Tropical rainforests are bursting with life. Not only do millions of species of plants and animals live in rainforests, but many people also call the rainforest their home. In fact, Indigenous, or native, people have lived in rainforests for thousands of years. In North and South America they were mistakenly named Indians by Christopher Columbus, who thought that he had landed in Indonesia, then called the East Indies.
Although many Indigenous people live much like we do, some still live as their ancestors did many years before them. These groups organize their daily lives differently than our culture. Everything they need to survive, from food to medicines to clothing, comes from the forest.
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. So 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 tribes who have access to a large amount of land. However, with the growing number of non-Indigenous farmers and the shrinking rainforest, other tribes, 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.
Most tribal children don’t go to schools like ours. Instead, they learn about the forest around them from their parents and other people in the tribe. 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!
The group of societies known as Europeans includes such cultures as French, Spanish and German. Similarly, the broad group, Indigenous peoples, includes many distinct culture groups, each with its own traditions. For instance, plantains (a type of banana) are a major food source for the Yanomani from the Amazon while the Penan of Borneo, Southeast Asia, depend on the sago palm (a type of palm tree) for food and other uses.
All Indigenous people share their strong ties to the land. Because the rainforest is so important for their culture, they want to take care of it. 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.”
Indigenous peoples have been losing their lives and the land they live on ever since Europeans began colonizing 500 years ago. Most of them died from common European diseases which made Indigenous people very sick because they had never had these diseases before. A disease such as the flu could possibly kill an Indigenous person because s/he has not been exposed to this disease before. Many Indigenous groups have also been killed by settlers wanting their land, or put to work as slaves to harvest the resources of the forest. Others were converted to Christianity by missionaries, who forced them to live like Europeans and give up their cultural traditions.
Until about forty years ago, the lack of roads prevented most outsiders from exploiting the rainforest. These roads, constructed for timber and oil companies, cattle ranchers and miners, have destroyed millions of acres of rainforest each year.
All of these practices force Indigenous people off their land. Because they do not officially own it, 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 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 knew nothing about the culture or language!
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. Kayapo Indians, for example, recently spoke to the United States Congress to protest the building of dams in the Amazon, and were arrested when they arrived back in Brazil, accused of being traitors to their own country. In Malaysia, the Penan have been arrested for blocking logging roads.
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.