Indigenous People

Indigenous peoples inhabit a large portion of the Amazon rainforest and their traditional and cultural beliefs have existed for centuries, providing storage for an immense amount of knowledge about the tropical Amazon.

Within Brazil, the indigenous population is estimated to be 310,000.  Around 280,000 of these individuals reside within areas specifically designated as preserves.  In the late 15th century, the total number of indigenous peoples in the Amazon was calculated to be over 6 million.  There are 160 different individual societies within the borders of the Brazilian Amazon that speak 195 different languages. [2] 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 inhibited 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. [5]

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 are typical of this pattern; about 20% of all plants consumed are for medicinal purposes and the Tisame use 47 different local species. [6] 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.

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. [1] As the development of infrastructure projects continues within the Amazon rainforest, migration of non-traditional peoples will increase and come into 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. [3] 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. [4]

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 of from one-third to one-half the population within the first several years. [7] 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 are available for oil and natural gas exploration. [8] 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.

Written by Dr. Dave Lutz for the Amazon Aid Foundation

Of the indigenous groups that were known to exist in 1900, one-third of these groups are now extinct.

In the late 15th century, the total number of indigenous peoples in the Amazon was calculated to be over 6 million.

Learn more about Indigenous People of the Amazon

Medicinal Secrets of the Amazon Rainforest

Here in Detroit, spring is on the horizon. Green leaves are starting to poke out of the ground-- early sprouting crocuses and bulbs, clover, and crab grasses. As the harsh cold of winter thaws, it’s time to start thinking about this spring’s gardens and what we’ll...

read more

Francis of the Forest

WASHINGTON, DC – When Pope Francis visited Latin America in July, he made an impassioned plea for the protection of the Amazon rainforest and the people who live there. “Our common home is being pillaged, laid waste and harmed with impunity,” he told activists...

read more

Yanomami: Indigenous People of the Amazon

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...

read more

Matsés: Indigenous People of the Amazon

The Matsés tribe has always lived on the shores of the Yaquerana River, which 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...

read more

Ecuador is Poised to Open Yasuni for Drilling

Since 2011, deforestation has increased in the protected area of Ecuador's Yasuni National Park in response to oil drilling activities. The 982,000-hectare park encompasses much of the western Amazon, a hotspot for biodiversity, has an estimated 846 million barrels of...

read more

Guarani: Indigenous People of the Amazon

Today the Guarani people can be found living in seven of the states in Brazil, with many others living in the neighboring countries of Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. The population of 51,000 is divided into three groups: Kaiowá, Ñandeva and M’byá. The largest is...

read more

Enawene Nawe: Indigenous People of the Amazon

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 by an expedition led by Jesuit Thomaz de Aguino Lisboa, there were only about 97 individuals. Today their...

read more

Awá: Indigenous People of the Amazon

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...

read more

Contacted tribe treated for the flu

About a month ago members of a previously uncontacted tribe made contact with a settled Asháninka indigenous community. One of the major fears researchers and FUNAI contacts had was the possibility of the group contracting diseases they have previously never had...

read more

Mysterious Amazon “Rings” Predate the Amazon Itself

It has always been assumed that the Amazon Rainforest was a pristine environment before we began major mining and logging practices in the 19th century. However, new research is showing that mysterious ditches found scattered within the rainforest pre-date the...

read more

Members of unnamed Amazonian tribe make contact

Four years ago members of an unnamed Amazonian tribe were filmed from the air and created a world-wide sensation. There had been a lot of doubt about the possibility of unknown indigenous groups living in remote areas of the Amazon, but this video by tribal rights...

read more

Indigenous Groups Fight for the Amazon, Their Home

One big concern environmentalists have is people who are hesitant to believe climate change is happening cannot see how it affects their day to day life. Changes in weather may not be as prominent in some locations in the world, but there are people who are...

read more

Ancient Mysteries of the Amazon Revealed

There’s a long-running controversy in the world of archaeology regarding how much impact ancient humans had on the evolution of the Amazon rainforest. It’s often assumed that the Amazon as we see it is a pristine wilderness, untouched by human hands since the...

read more

High Mercury Levels Affect Indigenous Populations

Living in the Amazon’s Madre de Dios region of Peru has its perks when it comes to natural resources, but the introduction of mercury into this fragile ecosystem has transformed these natural resources into a major threat to indigenous people’s health. Now studies led...

read more