Indians of the Amazon

By Megan Mylan

Trace the history of Brazil’s indigenous peoples, from the early settlers, who brought exploitation and disease, to a new era in which Indians struggle for acceptance and a balance between their ancient ways and modern life.

Indians of the Amazon

Today, Brazil’s Indians account for less than 1 percent of the country’s population; almost two thirds of them live in the Amazon. In the diverse environment of the world’s largest rain forest – home to 20 percent of all known species and rich in mineral resources – an area the size of California and Texas combined has been set aside as reservation land for the Indian population.

Unfortunately, the history of indigenous Brazilians follows a pattern similar to that of many aboriginal peoples. The arrival of the white man began a genocidal process of exploitation and killing that has continued through five centuries. Rubber, wood, gold and diamonds are just some of the highly prized resources found on native lands in the Amazon, and the pursuit of those riches has perpetuated a violent frontier mentality that continually threatens the Amazon’s survival.

When the Portuguese colonized Brazil in the 16th century, there were an estimated 6 million indigenous Brazilians. At the time of the 2000 census, there were 734,000.

In recent years, the Brazilian government has established laws to protect the Indians and their land. These laws are impressive on the surface, but they fail to recognize indigenous people as full citizens, and in addition, few of them are actually enforced. When the rights of Indians clash with Brazil’s economic progress – it’s now the eighth-largest economy in the world – the pursuit of progress prevails. Brazil’s struggle in the modern era has been and continues to be finding a way to tap into the Amazon’s immense natural wealth without destroying its fragile environment or its people.

Documentary filmmaker Megan Mylan directed Lost Boys of Sudan and Batidania. She is currently directing a documentary on race relations in Brazil.

SOURCES FOR THIS FEATURE: A History of Brazil, E. Bradford Burns; The Brazilians, Joseph Page; Folha de São Paulo; The Rainforest Foundation; Amnesty International Report, March 2005, “Foreigners in Our Own Country: Indigenous Peoples in Brazil”; Conselho Indigenista Missionário; Instituto SocioAmbiental.

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