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© 1. WWF / Edward PARKER; 2. WWF / Mauri RAUTKARI; 3. Nigel DICKINSON

Amazon people

Left to right: 1. Maria, daughter of an amazonian rubber tapper Alto Juruá Extractive Reserve Acre, Brazil; 2. Kayapo Indian Chief Kanhok Gorotire Amazonas, Brazil; 3. Capones, peasant farmers live in extreme poverty on the edges of tropical rainforest, just surviving to feed themselves, Brazil.
Indigenous groups such as the Yanomamo and Kayapo have been living in the Amazon for thousands of years, slowly accumulating a detailed knowledge of the rainforest and methods to subsist from it.
However, today they need to share the forests with a growing number of settlers who seek to tap into the Amazon's considerable natural resources.

Life inside the rainforest

Some estimates put the first human settlements in the Amazon at 32,000 to 39,000 years ago. Since that time, Amazon people have developed lifestyles that are well integrated with the benefits and constraints of rainforests.

Typically, local game includes wildlife found close to rivers, such as fish, turtles, capybara and crocodiles. Until recently, blowguns, arrows tipped with poison and spears were commonplace to hunt down game, but these primitive weapons have increasingly been replaced by guns, when they can be afforded.

Hunter-gatherer groups were once generally nomadic, living in small temporary settlements for 4-5 years until all natural resources were exhausted - then they moved on.

But because of land colonization by non-indigenous people, many local groups were forced into sedentary lifestyles and became peasants.

Such changes not only destroy traditional lifestyles but also cause local people  to lose control over their territory. Those who stand to benefit from this are loggers, gold miners and other colonists.

Some hunter-gatherer tribes were once highly territorial. For example, Brazilian Mundurucu head-hunters indiscriminately hunted animals and humans. Raids were carried out on neighbouring groups to acquire women and protect territory.

Amazon people and religious beliefs

The spiritual world is extremely important to the indigenous people of South America, a world they claim to get closer to by utilizing plants that contain certain hallucinogens.

One of the most important persons to many indigenous groups is the shaman, who holds the knowledge of local plants and animals, and who is believed to communicate with the spirit world.

The human impact of European colonists in South America

When Europeans first arrived in South America, there were about 6.8 million indigenous people. But colonists brought persecution, slavery and diseases that local people were not immune to.

Communities living close to the rivers were the first to be affected, as colonists used these as routes of incursion. Indigenous people living inside the forests were initially spared much of the worst aspects of this European onslaught.

The situation today

Today, most Amerindian tribes live in indigenous reserves called resguardos, where they practice a lifestyle that integrates both traditional and modern elements. Few live in complete seclusion from the modern world.

For example, some make a living from tourism, and/or need to visit the local markets to supplement what they grow in their plant gardens.

In Brazil, indigenous people have participated directly in the demarcation of their lands, ensuring that the boundaries respect traditional use. As a result, traditional lands in Brazil are not called resguardos, but “indigenous lands”.

Acquiring knowledge through plants

The Shamen do not see themselves as hallucinating as many people often perceive the term. In short, for them, these plants are like a Priest or a Brahmin. They represent God's knowledge on Earth. They therefore carry a power which allows the Shamen to alter their state of awareness. It allows them to perceive their world in new and different ways and gain the knowledge which they seek in order to heal their people.
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The world of the Wajapi

The Wajapi indigenous people live in an area of well-conserved forests, close to the springs of some tributaries of the Jari River, northeastern Brazil.

According to the Wajapi, animals in the forest, despite their appearance, are actually human beings with souls. They live in societies that are similar to ours. The trees and most plants are also recipients of human souls, but only the healers or shamen are able to communicate with them.

Many of  the Wajapi’s cultural traits and skills needed for survival in the forest have been passed to them by animals. This perception of the world is the basis of Wajapi knowledge of ecological processes.
Typical Caboclo settlement of flooded forest with old canoe used for growing onions. Amazonas, Brazil © WWF / Edward PARKER

Community life on the varzea…

Much larger populations are found in the varzea, the riverside areas that are flooded during the rainy season, because of the presence of fishes, birds, turtles and fertile soil.

People living here are called caboclos, riberenos, mestizos or campesinos, depending on the area. They harvest wild rice and crops (beans, pepper, coca, bananas) and manioc, which grow faster in the varzea (6 months instead of 12 months elsewhere).

However, the unpredictability of the flooding cycle means that sometimes there is shortage of food.

…and life on the 'dry land'

On terra firma (parts of the Amazon rainforest not impacted by flood), populations rely on slash-and-burn, shifting cultivation, with the principal crop being manioc.

But in those areas, crop yields drop quickly as rainforest soils become nutrient-poor after most natural flora and fauna are cleared. As a result, farmers are forced to keep clearing new plots for their crops. Protein is obtained from animals, nuts, fruits and seeds.

Kricher, 1997

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