Peoples of the Amazon

Who Lives in the Amazon?

The Amazon Basin has a long history of human settlement, with varied tribes, customs and cultures. Some estimates put the first prehistoric human settlements in the Amazon between 10,000 to 30,000 years ago, with evidence indicating that populations may have been very large, even in the millions. Unfortunately, in the early 1500’s the indigenous populations were affected by the European’s conquest of South America and the Amazon Basin in search of gold and other natural resources. The Europeans brought with them diseases and death in their quest to control the region. In the first century of the European’s presence, the Indigenous populations of South America and the Amazon were reduced by 90 percent.

Today it is estimated that 20 million indigenous people live in the 9 Amazon countries. These populations remain diverse with differing cultures, languages, and beliefs. Groups of people range from the tribes of uncontacted Indians, to the colorful peoples of the highland Andes, to nontraditional peoples who have given up the indigenous ways to adopt today’s western culture. The most widely spoken language in the Amazon is Portuguese followed closely by Spanish. There are still hundreds of native languages spoken in the Amazon, but with the rise in globalization many of these languages and cultures are becoming critically threatened.
Within Brazil, the indigenous population is estimated to be 310,000. Around 280,000 of these individuals reside within areas specifically designated as preserves. There are 160 different individual societies within the borders of the Brazilian Amazon that speak 195 different languages. Despite their traditional settlement of the rainforests within Brazil, their legal and constitutional rights only provide them with about 20 percent of the land within the Brazilian Amazon. In a study by a consortium of US and Brazilian researchers, deforestation rates within indigenous protected areas were smaller compared to unprotected lands, signifying that indigenous lands could serve as important repositories for threatened species and could be used in conjunction with conservation efforts.
While not as large as Brazil’s, the indigenous communities of other countries containing tropical rainforests (Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, the Guyanas, Venezuela, and Suriname) all consist of populations with deep and detailed knowledge of the rainforest. Much of this knowledge regards the usage of rainforest species for traditional medicines. The Tisame people of the Bolivian Amazon use about 20% of all plants for medicinal purposes and 47 different local species. Tropical Botanists often rely on local knowledge to classify and identify native plant species, linking cultural and traditional medicinal uses of Amazon species to the worlds of science and conservation today.
In contrast, the non-indigenous population of the Amazon is exploding. From the 1960’s until the late 1990’s, this number grew from 2 million to around 20 million. As the development of infrastructure projects continues within the Amazon rainforest, migration of non-traditional peoples have increased often leading to conflict with traditional forest-dwellers, particularly those not protected by reserves. Of the indigenous groups that were known to exist in 1900, one-third of these groups are now extinct. With the loss of these populations follows devastating losses of cultural diversity, treasure troves of anthropological information, and partners for the future of conservation in the Amazon.
Despite the moral, historical, and cultural obligations to maintain indigenous lands in the control of indigenous peoples, these cultures face a variety of threats to their existence from the outside world. First contact between isolated indigenous cultures brings with it the mortality rates from one-third to one-half the population within the first several years because of exposure to disease and new illnesses. While most countries typically have laws prohibiting contact with isolated populations to avoid contact-related death, some countries waive this restriction for developmental purposes. Peru is a notable example of when the ban on contact can be lifted, with a law passed in 2006 and a presidential decree in 2007, both which benefit development over cultural preservation. It comes as no surprise, as nearly 72 percent of the Amazon in Peru is available for oil and natural gas exploration. Clearly,
attention must be paid to this developing issue for the maintenance of cultural diversity, the health and well-being of indigenous people in the Amazon, and the health of the Amazon as a functioning ecosystem.

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