The Effects of Rainforest Destruction on Indigenous Peoples Final

This discussion topic submitted by Randy Wilson ( at 3:17 pm on 5/18/01. Additions were last made on Friday, December 13, 2002.

Since the time humans began evolving from apes, they have been changing and adapting their surroundings to what best suits them. This is shown by the extinction of up to 72 species, which can be traced, to prehistoric man in Europe alone. Today this tradition of changing habitats to benefit humans is still being carried on. Humans are a generalist species that can adapt to the environment of almost any habitat and can then exploit the area to their own advantage, without thought or consideration to the endemic species of the area and how these changes will affect them. One of the many places that this is occurring is in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America.

The rainforests are being chopped down to harvest the precious ancient hardwood trees for flooring and furniture. Land is cleared for cattle to graze upon, although the rainforest soil is poor and without the continuous decomposition that would occur if the rainforest remained intact, the nutrients are exhausted within a few years. By the time the nutrients have been completely depleted, severe erosion has occurred due to the amount of rain that would normally fall upon rainforest falling upon a grassy field, this erodes away the soil and the nutrients into the rivers and out into the ocean from where it cannot be returned. When the cattle ranchers clear more rainforest for their cattle to graze upon, it is very hard for the abandoned land to revert into secondary growth because the soil is so exhausted and eroded, but the ranchers just continue clearing more land for their cattle without a thought of the rainforest and the consequences of what they are doing. The rainforest is removed without a single thought or care for what will happen to all the species that live there, many of which have not been discovered yet, and may never be if this continues.

Many of the countries of Central and South American are becoming more aware of the possible solutions to the problems caused by this destruction, and the innumerable problems that will occur in the near future if it is allowed to continue. These countries also have the support of a multitude of international organizations, which have allowed them the access to funds and public awareness that they did not have previously. The reason these voices were not heard earlier was due to the third world status of these countries, caused by the exploitation by developed countries that did not concern themselves with the adverse effects of their exploitation on the inhabitants, both human and non-human, of these countries because it did not affect them directly. Now that it is evident that destruction of the rainforest will surely affect us all in the long run, and is possibly affecting us already, has driven the more developed countries to accept that there is a problem that they themselves are causing and that a solution must be found soon before an ecosystem we do not even understand is destroyed completely.

One of the attempts to reverse the effects of rainforest destruction is by creating national parks and reserves that are composed of intact old growth forests and land that was previously used as ranch or agriculture land. The cleared land is allowed to revert into second growth forest, in hopes that endemic species of the area will re-inhabit that area in time. This is good in that it allows more inhabitable are for both plant and animal species to exist in, rather than in small refuge islands of undisturbed and intact rainforest. But for the secondary forest growth to become as diverse as it once was takes a number of years, which does not help those species that are severely endangered quickly enough. When large areas of cleared land are permitted to be re-grown naturally, as much as 90% of the vegetation may be composed of wind-borne seeds for many years, which limits the range of frugivores as much as if the land was still cleared, which directly affects many of the already endangered primates of Central and South America.

Another group affected by deforestation are the indigenous peoples of Central and South America. When Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World there were an estimated 1.5-2 million indigenous people in the Amazon alone, now there are approximately 940,00 remaining, having been wiped out by the diseases and abuse of the Europeans. There still remain roughly 215 distinct tribes in just Brazil, 53 of which are labeled as uncontacted because they have no communication or interaction with those outside of indigenous communities or the government of Brazil. Not only are they losing their homes as the other species are, they are losing their culture.

When indigenous people lose their rainforest refuge, they do not die out, in the physical sense, nor can they just relocate, as some animals are able to do. They do lose their culture and their ways of life that have lasted for many generations. They are assimilated into our Western culture, if not directly, then indirectly through the Western culture’s exploitation of third world countries. They lose their traditional beliefs and sustenance patterns that allowed them to live in harmony within the rainforest for so many generations. Their great knowledge of the rainforest, how it works and awareness of medicinal plant species is also lost. The indigenous peoples of Central and South America are so threatened that reserves are created for these people, usually this requires relocation because traditional land has already been destroyed or may greatly condense tribal lands. This is done in hopes that all the wisdom of these people who have in the past been considered “savages” or subhuman, is not lost and that they will share some of this extensive knowledge with us.
A fatal flaw of these governments is that many of these preserve and reserves created to protect all indigenous peoples, do not give autonomous control of the land to the indigenous that inhabit it. They do not even have the basic rights allotted by law to squatters in terms of property control. If better economic prospects arise for use of the land, the governments sign documents that go against previous treaties and laws. In Brazil, an agreement was signed with Venezuela in 1998 to share energy, and construction on power towers through pristine rainforest considered holy by the indigenous of the area was to make this possible. When it was protested and earlier treaties that ensured the rights of these people over their land were brought out, they were ignored and discounted. So, the local tribe decided to bring the towers down themselves, costing Brazil $3 million and their deal with Venezuela. Even if the governments do not officially allow or acknowledge these things still occur, with no repercussions to those who commit these acts. Strip mining, poaching and logging are common upon the land reserves and preserves, which due to inadequate numbers of government officials to patrol the area, may go unnoticed until serious irreversible damage is done. Even then, it is hard to stop the logging or mining when it is discovered and it can possibly continue for a long time after with little or no punishment received by the offenders, although much harm comes to the habitat and all the species involved. The loggers and miners hunt for their food in the rainforest and there is a long history of massacres and intimidation, starting with the arrival of the Europeans, of indigenous people for nothing more than their land and everything upon it. The Guarani tribe of southern Brazil has the highest suicide rate of any other group of people on the planet, yet many of the suicide victims have been found with defense wounds on their hands. The government wants their land, as do several powerful corporations, so scare tactics and massacres are used upon these indigenous people to pressure them to give up their land. Despite the fact this has been documented little is being done about it, and if something major is not done soon there will not be any more Guarani to commit suicide.

Now there is so much pressure upon third world countries to maintain their rainforests and prevent further destruction, yet the developed and wealthy countries creating this pressure are the ones who have already destroyed many if not all the once naturally occurring ecosystems within the parameters of their power. In the United States, there remains only 3% of the temperate rainforest that once flourished in the Pacific Northwest and it is still being logged and clear-cut unmercifully and without concern. We expect them to compensate for our mistakes, because without this tropical rainforest acting as carbon sink, there is no hope for this planet. So to rest the fate of the entire planet upon the backs of people and areas that have been continually exploited for hundreds of years by those who now expect them to protect this land and these people without question when these places are struggling to feed their populations and stay afloat as a part of a global economy. All of this while we attempt to assimilate them into a global culture, expecting the entire population to just conform and see the light. For conspicuous over-consumption is the path for everyone, despite the fact it is the exploitation of these countries that makes this behavior possible and prevents third world countries from becoming more developed.

The rainforest and all of its inhabitants must be protected, not just to compensate for the developed countries having destroyed all of their natural ecosystems, but because we have no right to destroy this also. If almost 2 million indigenous people could live in the Amazon basin for at least 15,000 years without having a significant negative impact on the environment, without annihilating the rainforest completely, how have we depleted the rainforest so greatly in a few hundred years? Hunter-gatherer societies have the least impact upon any environment, and thus 2 million people could live off the land without destroying it for so long. We should learn from these people, not attempt to assimilate them into our culture because we think it is the appropriate one for all humans. Without the tropical rainforests of Central and South America, we lose not only the biodiversity of species that they hold, but we also lose the diversity of the people that inhabit it. Without diversity, we are nothing as a species, and we will soon go extinct if and when this ever happens, especially if we lose all of these different cultures to the Western culture we live in, the culture that takes everything it sees and destroys everything it cannot. The rainforest must not be saved for the planet, because that is merely a faćade, for we have not concerned ourselves with the well-being of the planet since we began adapting habitats to suit only us.

We must save the rainforest for every living plant and animal species within it, not to save ourselves or to pat ourselves on the back for making those savages see the light before they destroyed all their rainforest, but for the rainforest itself. If the rainforests, tropical and temperate are allowed to be annihilated throughout the world, we will lose so much we never even understood and we will have killed all of those in the process who did understand it that we never bothered to listen to.

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