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Wilson EO, Peter FM, editors. Biodiversity. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1988.

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Chapter 15Deforestation and Indians in Brazilian Amazonia


Executive Director, Survival International (USA), Washington, D.C.

Deforestation of tropical forests affects not only the plants and animals of these regions but also their human inhabitants. The Indian populations of Amazonia are successful managers of the forest. Long ago, they discovered the secrets of sustainable use of its resources. In this chapter I discuss the knowledge and management of the forest environment exhibited by the Yanomami and Kayapo Indians of Brazilian Amazonia and the importance that their knowledge and their presence as part of the forest ecosystem has for us all. Not only is this forest ecosystem now being destroyed at a rapid rate, but we (the non-Indians) do not yet know how to care for and make use of whatever areas of forest will be left when this process of destruction is brought to a halt.

The Yanomami of Northern Brazil

The use and management of natural resources by the Yanomami include hunting, fishing, and collecting faunal resources, gathering and collecting floral resources, and shifting cultivation of bananas, plantains, manioc, several varieties of potatolike tubers, and a number of lesser crops. Their population is small and widely dispersed, resulting in an extremely low population density of 777 hectares per person. For the standard of living to which they are adapted, the forest provides them with an abundance of everything they need for a well-fed, healthy, and gratifying life. To date, there is no satisfactory evidence that they ever overused their resources or in any way degraded their environment. In fact, there are a number of indications that they vitalize and rejuvenate the forest, adding to its diversity and the size of its faunal and floral populations.

I have lived for more than 2 years among the Yanomami. The following account of Yanomami life in the forest is, for the most part, based on my own observations from that period (Taylor, 1974, 1983).

A Yanomami settlement is a clearing in the forest containing one or more of the several types of houses used by the different subgroups of the Yanomami. Directly associated with the site is a year-round source of water at a nearby stream or river. Radiating out from the settlement are numerous trails leading to the fields currently in use, to abandoned fields, to hunting, fishing, and gathering locations, to campsites in the forest, and to other settlements. The several fields actively cultivated by the families of the community are generally cut in primary forest, though occasionally in secondary forest, and usually no more than a 2-hour walk from the settlement. In more distant fields, a second family house is built for temporary stays of 1 to 2 weeks during the dry season. Several hours away from the settlement are a number of campsites used during dry-season fishing expeditions, long-term hunting trips, and journeys to other communities. The forest around the settlement is also criss-crossed by a number of minor trails used on hunting or gathering trips for food and raw materials of all kinds. These trails link together a series of regularly used locations, such as stands of fruit trees where game birds feed; streams where fish, crabs, or frogs can be found at certain times of the year; and places where different species of terrestrial game feed at times. And in all directions a number of major trails extend into the territories and lead to the settlement sites of other communities. These trails are more or less frequently and regularly used as friendships and alliances between communities come and go over the years.

This complex and ever-changing network of trails and the sites that they link together are not, of course, evenly spread out over a uniform and homogeneous circle of forest. In the Yanomami area, when you travel through the forest for more than even a few minutes, one of the most striking things you notice is its extraordinary diversity.

The use of the various hunting zones, and therefore the various biotopes around a Yanomami settlement, varies according to the type of hunting practiced: dawn/dusk, day, or festival hunting. In some parts of Yanomami territory there may be totally unused areas that for years at a time function as game preserves (Gross, 1975; Harner, 1972; Hickerson, 1970).

A Yanomami community certainly needs access to a relatively large, ecologically heterogeneous territory that is contiguous with the territories of a number of neighboring communities, but we may wonder if so much land as 777 hectares per person is really needed. To the best of my knowledge, however, land use in Amazonia with non-Indian techniques, which involve clearing large areas of their protective forest cover for introduced, and inappropriate, crops and livestock, is leading to an ultimate degradation of the environment and is not self-sustaining on a permanent basis. The apparent exceptions of the riverine caboclos (forest-dwellers) (Frechione et al., 1985) and the rubber tappers of, for example, the State of Acre (Allegretti, 1985) are, in fact, land uses by settlers of long standing who have learned from the Indians a number of the basic requirements of a self-sustaining life-style in Amazonia. Of primary importance among these, and first to be ignored by government plans for colonization of the region, is the essential feature of low—extremely low—population density.

The Kayapo of Central Brazil

The Kayapo Indians of central Brazil live far to the south of the Yanomami in the watershed of the Xingu River, which is one of the major right-bank tributaries of the Amazon. Their territory is near the southern limit of the tropical forests of Amazonia and includes terra firme and gallery forests interspersed with areas of more or less open cerrado (similar to savannah). Their knowledge, management, and use of the floral and faunal resources of the forests in their territory are astonishingly subtle and complex. It is unlikely that the Kayapo are unique—they are simply, and by far, the best studied of the many Indian groups of Amazonia, with regard to this aspect of their way of life.

Like almost all the Indian groups in Amazonia, the Kayapo hunt, fish, and gather a great many species of the fauna and flora of the forests and practice shifting cultivation. They also concentrate native plants by growing them in resource islands, forest fields, forest openings, tuber gardens, agricultural plots, and old-fields, and beside their trails through the forest. They select and transplant a number of semidomesticated native plants and manipulate some species of animals (birds, fish, bees, and mammals) used as food or food sources. The nests of two species of bees, for example, are brought from the forest and mounted on housetops until the honey is ready to be harvested. Forest patches (apete) are created from open cerrado in areas prepared with crumbled termite and ant nests and mulch (Posey, 1983, 1985; Posey et al., 1984).

The Kayapo Indians are probably not unique. More likely they are typical of indigenous societies in tropical forests. They not only live a healthy and well-fed life as the human component of a thriving tropical forest ecosystem but they also beneficially manage, manipulate, and modify the flora and fauna of their territory. As a result of their presence and remarkable way of life, the plant and animal resources of their area are more diverse, more locally concentrated, of greater population size and density, and more youthful and vigorous than would be found in a forest empty of these Indian resource managers.

Perhaps the most surprising and significant of their many resource management techniques is the creation of the apete forest patches. Posey became aware that these isolated patches of forest were man-made only in the seventh year of his research among the Kayapo (D. A. Posey, Museu Emilio Goeldi, BeleImage img00087.jpg, Brazil, personal communication, 1986). As he pointed out, ''Perhaps the most exciting aspect of these new data is the implication for reforestation. The Indian example not only provides new ideas about how to build forests 'from scratch,' but also how to successfully manage what has been considered to be infertile campo/cerrado" (Posey, 1985, p. 144).

The Rights and Wrongs of Shifting Cultivation

Shifting cultivation involves the felling or cutting of the vegetation in an area selected for a field or garden and the burning of the felled trees, bushes, underbrush, or grasses. It is a widely used technique that has been around for a long, long time. Conklin (1961) gives a definitive overview of the long history (since the Neolithic period) and distribution (worldwide, especially in the tropics) of this form of agriculture and discusses the various forms it can take, in terms of whether primary or secondary forest or grasslands are being used, crop-fallow time ratios, types of crop, dispersal relative to human settlements, concomitant presence of livestock, and tools and techniques used. It is unlikely that a form of agriculture so time-honored and widespread would be inefficient or destructive of the environment; yet many people regard it as just that—as one way in which the remaining tropical forests are being destroyed.

Between 1968 and 1976, I had the opportunity to fly in light aircraft and helicopter over most of Yanomami territory in the Ajarani, Catrimani, Mucajai, Parima, and Auaris river basins in the territory of Roraima, Brazil. The vitality, the exuberance, and the seeming endlessness of the dense carpet of forest cover made a lasting impression on me. Yet this is where most of the Yanomami lead their lives. Whatever else the Yanomami may or may not be doing, they are most certainly not destroying the forest. As discussed above, Posey and collaborators describe the Kayapo as Indians who are greatly enhancing the vitality of the forests of their region.

But aren't the Yanomami and the Kayapo what some people call slash-and-burn agriculturalists? And isn't it by cutting and burning that all those thousands of acres of tropical forest are being destroyed in Amazonia and around the world? The answer to both these questions is yes, but obviously there is a difference. The difference, of course, is one of scale.

The Yanomami and the Kayapo Indians live in the forest and are part of the forest. If they destroy it, they destroy themselves. They therefore make their modest-size fields and plant crops sufficient only for their needs. It is the non-Indian agriculturalists (or investors) who order the destruction of a forest they may never have seen in order to install quite inappropriate plantations or cattle ranches. This, of course, they must do on as large a scale as they can afford to ensure that their profit margin is to their liking. The enormous clearings that result are far beyond the ability of even the most healthy forest to regenerate. One example of such extensive destruction is the notorious case of the Volkswagen ranch whose burning became public knowledge only when seen from space by the Skylab satellite (Bourne, 1978).

In contrast, the forest itself begins reclaiming the relatively tiny Indian fields cut in its midst by supporting the growth of pioneer species (weeds, some would call them) even before the Indians have taken the two or three harvests they find practical before returning the field to the forest and its regenerative process. In many cases, in fact, the Indians stop using a field not so much because the productiveness of the tropical soils decline so rapidly but because clearing the field of weeds is just more trouble than it is worth.

Done the right way, the Indian way, shifting cultivation rejuvenates the forest. It is the use of the technique on too large a scale by the non-Indian that is destructive.

Indian Productivity in the Tropical Forest

The Indians of Amazonia have what we would consider an extremely low standard of living. Living in relative isolation from the national societies of the countries within whose boundaries they live, their economic production, whether from their agricultural practices or their use of game, fish, and natural forest resources, is strictly for their own subsistence. As a result, they are commonly stereotyped as poor and lazy with no potential as producers of anything for the regional, national, or international markets. Quite the opposite is true. A now-famous example is the successful production and marketing of highly marketable Brazil nuts by the Gavioes of Para State, Brazil—an activity they began on their own initiative in the mid-1970s (Ferraz, 1982; Ramos, 1980). Almost overnight, the Gavioes became not only quite well-to-do by local (non-Indian) standards but also transformed themselves, in the eyes of their non-Indian neighbors, from lazy good-for-nothings to productive members of society. In 1975 I knew of one Yanomami community that after exhausting the supply of bananas in its own fields, began a new, additional plantation so that it could continue to sell bananas to the tin miners who worked in Yanomami territory for a time in 1975 and 1976. As long ago as 1930, Curt Nimuendaju (1974) spoke of how the Ramkokamekra Canela Indians could have produced a marketable surplus of manioc flour but explained that they never did develop this potential because they had no way to transport the flour to market. Another example is the production and marketing of natural rubber in a recent community development project undertaken by one subgroup of the Nambiquara.

These are only a few examples. There has been considerable discussion of the possibly marketable products that can be grown in a properly and sustainably managed tropical forest (see, for example, Goodland, 1980). It is not yet known quite how productive the tropical forest can be or how large (or small) a population of resident producers it can support. The point here is simply that the Indians who live in the forest and know its ecology so well have long ago demonstrated their ability to function as valuable and effective producers of its marketable resources.

The Impact of Deforestation on Indian Life

The destruction of the tropical forests has both a direct and an indirect impact on the resources and livelihood of Indian populations. In some cases, deforestation is occurring inside recognized Indian areas. Even when the deforestation occurs outside these areas, however, the impact on the animal and plant resources, the water supply, and the rivers, which serve as avenues of transportation, in and near Indian areas can be devastating.

Deforestation takes place along with traditional frontier expansion and with the implementation of large-scale development projects. In either case, there is an influx of outsiders into regions previously but sparsely inhabited. Among the inhabitants of these regions there are often relatively isolated Indian populations. This isolation is broken overnight as land-hungry settlers begin invading Indian lands. In Brazil, colonists are aware of this well-known technique even before they move to Amazonia. If a settler can establish an illegal smallholding on Indian lands (among the least protected by the authorities of all land categories in Brazil's interior) then, either as a matter of squatter's rights or in compensation for being evicted, he will have improved his chances of acquiring a plot of land through the government colonization program.

In all such cases, the Indians' control of their own natural resources is eroded and the supply of these resources declines. One of the first results of these processes is the impoverishment, if not the dispossession, of the Indian populations, leading to their migration to towns and cities where the best they can hope for is to swell the ranks of the urban under- and unemployed and a life of disease, prostitution, homelessness, and begging.

Indian Managers of the Rain Forests

The indigenous inhabitants of the tropical rain forests are valuable participants in these ecosystems. Their relationship and interaction with their forest environment not only affords them a sustainable and nondestructive livelihood but also enhances the vigor, diversity, and population size of the forest's flora and fauna. Deforestation, both within and outside Indian lands, can so devastate the natural resources on which the Indian way of life depends that it becomes impossible for the Indian population to remain in the area and lead any semblance of its traditional way of life. But given the opportunity, Indian groups can rapidly adapt to a productive relationship with national and international society. They can produce a wide range of natural and cultivated products for the marketplace while still pursuing their way of life in and as part of the forest.

When we speak of the preservation of the tropical forests we must make clear, explicitly and emphatically, that we mean the preservation of the forests' flora and their fauna and their indigenous human inhabitants. These indigenous peoples are our representatives of choice who can bring the forests, little by little, to their full productive potential and keep them healthy and well and with their magnificent biological diversity intact for the benefit of us all.


  • Alegretti, M. H. 1985. The Rubber Tappers and Environmental Issues in the Amazon Region. Message sent to the UN World Commission on Environment and Development. Instituto de Estudos Socio-Economicos (INESC), Brasilia.
  • Bourne, R. 1978. Assault on the Amazon. Victor Gollancz, London. 320 pp.
  • Conklin, H. C. 1961. The study of shifting cultivation. Curr. Anthropol. 2(1):27–61.
  • Ferraz, I. 1982. Os Indios Gavioes: Observacoes Sobre uma Situacao Critica. Unpublished manuscript. Rio de Janeiro. 31 pp.
  • Frechione, J., D. A. Posey, and L. Francelino da Silva. 1985. The Perception of Ecological Zones and Natural Resources in the Brazilian Amazon: An Ethnoecology of Lake Coari. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C.
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  • Ramos, A. R. 1980. Development, integration and the ethnic integrity of Brazilian Indians. Pp. 222–229 in F. Barbira-Scazzocchio, editor. , ed. Land, People and Planning in Contemporary Amazonia. Centre of Latin American Studies, Occasional Publication No. 3. Cambridge University, Cambridge.
  • Taylor, K. I. 1974. Sanuma Fauna, Prohibitions and Classifications. Monograph No. 18. Fundacion La Salle de Ciencias Naturales, Instituto Caribe de Antropologia y Sociologia, Caracas, Venezuela. 138 pp.
  • Taylor, K. I. 1983. Las necesidades de tierra de los Yanomami. (Abstract in English) America Indigena XLIII(3):629–654.
Copyright © 1988 by the National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK219288


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