Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.
A World Hidden Inside the Woods
Mayan and Inca civilizations of the South and North Americas always evoke a mysterious charm, which actually keeps veiled the colonization and genocide that the native people of the Amazonia had to undergo through centuries. Both these civilizations emerged in their full glory around the 1400s and 1500s, but the sun, set over them too soon, when the Europeans arrived on the shores of the Americas. According to ‘The Handbook of South America Indians’, written in the late 1940s by J.H. Steward, the South American indigenous people can be broadly categorized into four- the nomadic hunter-gatherers, small farmers who lived in the farming villages inside the Amazon forest, irrigated cultivators of the Central Andes region, and the local chiefdoms of the Caribbean area. Steward was an anthropologist who concentrated his studies on the subsistence of people and introduced to the world, the concept of cultural ecology.
The pre-history of the indigenous tribes suggests that their ancestors crossed an ice bridge from Siberia into Alaska about 25000 years ago. It was only around 500 BCE that settled civilizations began to emerge in the Amazon region. Though it took 25000 years for the South American civilizations to come of age, the demolition of it needed only one or two centuries to complete as the European colonizers reached this land of sun and rain.
Pedro Alvares Cabral
The year was 1494, just two years after Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. Eager to pinion a strong rope to the New World, and take control of it, Spain and Portugal, united in marital ties, signed an agreement dividing the few American islands discovered so far, between them. What lies in store in the New World or to what extent the land extended, were facts still unknown. Columbus had just set out on his third voyage to the North American continent. At that time, Pedro Alvares Cabral was a nobleman in King Manuel’s court in Portugal. In 1499, King Manuel made him in charge of a fleet of ships that were originally meant to voyage the sea route discovered by Vasco da Gama to reach India. By the hands of some tricky winds or some human calculation error, this fleet reached the shores of Brazil, in 1500. Thus, Cabral became the discoverer of Brazil and the South American continent.
Daring the resistance from the Tupinamba Indians, a tribal sect of the native people, Portugal decided to build settlements there and become the sole trader of the precious redwood (dye-making raw material) to the world. Pan-brasil was the name of redwood in the Portuguese language and the newly found land was named after it. Soon, the redwood plantations spread eating up the rain forests as African slaves were brought in to establish and toil in them. After making landfall in Brazil, Cabral was not especially charmed by this new land but he resumed his sea voyage to India. In those days, India was the much-coveted golden destination. Still, Cabral became the voyager who discovered South America, the land of the majestic Amazon rain forests. Unknowingly, Cabral also became the first European to set foot in the Amazon, as, in those days in South America, the forest began where the sea ended.
A Painting of the Fleet of Cabral
Francisco de Orellana: The First European to Travel Down the Amazon
In 1533, the legendary Francisco Pizzaro invaded the mighty and rich Peruvian Inca empire and defeated them through treachery. His was a Spanish inquisition mission aimed at converting and destroying the infidels of Christianity. Francisco de Orellana was a blood relative of Pizzaro and was among the 150-men strong cavalcade Pizarro led. After the Inca conquest, in 1541, a team under the second command of Orellana was deputed by Gonzalo Pizzaro, the Governor of Quito, and the brother of Francisco Pizzaro, to look for Cinnamon forests near the Andes mountain ranges. After going deep into the forest, this team decided to travel further in a boat constructed then and there, through the Napo River, a tributary of Amazon. The food supplies were diminishing and this first voyage through the river was mostly in search of food.
In a strange twist of exploratory history, defying Gonzalo’s orders, the crew later decided to continue through the river until it reached the ocean. Maybe they were tired of the hardships that the river and forest made them suffer. Maybe they longed to be back in Europe where their families eagerly awaited them. Reaching the mouth of the river, Orellana and his team initially went to the Spanish island, Cubagua, and soon he sailed back to Spain. While navigating the river, the team had encountered fierce Indian warriors who attacked them, and these attackers were sometimes led by native Indian women. The crew felt that these fierce women warriors were emerging out of some Greek mythology as they remembered the Greek women warriors, the Amazons. Amazons were a women warrior tribe described in Greek mythology and they were said to be at par with men in warfare and physical strength. No surprise that Orellano and his friends named the mighty river and this fearsome forest, the Amazon.
Francesco de Orellana
17th and 18th Centuries
In 1637, the Portuguese Captain Petro de Teixeira navigated the full length of the Amazon river along with his team. From the mouth of the river to the source of the river in the Andes mountains, the journey took them 2 years to complete. Meanwhile, European countries Spain, England, Portugal, France, and many more had already started warring with each other to gain control over the different trading pockets spread across Amazonia. The 1600 and 1700 expeditions revealed a presence of gold in some native tribal villages. This triggered a “gold rush” where many fortune seekers from Europe went into a frenzied run for the yellow metal in Brazil. On the other side of this madness, came more ships from Africa bringing slaves in hundreds and thousands. The European settlers could expand agriculture in the region on a mammoth scale using these slaves. The native people often fought with their bows and arrows and knives against repression and the destruction and pillage of the forests. They held not even a minuscule amount of chance against the guns of the colonizers and were massacred across the continent. Within a period of 150 years after Christopher Columbus stood on the northern part of this twin-continent, the indigenous population came down from 70 million to a mere 3.5 million.
The Amazon People
1911; Machu Picchu
Hiram Bingham III, who was a North American politician, academic, and explorer, discovered in the Peruvian forests the lost and forgotten Inca city, Machu Picchu in 1911. This city was situated on top of an 8000-feet high mountain. Stunning and sophisticated architecture, extensive water supply and irrigation networks, and gorgeous gardens marked this ancient city, a religious hub of the Inca empire that once stretched about 4000 kilometers across the Amazon forests. The empire had a population of 10 million. When the Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro captured and killed the Inca king, Atahualpa, followed by the massacre of thousands of Incas, began the fall of that empire. Gold and the land of the Incas were grabbed from them without mercy or remorse.
Colonel Candido Rondon
In 1913, Theodore Roosevelt set out on an expedition down an unexplored river of Brazil and was accompanied by Colonel Candido Rondon. Rondon was instrumental in laying telegraph wires through the Amazonia in a vast network of thousands of kilometers in the colonial state of Mato Grosso. Brazil, as a country was just taking shape, and this telegraph network linked Rio de Janeiro with the hinterlands of rural townships. Colonel Rondon was actually a legend by himself, known for making the first contact with many Amazonian Indian tribes. Rondon was an explorer and loved to communicate and study the indigenous people of Amazonia. He had a vision of Brazil that was united as one people and this vision included the indigenous tribes too.
However, in a country united by roads and telegraph built by Rondon, the United Fruits Company soon established banana plantations and brought in migrant workers to labor there. The laborers deprived of proper wages, food, water, and the slightest hint of dignity in life, went on a strike, only to be massacred by the army who colluded with the company and its thugs. In Aracataca, hundreds of laborers who fled the scene were caught and killed. This happened in 1928. In his book, One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest, Wade Davis narrates how Aracataca became Macondo, the imaginary magical place that exactly 49 years later, the Nobel prize-winning author Gabriel Garzia Marquis introduced to the world in his novel, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude.'
The 1980s and the Steamroller of Development
The major human and commercial activities happening in Amazonia as of now are agriculture, mineral mining, and cattle rearing. Eyeing the treasure of the natural resources in the region, large companies have made big entries to the Amazon forests and river basins. As the activities of these companies upturn the livelihood and traditional lifestyle of their native populations, clashes between the companies and villagers are a daily occurrence. Minerals, land, oil, gas, and timber continue to lure plunderers to this region.
The government in Brazil colluded with the companies that exploit natural wealth after it adopted the motto, ‘security and development’, in the 1960s. In the name of increasing food production and border security, the government encouraged the occupation of Amazonia by outside people and companies. Starting from the 1950s, rubber plantations replaced thousands of acres of pristine rain forests. With incentives, the government attracted private investment to develop the infrastructural facilities inside Amazonia and promoted permanent border settlements. The ecology of the forest suffered excessively under such varied pressures. The villagers who were traditionally self-sufficient farmers and gatherers turned into laborers, their subsistence at the mercy of their employers and companies. Researchers called this the official colonization of Amazonia.
The Amazon Rain Forest
Amazon, the largest rain forest in the world, is as big in size as the entire United States of America. A large chunk of these forest stretches falls within the borders of Brazil. Around 25-30 percent of all the known species of this planet are residents of this forest and the forest is rightly named, the lungs of the earth. Amazon River is the second-longest river in the world, beaten in length only by the African Nile. Amazon’s width could expand up to 45 kilometers during the rainy season. The dark-colored tributary, Rio Negro, the Xingu and Tapajos with their crystal-clear azure waters, and Madeira and Purus tributaries having white-colored water, all merge with the mother river to become an incessant flow of white water. One could see a mirage of these colors dissolve into each other at the river mouths of these tributaries.
The Status of the Amazonians
Yanomamo, Wajapi, and Kayapo are a few tribal groups that still inhabit these forests. Instead of bows and arrows, they have now learned to hunt with guns, a gift from the outside civilization of settlers and colonizers. When the pressure on the land grew, these hunter-gatherer tribes have adopted a sedentary lifestyle and shrunk their nomadic existence within the boundaries of crowded settlements. They live in the indigenous reserves demarcated by the governments of South America. Many of them make a living as tourist guides. Between the 1960s and 1990s, the non-indigenous population grew from 2 million to 20 million, while one-third of the indigenous tribes have gone extinct. Adding insult to injury, the Peruvian government has opened up 72% of its Amazonian forests to oil and natural gas drilling.
The situation is no different in other South American countries. The left-leaning governments of Latin American countries have been adopting more environment-friendly and pro-indigenous people policies, say some studies. However, the same studies warn that these governments generally favor mega infrastructure projects and mainstream development options just like their capitalist predecessors. They also are rendered ineffective by a weak state apparatus that is the reality of almost all Latin American states.
The Handbook of South America Indians, by J.H. Steward
One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest, by Wade Davis. 2014.
Explorers of the Amazon by Anthony Smith. 1990.
South America Indian People, Britannica.com.
A Brief History of Brazil, The New York Times Archives.
The Colonization and Occupation of Brazilian Amazonia by Henrique Rattner, In Agricultural Expansion and Pioneer Settlements in the Humid Tropics, Edited by Walther Manshard and William B. Morgan. 1985.
Candido Rondon, American Experience, pbs.org
Stringing Together a Nation: Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon and the Construction of a Modern Brazil 1906-1930. By Todd A. Diacon.
Exploring the Amazon River, encyclopedia.com
Religion and Empire: The Dynamics of Aztec and Inca Expansionism by Geoffrey W. Conrad and Arthur A. Demarest. 1984.
Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano. 1997.
The Destruction of the Inca Civilization by Alexis Burling, 2018.
The Amazon Rain Forest by Ann Heinrichs, 2010.
Indigenous People by Dave Lutz, Amazon Aid Foundation.
Environmental politics in Latin America: Elite dynamics, the left tide, and sustainable development. Edited By Benedicte Bull, and Mariel Cristina Aguilar-Stoen. 2015.
© 2021 Deepa
Deepa (author) from India on June 02, 2021:
Thank you. I am happy that you enjoyed reading it.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on June 02, 2021: