Indigenous People

A 'Q and A' session from Rainforest Action Network, to help older children learn about indigenous populations living in the Amazon and other rainforests.

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Q: Who are indigenous people?

A: Rainforests are bursting with life. Not only do millions of species of plants and animals live in rainforests, but people also call the rainforest their home. In fact, indigenous, or native, peoples have lived in rainforests for many thousands of years. Early accounts of these people by European explorers indicate a far denser population lived in the forest than today. Many of these original peoples, such as the Caribs (after whom the Caribbean Sea is named) have disappeared completely. Others are only scattered remnants of what they once were. However thousands of distinct ethnic groups with their own distinctive language and culture remain today in tropical rainforests around the world.

Q: In general, how do they live?

A: Although some indigenous people live much as we do, others still live much as did their ancestors thousands of years before them. These communities organize their daily lives differently than our culture. Their food, medicines and clothing come primarily from the forest.

Q: Do the children go to school?

A: Most tribal children don't go to schools like ours. Instead, they learn about the forest from their parents and other people in their community. They are taught how to survive in the forest. They learn how to hunt and fish, and which plants are useful as medicines or food. Some of these children know more about rainforests than scientists who have studied rainforests for many years!

Q: What do they find to eat?

A: Besides hunting, gathering wild fruits and nuts and fishing, Indigenous people also plant small gardens for other sources of food, using a sustainable farming method called shifting cultivation. First they first clear a small area of land and burn it. Then they plant many types of plants, to be used for food and medicines. After a few years, the soil has become too poor to allow for more crops to grow and weeds start to take over. They then move to a nearby uncleared area. This land is traditionally allowed to regrow for 10-50 years before it is farmed again. Shifting cultivation is still practiced by those indigenous groups who have access to a large amount of land. However, with the growing number of non-indigenous farmers and the shrinking rainforest, other groups, especially in Indonesia and Africa, are now forced to remain in one area. The land becomes a wasteland after a few years of overuse, and cannot be used for future agriculture.

Q: Why is the forest so important to indigenous people?

A: Indigenous people revere the forest that, until the present, has protected them from outsiders and given them everything they need. They live what is called a sustainable existence, meaning they use the land without doing harm to the plants and animals that also call the rainforest their home. As a wise indigenous man once said, "The earth is our historian, our educator, the provider of food, medicine, clothing and protection. She is the mother of our races."

Q: Why are indigenous peoples in danger?

A: Indigenous peoples have been losing their lives and the land they live on ever since Europeans began colonizing their territories 500 years ago. Unknowingly, the first European explorers to what is now called Latin America brought diseases such as small-pox, measles and even the common cold to which Europeans had developed varying degrees of immunity but to which indigenous peoples had no immunity at all since none of them had never been exposed to these diseases before.

As a result of those encounters, over ninety percent of the native peoples died from diseases that today we regard as minor and even then were fatal to only a small fraction of Europeans. This disaster was repeated again when Europeans explored Oceania. Since then many indigenous groups have also been killed and driven off by settlers wanting their land, or enslaved to work in sugar plantations or mines. However, until about forty years ago, the lack of roads prevented most outsiders from exploiting the rainforest and entering indigenous territories. These roads, constructed for timber and oil companies, cattle ranchers and miners, have opened up vast areas for outsiders to grab and exploit and have made possible the destruction of millions of acres of rainforest each year.

Although indigenous people have lived on their lands for thousands of years, they do not own it, because they have not filed "deeds" of land and do not possess "title." Therefore governments and other outsiders do not recognize their rights to the land. They have no other choice but to move to different areas, sometimes even to the crowded cities. They often live in poverty because they have no skills useful for a city lifestyle and little knowledge about the urban culture. For example, they know more about gathering food from the forest than buying food from a store. Imagine being forced to move to a different country, where you know nothing about the culture or language!

Q: What are indigenous people doing to save their territory?

A: Indigenous groups are beginning to fight for their land, most often through peaceful demonstrations. Such actions may cause them to be arrested or even to lose their lives, but they know that if they take no action, their land and culture could be lost forever.

Many people living outside of rainforests want to help protect the indigenous people's culture. They understand that indigenous people have much to teach us about rainforests. By working with these groups, we can learn important information about rainforests - its ecology, medicinal plants, food and other products. It is crucial to realize that they have a right to practice their own lifestyle, and live upon the land where their ancestors have lived before them.

Q: Why should we care about the fate of indigenous peoples?

A: The basic answer is moral: indigenous peoples have a right to live and because we should celebrate their difference from us since diversity enriches life and culture. We should be ashamed that the 20th century has witnessed more genocides of peoples and more extinctions of animals than any other in history.

In addition, indigenous peoples possess an enormous body of almost irreplaceable information and skills about living in the rainforest without destroying it.

In the 19th Century, miners used to carry canaries into the mines with them because the birds were highly sensitive to toxic gases. If the birds died, it warned the miners that they too would die unless they fled. Jason W. Clay has compared the rainforests and their inhabitants to the miner's canary and we can see that they are dying. However, we cannot flee the earth we can only change our ways.

"Within the next few decades, the fate of the world's remaining indigenous peoples, the fragile environments they occupy, and the valuable knowledge that they embody could well be decided once and for all. A number of individuals, corporations, and states are already pursuing their own "final solutions." The 20th century will be remembered either as the century when we destroyed much of the Earth's genetic and cultural diversity, or the century when peoples learned to live together and share their knowledge in order to maintain the diversity upon which we all depend. Working together, we can make a world of difference."

Information aquired from Rainforest Action Network