 1-6. 10.1016/j.envsci.2019.07.002.
  13. Vallejos, P. Q., Veit, P., Tipula, P., & Reytar, K. (2020, October). Undermining Rights: Indigenous Lands and Mining in the Amazon. World Resources Institute. https://www.wri.org/publication/undermining-rights
  14. Balick, M. J., & Cox, P. A. (1996). Plants, people, and culture: the science of ethnobotany. Scientific
    American Library.
  15. Frausin G, Hidalgo Ade F, Lima RB, et al. An ethnobotanical study of anti-malarial plants among indigenous people on the upper Negro River in the Brazilian Amazon. Ethnopharmacol. 2015;174:238‐252. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2015.07.033

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