People in the Amazon Rainforest

By Rhett A. Butler [April 1, 2019]

The Amazon has a long history of human settlement. Contrary to popular belief, sizable and sedentary societies of great complexity existed in the Amazon rainforest [Amazon Civilization Before Columbus]. These societies produced pottery, cleared sections of rainforest for agriculture, and managed forests to optimize the distribution of useful species. The notion of a virgin Amazon is largely the result of the population crash following the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth century. Studies suggest that 11.8 percent of the Amazon's terra firme forests are anthropogenic in nature resulting from the careful management of biodiversity by indigenous people. However, unlike those using current cultivation techniques, these Amazonians were attuned to the ecological realities of their environment from five millennia of experimentation, and they understood how to sustainably manage the rainforest to suit their needs. They saw the importance of maintaining biodiversity through a mosaic of natural forests, open fields, and sections of forest managed so as to be dominated by species of special interest to humans.

Many of these populations existed along whitewater rivers where they had good means of transportation, excellent fishing, and fertile floodplain soils for agriculture. However, when Europeans arrived, these were the first settlements to be affected, since Europeans used the major rivers as highways to the interior. In the first century of European presence, the Amerindian population was reduced by 90 percent. Most of the remaining peoples lived in the interior of the forest: either pushed there by the Europeans or traditionally living there in smaller groups.

From Pizarro's conquest of the Inca empire until the end of the Brazilian rubber boom around the beginning of World War I, the Spanish and Portuguese, in the name of Catholicism with the blessing of popes, continued the long tradition of abuse against these people—one that would be continued by colonists, rubber tappers, and land developers.

Waura shaman in Brazil. Photo by Sue Wren.

Amazonians Today

Today, despite the population decimation, natives peoples still live in American rainforests, although virtually all have been affected by the outside world. Instead of wearing traditional garb of loin cloths, most Amerindians wear western clothes, and many use metal pots, pans, and utensils for everyday life. Some groups make handicrafts to sell to tourists, while others make routine trips to the city to bring foods and wares to market.

Almost no native group obtains the majority of its food by traditional nomadic hunting and gathering. Nearly all cultivate crops, with hunting, gathering, and fishing serving as a secondary or supplementary food source. Usually a family has two gardens: a small house garden with a variety of plants, and a larger plantation which may be one hectare in area planted with bananas, manioc, or rice. These plantations are created through the traditional practice of slash and burn, a method of forest clearing that is not all that damaging to the forest if conducted in the traditional manner.

Today virtually no forest Amerindians live in their fully traditional ways, although there are still several dozen groups living in voluntary isolation. The "uncontacted tribes", as they are popularly known, mostly live in Brazil and Peru.

Indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation in the Amazon (2015 estimates)

Country Uncontacted groupsPopulation estimate
Bolivia 6 to 10< 500
Brazil 77A few thousand
Colombia 3 to 5< 1000
Ecuador 3< 300
Peru 12 to 15< 1000
Venezuela 2 to 3A few hundred

The number of indigenous people living in the Amazon Basin is poorly quantified, but some 20 million people in 8 Amazon countries and the Department of French Guiana are classified as "indigenous". Two-thirds of this population lives in Peru, but most of this population dwells not in the Amazon, but in the highlands.

Indigenous people and conservation

While indigenous populations have at times been seen as being at odds with conservation, today policymakers realize the importance of incorporating indigenous people in conservation efforts. In fact there is evidence in some parts of the Amazon that indigenous territories have lower deforestation rates and incidence of encroachment than conventional protected areas. For example, a 2006 study conducted by researchers at the Woods Hole Research Center and the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazonia, found that parks and indigenous reserves in the Amazon help slow deforestation. Using quantitative analysis of satellite data, the research concluded that deforestation and the incidence of fires was significantly lower inside the perimeter of reserves and demarcated indigenous lands.

The findings shouldn't come as a surprise, according to ethnobotanist Mark Plokin, who runs the Amazon Conservation Team, a conservation group.

"As an illegal logger or miner, would you rather invade a national park that has two rangers in a hut miles away from its borders or an indigenous reserve full of people armed with spears and poison-tipped arrows who will defend their forest home with their lives?"

Indigenous Amazonians are presently at the forefront of conservation efforts, even embracing technology and new policy mechanisms to safeguard their forests and traditions.

Brazil's indigenous population

Brazil has set aside large tracts of forests—roughly 12.5 percent of Brazil's total land area and 26.4 percent of the Amazon basin—for 450,000 "Indians" or 0.25 percent of the total population. These indigenous reserves—set forth under Brazil's 1988 constitution—have helped the country's Indian population to rebound after centuries of decline. 60 percent of Brazil's Indian population lives in the Amazon.

These protected areas are not popular among poor farmers, landowners, and developers, who have tried to fight the establishment of new parks and indigenous reserves and are known to illegally exploit forest resources—especially mahogany and other valuable timber—within the boundaries of protected areas.

Largest Cities in the Amazon:
The bulk of the human population in the Amazon Basin is found in a cities which have emerged from the surrounding rainforest to become significant population centers. Outside the cities and towns, the Amazon is sparsely populated.

City CountryUrban Population (2015)
Belem Brazil1,912,600
Manaus Brazil1,524,600
Iquitos Peru349,300
Macapa Brazil301,600
Porto Velho Brazil292,000
Santarem Brazil192,300


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