Losing the Knowledge Derived from Tropical Rainforests
The destruction of the rainforest has followed the pattern of seeing natural land and natural world peoples as resources to be used, and seeing wilderness as idle, empty and unproductive. Destruction of our rainforests is not only causing the extinction of plant and animal species, it is also wiping out indigenous peoples who live in the rainforest. Obviously, rainforests are not idle land, nor are they uninhabited. Indigenous peoples have developed technologies and resource use systems that have allowed them to live on the land, farming, hunting, and gathering in a complex sustainable relationship with the forest. But when rainforests die, so do the indigenous peoples. In 1500 there were an estimated 6 million to 9 million indigenous people inhabiting the rainforests in Brazil. When Western and European cultures were drawn to Brazil's Amazon in the hopes of finding riches beyond comprehension and artifacts from civilizations that have long since expired with the passage of time, they left behind decimated cultures in their ravenous wake. By 1900 there were only 1 million indigenous people left in Brazil's Amazon. Although the fabled Fountain of Youth was never discovered, many treasures in gold and gems were spirited away by the more successful invaders of the day, and the indigenous inhabitants of the rainforest bore the brunt of these marauding explorers and conquistadors.
Today there are fewer than 250,000 indigenous people of Brazil surviving this catastrophe, and still the destruction continues. These surviving indigenous people still demonstrate the remarkable diversity of the rainforest because they comprise 215 ethnic groups with 170 different languages. Nationwide, they live in 526 territories, which together compose an area of 190 million acres . . . twice the size of California. About 188 million acres of this land is inside the Brazilian Amazon, in the states of Acre, Amapa, Amazonas, Maranhao, Mato Grosso, Para, Rondonia, Roraima, and Tocantins. There may also be 50 or more indigenous groups still living in the depths of the rainforest that have never had contact with the outside world.
Throughout the rainforest, forest-dwelling peoples whose age-old traditions allow them to live in and off the forest without destroying it are losing out to cattle ranching, logging, hydroelectric projects, large-scale farms, mining, and colonization schemes. About half of the original Amazonian tribes have already been completely destroyed. The greatest threat to Brazil's remaining tribal people, most of whom live in the Amazon rainforest, is the invasion of their territory by ranchers, miners, and land speculators and the conflicts that follow. Thousands of peasants, rubber tappers, and indigenous tribes have been killed in Amazonia in the past decade in violent conflicts over forest resources and land.
As their homelands continue to be invaded and destroyed, rainforest people and their cultures are disappearing. When these indigenous peoples are lost forever, gone too will be their empirical knowledge representing centuries of accumulated knowledge of the medicinal value of plant and animal species in the rainforest. Very few tribes have been subjected to a complete ethnobotanical analysis of their plant knowledge, and most medicine men and shamans remaining in the rainforests today are seventy years old or more. When a medicine man dies without passing his arts on to the next generation, the tribe and the world lose thousands of years of irreplaceable knowledge about medicinal plants. Each time a rainforest medicine man dies, it is as if a library has burned down.