Indians of the Amazon

By Megan Mylan

Trade and Treasure

Diamond in Hand

For hundreds of years, the indigenous people of Brazil lived in harmony with their surroundings, managing the forest to meet their needs. When the Portuguese arrived in 1500, the Indians were living mainly on the Pacific coast and along the banks of major rivers. Initially, the Europeans saw the natives as noble savages, and miscegenation of the population began right away. Tribal warfare, cannibalism and the pursuit of Amazonian brazilwood for its treasured red dye convinced the Portuguese that they should “civilize” the Indians. But the Portuguese had brought diseases with them against which the Indians were helpless. Measles, smallpox, tuberculosis and influenza killed tens of thousands. The diseases spread quickly along the indigenous trade routes, and whole tribes were likely annihilated without ever coming in direct contact with Europeans.

In the 16th century, Catholic Jesuit priests, at the behest of Portugal’s monarchy, established missions throughout the country’s colonies. They became protectors of the Indians and worked to both Europeanize them and convert them to Catholicism.

The Protection of the Jesuits

By the middle of the 16th century, Catholic Jesuit priests, at the behest of Portugal’s monarchy, had established missions throughout the country’s colonies. They became protectors of the Indians and worked to both Europeanize them and convert them to Catholicism. The Jesuits provided a period of relative stability for the Indians.

In the mid-1770s, when the power of the Catholic Church began to wane in Europe, the Indians’ fragile co-existence with the colonists was again threatened. Because of a complex diplomatic web between Portugal, Spain and the Vatican, the Jesuits were expelled from Brazil and the missions confiscated and sold.

By 1800, the population of Brazil had reached approximately 3.25 million, of which only 250,000 were indigenes. And for the next four decades, the Indians were largely left alone.

The Rubber Trade

The 1840s brought trade and wealth to the Amazon. The process for vulcanizing rubber was developed, and worldwide demand for the product skyrocketed. The best rubber trees in the world grew in the Amazon, and thousands of rubber tappers began to work the plantations. When the Indians proved to be a difficult labor force, peasants from surrounding areas were brought into the region. In a dynamic that continues to this day, the indigenous population was at constant odds with the peasants, who the Indians felt had invaded their lands in search of treasure.

In 1910, Candido Rondon helped found the Serviço de Proteção aos Índios (Indian Protection Service), the first federal agency charged with protecting Indians and preserving their culture.

The Legacy of Candido Rondon

Fortunes brightened for the Indians around the turn of the century when Candido Rondon, an explorer and progressive officer in the Brazilian army, began working to gain the Indians’ trust and establish peace. Rondon, who had been assigned to help bring telegraph communications into the Amazon, was a curious and natural explorer. In 1910, he helped found the Serviço de Proteção aos Índios (Indian Protection Service) (SPI), the first federal agency charged with protecting Indians and preserving their culture. And in 1914, Rondon accompanied Theodore Roosevelt on Roosevelt’s famous expedition to map the Amazon and discover new species. During these travels, Rondon was appalled to see how settlers and developers treated the indigenes, and he became their lifelong friend and protector. In 1952, as a final legacy, he established the Xingu National Park, in the state of Matto Grosso, the first Indian reservation in Brazil. Rondon, who passed away in 1956, is a national hero in Brazil. The state of Rondonia is named after him.

Alt here President Theodore Roosevelt traveled with Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon (pictured right) during their 1914 scientific expedition along the River of Doubt, later renamed the Roosevelt River. (Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library.)

After Rondon’s pioneering work, the SPI was turned over to bureaucrats and military officers. They did not share his deep commitment to the Indians. The lure of reservation riches enticed cattle ranchers and settlers to continue their assault on native lands – and the SPI eased the way. Between 1900 and 1967, an estimated 98 indigenous tribes were wiped out.

But reports of mistreatment of Indians finally reached Brazil’s urban centers, and in 1967, the military government launched an investigation. It soon came to light that the SPI was failing to protect native lands and that agency officials, in collaboration with land speculators, were systematically slaughtering the Indians by intentionally circulating disease-laced clothes. Criminal prosecutions followed, and the SPI was disbanded.

Under Military Rule

Also in 1967, in a seismic political shift, the Brazilian military took control of the government and abolished all political parties. For the next two decades, Brazil was ruled by a series of generals. The country’s mantra was “Brazil, the Country of the Future,” which the military government used as justification for a giant push into the Amazon to exploit its resources, thereby bringing Brazil to its rightful place among the leading economies of the world. Construction began on a transcontinental highway across the Amazon basin, aimed to encourage migration to the Amazon and to open up the region to more trade. With funding from World Bank, thousands of miles of forest were cleared with no regard for reservation lands. After the highway projects came giant hydroelectric projects, then swaths of forest were cleared for cattle ranches. As a result, reservation lands suffered massive deforestation and flooding. The public works projects attracted very few migrants, but those few – and largely poor - settlers brought new diseases that further devastated the native population.

The Brazilian Gold Rush

The next phase of destruction came in the 1980s with the discovery of large deposits of gold on reservation lands, particularly Yanomami land. The Yanomami, one of the largest and oldest known tribes in the Americas, had lived virtually unchanged since the Stone Age. Then the promise of gold brought tens of thousands of speculators onto their land. The mercury used to extract the deposits polluted the rivers and killed the fish. The miners also introduced tuberculosis, malaria and flu. In 1977, the Yanomami population was estimated at 20,000; by the end of the 20th century, it was down to 9,000.

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