Amazon Region

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Amazon Region

The decimation of the Amazon's native people over the past four centuries illustrates two patterns outlined in the seminal 1985 report by Benjamin Whitaker, the rapporteur on genocide for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Paragraph 41 (p. 20) states: "A conscious act or acts of advertent omission calculated neglect or negligence may be sufficient to destroy a designated group wholly or partially through, for instance, . . . disease [and] may be as culpable as an act of commission." Paragraph 33 (p. 17) discusses "the definition of genocide or 'ethnocide', the destruction of indigenous cultures," and "also 'ecocide'—adverse alterations, often irreparable, to the environment—for example . . . destruction of the rain forest—which threaten the existence of entire populations."

The Portuguese Colonization

The first Europeans to penetrate the Amazon basin were part of a Spanish expedition led by Francisco de Orellana in 1542. Hoping to find the fabled lands of El Dorado and La Canela, Orellana and his men set out from Quito, Ecuador, descended the Napo River to its confluence with the Solimões, the Amazon's upper region, and continued down the river for fifteen hundred miles to the Atlantic. At that time several million people were living in the Amazon Valley. They belonged to some two hundred tribes and ethnic groups in four linguistic families—the Gê, Tupi, Carib, and Arawak.

Starting with the Omagua, an intelligent, orderly people of the Solimões who farmed river turtles and wore cotton robes, the expedition passed one prosperous community after another. So rich were the resources of the várzea, or floodplain, that some of the close-packed lines of houses continued without interruption for days. The level of civilization of some of the riverine tribes was on a par with the Incas', although the materials they built and worked with were perishable, and few artifacts, besides their extraordinarily refined ceramics, survive.

Organized campaigns to exterminate the Indians, sponsored by the colonial administration and carried out by Portuguese colonists, had been taking place in northeastern Brazil, to the east, since 1500, and spread as colonists began settling the lower Amazon in l620. So-called ransoming expeditions were in fact slave raids, initiated under the pretext of rescuing captives from tribes that were supposedly planning to eat them (in some cases they actually were). In the absence of gold, the colonists went after what was commonly referred to as red gold—the forced labor of Indians. The ransomed Indians were descended down the river and kept in tightly packed riverine pens called caiçaras, sometimes for months. Many died in battle, or in captivity, either losing the will to live and wasting way, or from European diseases that they had no genetic defenses against. Contagion, or smallpox, was the big killer, but influenza, pneumonia, the common cold virus, measles, chickenpox, and dysentery from the unhygienic conditions of their captivity also took a devastating toll. Malaria, syphilis, and tuberculosis reached the valley in the seventeenth century. In addition, many Indians became addicted to, and died as a result of their dependence on, cachaça, or rum.

The populous tribes of the Amazon were quickly extinguished, like the Tapajós or the Tocantins, who are simply remembered by the tributaries named after them; later, as the ransomers moved up river, the Manau followed them into oblivion, with only their name remaining, designating the largest city in the middle Amazon. By 1750 the Native population had been reduced by two-thirds, and the várzea was almost completely depopulated. Those who had not been killed by "advertent omission" and "calculated neglect," in Whitaker's terms, melted into the forest and fled up north- and south-flowing tributaries, above the unnavigable rapids, to the Guyana and Brazilian shields, where they regressed into hunters and gatherers and lost the civilization they had developed on the várzea.

The Jesuits

The Indians' only champions were the Jesuits, who gathered them into missions that were organized along military lines to keep them from being dragged off into slavery. David Putnam's film, The Mission, portrays the heroic efforts of the Jesuits to protect the Guarani in the Paraná-Paraguay basin, south of the Amazon. The Jesuits in the Amazon were more exploitative, however, and the Indians in their aldeias, or mission villages, on Marajó Island, at the mouth of the river, became peons who took care of their vast herds of cattle. Indians were forcibly baptized and catechized, and became detribalized "shirt Indians." With the colonists taking their most beautiful women, there were almost no pure-blooded Indians on the river by the time the Jesuits were expelled from Latin American in l760; only cablocos or mestizos, remained. Miscegenation also played a major role in diluting and breaking down the cultural identity and physical distinctiveness of the Amazon's Natives. The offspring with Portuguese were known as mamelucos, and those produced with African slaves as cafuzos.

The Jesuits were replaced by directorates, and an imperial proclamation declared the end of the enslavement and forced labor of Indians. They were now free, but the pitiful remnants of once-proud peoples were open to other forms of exploitation. Unpacified and assimilated groups continued to be rounded up and massacred by the bandeirantes, or pioneers, who forged deep into the interior. Only a few tribes, such as the Kayapo in the upper Xingu Valley and Waimiri Atroari in Roraima, put up such fierce resistance that they managed to withstand the encroachment and invasion of their land until the late twentieth century.

The Rubber Boom

Starting in 1850 rubber became a hot new commodity in the industrializing countries of Europe and North America, and the Amazon's monopoly on the so-called black gold to be tapped from Hevea brasiliensis trees scattered throughout the rain forest spawned what contemporary Brazilian writer Euclides Da Cunha (Amazon Frontier, p. 293) called "the most criminal organization of labor ever devised." A Peruvian rubber baron named Julio Arana founded the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company and grew fabulously wealthy by exploiting the Bora, Witoto, Andoke, and Ocaina on the Putumayo River, which forms the border between Peru and Colombia. Reports of systematic torture, an orgy of sadism, the perverted mutilation of men, women, and children; and women being kept as concubines by the Indian and Barbadian muchachos, or captains, of the rubber gangs reached Roger Casement, who had exposed similar atrocities ten years earlier in the Congo. By the time Casement reached the area, three-quarters of the population on the Putumayo had been wiped out in the previous six years, and there were only 8,000 to 10,000 left. Casement was knighted for his work as the main author of the l912 Blue Book on the Putumayo, a precursor of present-day reports on human rights abuses, but later his journals revealed that he was a pedophile and had participated in the muchachos' orgies. In the early twenty-first century the culturally degraded descendants of Arana's Bora and Witoto rubber collectors live in villages above Iquitos, Peru, where they dance, usually drunk, for tourists from cruise ships and jungle safaris.

The Last Hundred Years

The same year that Casement's shocking report was published, the rubber boom abruptly collapsed, outcompeted by plantations in Malaya started from seeds smuggled out of the Amazon by the Englishman Henry Wickam. The exploitation of Indians for black gold did not end completely, however. In l948 the newly contacted Kaxinawa in the state of Acre were forced into a brutal rubber-collection system. A genocidal massacre exterminated 75 to 80 percent of the group three years later, and by l968 there were only 400 to 500 Kaxinawa left.

On the Amazon's southern frontier, colonists hired professional Indian killers, or bugreiros, who presented ears instead of scalps for payment, adorned their Winchester carbines with Indians' teeth, and poisoned the drinking pools in Indian villages with strychnine. By l910 the remaining Indians had been reduced to a pathetic minority on the fringes of a burgeoning post-colonial society. Now that they were no longer a threat, they were embraced and romanticized by Brazilian urban intellectuals. An Indianist movement was born, and an extraordinary champion for the country's Native peoples surfaced, Colonel Cândido Rondon, who founded the Indian Protection Service, or SPI, in 1910. Rondon and the SPI's sertanistas, or field agents, contacted isolated tribes such as the Nambikwara and tried to protect them from the diseases, culture shock, invasion, and massacre to which their encounter with the national society would expose them. Their motto was "die, if necessary, but never kill." But by now the demographic catastrophe of the Native population was irreversible. It had plummeted from about 3.5 million in l500 to 2 million by the expulsion of the Jesuits, and was approximately a million in the early twentieth century. By l979 it would decline to 100,000. Of the 230 tribes that existed in l900, the anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro could only count 143 in l957, and half of them were represented by only a few hundred individuals.

The SPI's career was checkered. Although it undoubtedly saved the people, culture, and land of many tribes, it was dissolved in disgrace in l969 after a 7,000-page report to the Brazilian congress documented the involvement of hundreds of SPI officials, ministers, governors, and generals in the homicide, machine-gunning, prostitution, and financial exploitation (to the tune of $60 million) of the people it was charged with protecting. A new agency, the Brazilian National Indian Foundation, or FUNAI, was created, and while many of its anthropologists and other employees were dedicated to the Indians' well-being, atrocities that the government turned a blind eye to or participated in continued to take place in the Amazon. The Brazilian Air Force bombed uncontacted villages of Waimiri Atroari; soldiers drove Macuxi out of their villages on the Brazil-Venezuela border.

In the early 1970s a network of highways pushed into the Amazon wilderness. A growing awareness of its untapped mineral wealth unleashed a new siege on the last remaining isolated Indians, and the innermost recesses of the valley where they lived were finally penetrated, with the usual lethal consequences. One of the most tragic stories was that of the Kreenakrore, a seminomadic group on the Iriri River, a tributary of the Xingu. For ten years during the l960s the legendary sertanistas Claudio Villas Boas and Francisco Meirelles had made futile attempts to contact them. An expedition had been attacked and several of its members killed. Finally, as the new Cuiabá-Santarem Highway approached to within two kilometers of their village, several Kreenakrore, reduced by culture shock to eating dirt and the urucu seeds with which they painted their faces, appeared on the highway, begging for food from the road crews. Between 1969 and 1972 forty died of pneumonia contracted from the workers, and by 1974 the tribe was down to seventy-nine individuals. Villas Boas moved them to Xingu National Park, which had been set aside for other tribes. By l976 the Kreenakrore numbered sixty-three, and only ten women could bear children who would be socially acceptable according to the tribe's rules of kinship and marriage. Nonetheless, the Kreenakrore slowly recovered and as of 2004 were holding their own.

The construction of the Perimetral Norte on the Brazil-Venezuela border had similar results for the Yanomami, who were still living in the Neolithic and are the only tribe, except for the Tukuna on the Solimões, with more than five thousand members. Gold was discovered and garimpeiros, wildcat prospectors from Brazil's huge marginalized poor population, poured into the Yanomami's homeland and massacred them, raped their women, and infected them with various diseases. AIDS is the latest disease with which the tribe must contend. An epidemic of measles also broke out when the Yanomami were made guinea pigs for a vaccine from a virulent strain of the microbe not appropriate for use in a population with no prior exposure to it.

Sixty-two percent of the tribes tested positive for a new strain of malaria introduced by the garimpeiros. By l993 some two thousand Yanomami had been killed, but after a global outcry over the massacre of twenty-three tribe members in the upper Orinoco basin, a measure of protection was established for these Natives.

Similar horrors played out in the state of Rondônia (named for Rondon) during the l980s. Some newly contacted Cintas Largas were massacred with the alleged complicity of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, an American evangelical group that placed missionaries with forty-three tribes in Brazil and was subsequently expelled because of suspected ties with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and American oil and mineral interests.

That decade a monumental, incredibly misguided resettlement program for two million families of landless peasants, sponsored by the Brazilian government and financed by the World Bank, brought a lethal combination of ecocide, genocide, and ethnocide to Rondônia—massive deforestation and roadbuilding, the construction of agrovilas, vast agricultural communities laid out on grids, and massacres of isolated groups of Cintas Largas and Urueuwauwau. Satellite images of thousands of burning fires horrified the European and North American public, already apprehensive about the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere. Anthropologists and other Western sympathizers rallied behind the Indians, secured intellectual property rights for their knowledge of medicinal plants with possible pharmaceutical applications, and pushed for the demarcation and protection of their lands.

The last ten years have led to a huge, belated victory for the remaining Native peoples of Amazonia, even though during the l990s Occidental and other companies drilling for oil brought ecocide and ethnocide to eight thousand U'wa on the Colombia-Venzuela border and the Huaroni, a nomadic people of the Ecuadoran Amazon who tried to drive off the drilling crews with spears. In general, the demarcation of Indian lands in the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon is proceeding well. Twenty percent of of Brazilian Amazonia is now recognized by the government as indigenous territory. This is the largest area of protected rain forest in the world; when FUNAI replaced SPI in l968, only a fraction of Native lands were protected. Small remnant groups remain at risk of being driven from their land or massacred for individual, political, or racial motives. The Yanomami homeland has been almost completely demarcated, but is still being invaded by garimpeiros. Efforts to complete demarcation for other tribes in Roraima are meeting with heavy resistance from local politicians.

Despite continuing difficulties the Native population in the Amazon region has rebounded to 325,000. A new generation of young, educated Brazilians realizes that their indigenous cultures and rain forest represent a unique and precious heritage. It can be said with some confidence that the tide has finally turned, although the future of the Amazon forest itself is not encouraging, with the Brazilian Congress's new law to open half of it to agriculture, cattle ranching, and multinational chip mills.

SEE ALSO Catholic Church; Developmental Genocide; Indigenous Peoples; Whitaker, Benjamin


Brazilian Socio-Environmental Institute website. Available from

Cowell, Adrian (1977). The Tribe That Hides from Man. New York: Stein & Day.

Cowell, Adrian (1990). Decade of Destruction: The Crusade to Save the Amazon Rain Forest. New York: Henry Holt.

Hemming, John (1978). Red Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians 1500–1760. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Hemming, John (l987). Amazon Frontier: The Defeat of the Amazon Indians. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Roosevelt, Anna (1994). Amazon Indians from Prehistory to the Present: Anthropological Perspectives. Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona Press.

Tierney, Patrick (2002). Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. New York: W. W. Norton.

Alex Shoumatoff