Anthropology of Amazonia Research Paper

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The Amazon is the second-largest river in the world, with a basin that encompasses nine countries and is known as Amazonia. Amazonia, or Amazon rain forest, is one of the largest remaining forests of the world. It is home to indigenous peoples, both noncontacted and settled, mestizos, and European immigrants’ descendants. A home to megabiodiversity, Amazonia contains plenty of natural resources—not only land but also timber, gold, oil, and gas. Amazonia is largely a remote rural area with people living in subsistence economies, but it is also a network of vibrant and chaotic urban centers and towns that have been supplying natural resources to the world market since as early as the 16th century. The export of mahogany, rubber, quinine, fauna, and many other products has always influenced the region’s economy with a boom and bust cycle. The trail of natural products leaving the region serves as a channel through the subsistence economy, the mercantilist economy, and the free market economy. The fate of the forest is very much related to the demands of the world market and the unwillingness of national governments to invest government resources in an area already ruled by local economies supplying the world market through the export network.

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The Amazon rain forest is divided into upper and lower sections of the Amazon River basin. The first one lies between 800 and 3,400 meters above sea level while the second area lies at an altitude below 800 meters. As many other tropical rain forests, Amazonia hosts a trilogy of human and natural resources that constitutes not only its main value but also the fate of its destruction, indigenous peoples, biodiversity, and natural resources, such as gold and oil. Wood, medicinal plants, food, and firewood are some of the direct uses of forests. These forests provide for the survival of a number of rural populations, including indigenous peoples and resource-poor farmers. The standard of living of these populations depends largely on maintaining rain forest vitality, diversity, and coverage. The extraction of oil and mineral resources has fueled only economies foreign to the Amazon, which usually invest little in the areas where they mine or extract oil.

Settled Indigenous Peoples of Amazonia

The early works of Meggers and Evans (1957, p. 598) suggested that the first Amazonian settlers initiated a slow process of “filtration” through the main course of the Amazon River and its tributaries. Other works (Roosevelt, 1991) showed that the area in the Island of Marajo and in the main stream of the Amazon River hosted large, sedentary societies capable of military chiefdoms. The presence of these societies forced less complex societies to leave the terra firme and move to the 5,000 smaller Amazon tributaries and its headwaters. At the time of the European contact around 1542, when Orellana descended through the Napo River into the Amazon, some 5 to 6 million Amerindian peoples lived in Amazonia (Denevan, 1976, 2003; Newson, 1996). Since early contact with the Europeans, the indigenous peoples’ population rapidly decreased by epidemics and forced labor.

The Web page of the Red Amazónica De Información Socioambiental Georreferenciada ( gives an overall estimate of more than 370 Amazonian indigenous peoples with a total population of 1.6 million people living in 2,200 territories. Additional to this population are the urban indigenous peoples and the noncontacted indigenous peoples. Bearing in mind that all estimates are gross, we can say that Bolivia has 31 indigenous peoples with 172,000 individuals, Brazil has 200 indigenous peoples with 213,000 individuals, Colombia has 52 indigenous peoples with 70,000 individuals, Ecuador has 6 indigenous peoples with 95,000 individuals, Guyana has 9 indigenous peoples with 40,000 individuals, Peru has 60 indigenous peoples with 400,000 individuals, Surinam has 5 indigenous peoples with 7,000 individuals, and Venezuela has 16 indigenous peoples with 39,000 individuals. Our comparison of these estimates with others cited below suggests a margin of error between 10% and 15%. Now, probably around 1.6 million indigenous peoples live in Amazonia.

Brazil’s almost 200 indigenous peoples involve the Apalaí, Apinayé, Apurinã, Arára do Pará, Asurini do Tocantins, Asuriní do Xingu, Atroari, Banawá, Bororo, Caiuá, Canela, Cinta-Larga, Deni, Fulniô, Guajajara, Guarani Mbyá, Hixkaryana, Hupda, Ikpeng, Jamamadi, Jarawara, Juma, Kaapor, Kadiwéu, Kaingáng, Kamayurá, Karajá, Karipuna do Amapá, Karitiana, Kaxarari, Kayabi, Kayapó, Krahô, Kuikuro, Kurâ-Bakairi, Mamaindé, Maxakalí, Mundurukú, Nadëb, Nambikuára, Palikúr, Parakanã, Paresi, Paumari, Pirahã, Rikbaktsa, SateréMawé, Suruí do Pará, Suruí de Rondônia, Suyá, Tenharim, Terena, Waiãpí, Waurá, Xavante, Xokleng, Yanomámi Waicá Central, and Yuhup, among others.

The large extension of the Brazilian Amazonia and different stages of development among these areas has meant diverse organizational processes for Brazil’s Amazonian indigenous peoples. Since the arrival of Europeans to Brazil, the indigenous population that inhabited the main river areas was the first to succumb to the European expansion and to move westward. During the first centuries of contact, the indigenous peoples’ population dropped nearly to extinction. The manhunt was carried out by means of the sword or the crucifix. Many early attempts at evangelization were resisted by indigenous warfare; however, evangelization gave way to settlements where indigenous peoples were forced to live and work. The benefits of evangelization are still being debated with the evidence provided by the cases of various indigenous peoples in initial contact. By the beginning of the 20th century, the ongoing manhunting for indigenous peoples was continuing in the hands of the “professional killers” (bugreiros in Portuguese) that cleared the land. At the same time, the evangelization of indigenous peoples had not achieved full results. In the early 20th century, there were indigenous uprisings outside of Amazonia in Sao Paulo state, Espirito Santo, Minas Gerais, Santa Catarina, and Parana that brought the issue of manhunts to national attention through the media. Internationally, the 1908 16th International Congress of Americanists held in Vienna, Austria, received complaints that Brazil was enforcing a national policy of eliminating indigenous peoples. This bad reputation forced the Brazilian government to act in order to protect indigenous peoples through the 1910 creation of the state agency Service to Protect Indigenous Peoples (SPI by its acronym in Portuguese). The man picked as chief of the organization was Candido Mariano Da Silva, who later changed his surname to Rondon. He was a descendant of Terena, Bororo, and Guana indigenous peoples. From 1889, he helped set up thousands of kilometers of telegraphic lines—peacefully—in indigenous peoples’ lands; that service led the government to nominate him as the first director of the SPI.

In the 1940s, the Ronçador-Xingu Expedition was in charge of pacifying indigenous peoples, opening roads, and setting up emergency camps. The brothers Orlando, Claudio, and Leonardo Villas Boas took part in this expedition. In 1944, the expedition was successful in pacifying the Xavante and 2 years later, 14 other indigenous peoples of the Xingu. It was not until 1961 that the Xingu Indigenous Peoples National Park was set up in support of these 15 indigenous peoples.

The agency decayed by the 1950s and was finally closed and replaced by a new National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples (FUNAI by its acronym in Portuguese) in 1967. This has meant a different organizational process from those experienced by their Andean Amazonian neighbors.

In Ecuador, the Amazonian rural population outnumbers the urban population. The Amazonian rural population has been growing since 1950 when it represented only 1.68% of the national rural population (Ecuador’s National Institute For Statistics and Census [INEC], 1951). In 1990, it was 285,728 and represented 6.35% of the national rural population (INEC, 1991). In 1990, the Amazonian urban population was 102,215 people and represented 1.86% of the national urban population (INEC, 1991). In 2001, the Amazonian urban population was 129,861 people while the rural population had reached 233,379 people, for a total Ecuadorian-Amazonian population of 363,240, representing 2.98% of the national population. This was the result of both migration and colonization.

According to the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples Nationalities of Ecuador (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador [CONAIE], 1989), the region was inhabited by several indigenous groups: 60,000 Amazonian Quichuas in the provinces of Pastaza, Napo, and part of Sucumbios; around 600 Sionas Secoyas; 700 Cofan; 600 Huaoranis; 40,000 Shuars in the provinces of Morona Santiago, Zamora Chinchipe, and part of Pastaza; and 2,400 Achuars for a total of 104,060 people (CONAIE, 1989; Hicks, 1990, p. 6; Ruiz, 1993, p. 641).

Until 1974, Ecuadorian-Amazonian indigenous peoples represented 40% of the Amazonian population, but by 1990, they represented only 28% of the regional population (INEC, 1975, 1991). The process of colonization of the Amazon region pushed indigenous populations toward more remote areas. The indigenous population had to confront integration or resort to isolation in the forests. Migration to the Amazonian region grew steadily, threatening indigenous survival. The use of indigenous peoples as a labor force also affected their pattern of settlement and their cultural survival. Since the 1960s, the indigenous population has initiated a process of organization and has demanded land rights. Until 1979, indigenous peoples did not vote in Ecuador. It was only then that the literacy test was cancelled and indigenous peoples were eligible to vote and to be elected (Mumme & Korzetz, 1997, p. 49). Mumme and Korzetz point out that Ecuador’s indigenous peoples have defended their environmental interests through the representation offered by CONAIE rather than through “electorally based representation” (p. 49). The organizational process gradually expanded throughout the Amazonian region. In 1992, 2,000 Amazonian Indians marched to Quito and demanded land rights; as a result, outgoing President Rodrigo Borja (1988–1992) awarded land rights to an extent that surpassed the land titles given by all previous governments together (Rainforest Action Network, 1997; Sawyer, 1997). These EcuadorianAmazonian indigenous peoples’ organizations were part of the social movements’ uprisings that removed Presidents Bucaram, Mahuad, and Gutierrez.

In Peru, there is a broad estimate of around 48 to 65 ethnic groups belonging to 12 to 14 indigenous language groups, with an estimated population of approximately 300,000 inhabitants in the Amazon region (Comisión Amazónica de Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo [CAMAD], 1992, p. 34; Dandler et al., 1998, p. 9; Instituto Nacional de Recursos Naturales [INRENA], 1999, p. 3); Yañez, Noewjovich, & Tobin, 1998, p. 40). The Instituto del Bien Común, a nonprofit organization that has mapped 80% of Peruvian indigenous lands, registers in its Amazonian Indigenous Communities Information System 59 ethnic groups belonging to 15 indigenous language groups. In 2008, this population was still grossly estimated around 300,000 people who in fact could be probably closer to 400,000.

In 1969, three indigenous peoples’ organizations were born in the Peruvian Amazon. After 3 years of intense efforts, the Amuesha people from the central Peruvian Amazon created the Congress of Amuesha Communities (Brysk, 1996, p. 40). In the northern Peruvian Amazon, two indigenous peoples’ organizations were created by the Aguaruna people from the Potro and Manseriche rivers and by the Achuar from the Huitoyacu, Manchari, and Shintusi rivers (Dandler et al., 1998, p. 12). Since then, a large number of indigenous peoples’ organizations have been created.

Ten years later, the first regional and interethnic indigenous peoples’ organization was born: the Aguaruna and Huambisa Council. That same year, the first national organization was born with the creation of the Coordinator of the Native Communities of the Peruvian Jungle, which in 1980 changed its name to Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP). In 1984, AIDESEP lead the process of creating the only panAmazon organization representing the eight countries of the basin, the Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA). In 1987, a second national organization was born with the creation of the Confederation of Amazonian Nationalities of Peru (CONAP). AIDESEP has been active in defending the land, opposing mining and oil prospecting in their territories and in protected areas, and organizing the grassroots to plan and implement education, health, and production projects (Varese, 1996). CONAP, which initially had the same view, at some point changed and decided to sign a deal with Perupetro in 2007, but this stance has a longer history and has marked the division between the indigenous peoples’ organizations, their nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of support, and is influencing many of the organizations of the Peruvian environmental movement.

Perupetro (Petróleos del Perú), Peru’s state corporation in charge of managing oil concessions, differs from Petroperu, Peru’s first state oil company and manager of oil resources, which is currently only in charge of commercializing some oil products in Peru.

The recognition of indigenous peoples’ lands has had diverse historical processes, legislation, and institutions involved. In Brazil, after initial eviction and relocation, larger territories were awarded to indigenous peoples as in the case of the Yanomami. In Ecuador, government had granted small concessions until the government of Rodrigo Borja when the government granted an amount of land similar to all that had been granted before in all republican history and introduced the legal concept of “indigenous peoples’ territory.” In Peru, small land holdings have been granted for approximately 1,500 native communities totaling over 12 million hectares of forests. Only the Matses and a few other peoples have been able to secure larger territories while most have been titled and surrounded with colonists who are mainly from the Andean highlands and fewer from the coast.

During the 1990s, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) promoted Latin America land liberalization under the principles of promoting democratic values and free market principles and thereby created a land market. Thus, counterreform in México, Perú, and Honduras, for example, proposed to generate employment, promote environmentally and socially sound economic growth, and political freedom and governance. Land liberalization involved changing the legal framework to support private sector access to the land market. These reforms affected the most vulnerable, who had previously benefited by the agrarian reform (Van Dam, 1999, p. 16). During 2008, the Garcia government (2006–2011) in Peru was aiming to promote investment in Amazonian lands for biofuels, soy, and timber. These intentions caused major concern among the indigenous peoples and nonindigenous peoples of the PeruvianAmazonian region who went on strike demanding the nullification of this legislation. After many days of revolt, the Garcia government overruled two decrees modifying access to indigenous peoples’ lands by third parties. Similar protests had been occurring in Colombia in 2008 where the indigenous peoples went on a national march to the national capital, Bogota, to press the government for land rights and to denounce violence.

All Amazonian national governments declare respect for indigenous peoples’ rights and the commitments of international legislation protecting their rights, while regional and local authorities want to prevent the enforcement of these rights. World Bank–funded programs have favored individual land titling for colonists over communal land titling for indigenous peoples. But now with the impulse of a second wave of privatization, governments of Colombia and Peru are calling for the small land holders to leave the land. In the case of Colombia, the rural populations are in the midst of the violence that has long affected this country. Indigenous peoples are easy targets for any of the contending forces involved. The governments of Ecuador and Bolivia may be more open to listening to the demand for land rights. The former has been increasing protection to noncontacted indigenous peoples, while the latter has offered to continue land titling. However, the same offer has been made to colonists by Evo Morales, who emerged from the Bolivian electorate. Both governments have indigenous peoples as public officials and involve the participation of indigenous peoples’ political organizations among other social sectors.

The Noncontacted Indigenous Peoples of Amazonia

Of the world’s 100 noncontacted indigenous peoples, some 85 of these remain noncontacted in the Amazonian countries. There are 67 noncontacted indigenous peoples in Brazil, 14 of them in Peru, and at least one each of them in Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador.

The noncontacted indigenous peoples inhabit headwaters, ranges, and other higher ground available to them. Many remain in cloud forests where fauna is more abundant. They live off hunting, fishing, gathering, and incipient agriculture. Reports coincide on their seasonal migration along riverbanks to gather turtle eggs on which occasions they move in family groups of around 25 people, usually with some domesticated huanganas that they breed as dogs, and set camp every 5 kilometers after a 1-day walking journey. In these cases, they have been spotted from air while reports by park guards along riverbanks show huts made of palm leaves, some of them big enough to provide cover for 5 to 6 people.

The noncontacted indigenous peoples bravely enforce, with spears and arrows, their right to remain without contact. When their possibilities of avoiding contact are reduced by external actors, their alternative is to move to remote areas where this is possible. Their decision to remain noncontacted is evidence of their strong pursuit of their right to be protected from development ensuring their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. In fact, these people try to avoid contact, but when possible and necessary, they aim to scare us out of their land to protect it. They are no more nomadic than many other populations that seasonally adapt to climate change and availability of resources.

The existence of the last remaining indigenous peoples is denied by those interested in their lands, namely loggers, cattle ranchers, and oil companies. Those denying the existence of these peoples usually argue their “absence” in the literature, the fact that the area has been intervened in the last decades, and the fact that there are no scientific reports stating so. Those affirming the existence of these peoples rely on local informants, artifacts found in the field such as stone axes, pottery, wooden containers, bags, or signs or marks on trees, as well as trails and stories of encounters and sightings, human calls in the night imitating animals, and some spearheaded animals appearing at their campsites. Thus, the matter of probing the existence of these peoples in a given area is a much debated issue.

Activities by loggers, cattle ranchers, and oil companies can affect the forest where the noncontacted indigenous peoples live through deforestation and clear-cutting, forest fragmentation and biodiversity loss, negative effects on the wildlife and protected areas, and ecosystem fragmentation. The presence of teams of workers, equipment, and tools will produce solid and liquid waste that will be eliminated in the forests without any more treatment than burying solid waste in the ground. These activities usually include the arrival of airplanes and helicopters flying over the area. In the case of oil, seismic lines will cut usually a few 100 kilometers through the forests. These risks altogether represent a serious threat to the health and wealth of these populations by affecting their integrity, their access to food, and by their lethal exposure to disease.

Over the last decades, Brazil has developed a policy on demarcating and protecting noncontacted indigenous peoples’ territories. Although not all efforts were successful, they did contribute to the process of understanding the need to not contact these peoples and respect their right to their land. Since the creation of FUNAI, 13 million hectares of land have been set aside as protected areas for noncontacted indigenous peoples. Protecting their land is a first priority and should be done taking into account the need to contain human pressure and to provide buffer zones to avoid destruction and disappearance of these peoples. Since 1987, FUNAI has focused its work on noncontacted indigenous peoples through seven teams operating in the states of Amazonas, Pará, Acre, Mato Grosso, Rondônia, and Goiás. In Acre, there are 10 indigenous lands, 5 of which belong to noncontacted indigenous peoples. In Brazil, there is an estimate of around 40 noncontacted indigenous peoples that have been verified and another 27 nonverified, which accounts for a total of 67 noncontacted indigenous peoples.

In the case of Peru, five territorial reserves have been created over 2,812,000 hectares. These are the Murunahua Territorial Reserve and the Mashco Piro Territorial Reserve in the Ucayali Region (1997), the Isconahua Territorial Reserve in the Ucayali Region (1998), the Madre de Dios Territorial Reserve for the Mashco Piro peoples in Madre de Dios (2002), and the Kugapakori Nahua Nanti Territorial Reserve in the Ucayali and Cuzco Regions (2003). However, another five proposed territorial reserves have been awaiting government approval, some of them since 1999. These are the Yavarí Tapiche, Yavarí Mirim, the Napo Tigre Curaray in Loreto, the Kapanawa in Loreto and Ucayali, and the Cacataibo in Loreto and Ucayali. In Peru, the government department responsible for noncontacted indigenous peoples and the territorial reserves is the National Institute for Andean, Amazonian and Afro-Peruvian Peoples (Instituto Nacional de Pueblos Andinos, Amazonicos y Afroperuanos [INDEPA]). The executive had reorganized and reassigned INDEPA between different ministries during 2006 and 2008 until Congress passed a law restoring the institution’s autonomy. However, it still lacks financial and technical resources to carry its duties adequately.

In Bolivia in 2006, the government set up the Intangible Zone for Integral Protection and Absolute Reserve of the Toromona peoples in the Madidi National Park, which is also inhabited by the Ese Ejja and the Kapuibo peoples. The Sinabo, who live between the lower Beni and Yata rivers, are also considered to be in a situation of noncontact; however, another indigenous peoples, the Warasug’we, live in the Noel Kempff National Park in a situation of initial contact. In both cases, these indigenous peoples inhabit a national park, a strict protection area with a ban on resource use.

In Ecuador, although there is no general legislation covering this matter, in 1999, the Ecuadorian government passed an Executive decree (a Presidential decree) creating the Tagaeri Taromenani Intangible Zone. Since then, the Ecuadorean government has failed to delimit the boundaries of the area. After some Ecuadorean campaigners lodged a request for precautionary measures to protect the Tagaeri Taromenani, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights requested the Ecuadorean government “to protect the life and integrity of the Tagaeri Taromenani, adopting the necessary measure to protect the territory that they inhabit, including measures to prevent access” particularly from illegal loggers (see Oilwatch report at com_content&task=view&id=62&Itemid=56). The delimitation of the Tagaeri Taromenani Intangible Zone is still pending. Instead, the Correa government proposed in October 2008 a code of conduct to be followed by the oil companies operating in the area.

In 2002, the Colombian government set up the 999.880 hectares of the Pure River Natural National Park to protect the Aroje, Yurí, and Caraballo peoples, respecting their right to remain noncontacted and allowing them to settle in the future and turn the national park into a communally titled, indigenous-peoples’ land. The National Park has among its usual conservation objectives a first and primary goal to protect the territory of the noncontacted, ensuring their survival and their decision not to be contacted.

Migrants in Amazonia

Migration is always in vogue in Amazonia. It was so in the 1950s when Brazil aimed to relocate landless people from outside the Amazon, and it is so today when Andean populations are still moving every day to live in the Amazonian lowlands. These Andean indigenous peoples move to live in Amazonia to practice agriculture, cattle ranching, and commerce. These people usually overvalue their own culture in comparison with that of the Amazonian indigenous peoples.’ The more commercially oriented Andean peoples are usually non-Catholic Christians, whereas the Catholic are less organized and lack the organizational skills and group support of non-Catholic Christians. Other migrants include coastal and European settlers.

It usually takes 30 years for many newcomers to understand that agricultural production in tropical lands is quite different from irrigated-land agriculture. In some cases, the migrant population of a rural area has been there for enough time to have integrated traditional knowledge with the exploitation of the Amazonian environment. After one or more generations, this mixture has produced a CreoleAmazonian culture of extractive and “riparian peoples” (ribereños in Spanish, ribeirinhos in Portuguese)— descendants of migrants who over generations had adapted to indigenous peoples’ use of resources—who are partly a mixture of beliefs involving traditional knowledge on how to harvest the environment. While Brazil has granted land rights to these populations, other countries such as Peru have not recognized land rights for these “migrant” peoples and their descendants, despite the fact that many of them live on the forest and feed on it. Forced labor is still a common situation in Bolivia and Peru both in artisan gold mining and in forest extraction. Andean laborers are hired in their towns and sent to the lower Amazonian forests and rivers to extract resources with a mixture of 15th-century labor conditions and 15th-century cheap, Chinese equipment to dig for oil in Amazonian riverbeds. A small investor usually holds a mining permit that is not supervised on-site. This means miners usually forcefully enforce their limits with their neighbors, feeding conflict with agriculturalists and other resource users. A laborer is hired for a 2-year period to work 6 days a week, with no holidays and a credit account that can extend its contract.

Urban Centers and Towns

Amazonian societies at some point generated larger sedentary societies along the main Amazon River and its main tributaries, such as in Marajo Island. Many other smaller, nonmilitary chiefdom societies also coexisted in the smaller tributaries and biggest cities. The arrival of missionaries, soldiers, and all sorts of fortune seekers changed the Amazonian landscape. Since then, the region has been exporting natural resources to the world market. The boom and bust cycle has characterized the export of Amazonian products, such as timber, gold, leather, pets, and all sorts of products from biodiversity. All those resource cycles developed a network of rural towns, small cities, and large capitals, such as Manaos and Iquitos. The rubber boom cycle was the most important of these boom cycles. Between 1865 and 1920, Manaos was Brazil’s most developed city with electric lighting, piped water, and opera theaters.

Since then, a lot has changed in Amazonia and its cities. Some approximate numbers for current urban Amazonian populations are as follows: Bolivia (Trinidad 89,613; Cobija 32,200), Brazil (Belén 1,912,600; Manaos 1,524,600; Boa Vista 300,000), Colombia (Florencia 150,000; Mocoa 31,000; Leticia 29,666), Ecuador (Lago Agrio 81,918; Puyo 24,881), Peru (Iquitos 396,615; Pucallpa 204,772; Yurimaguas 41,827; Oxapampa 7,743), and Venezuela (Puerto Ayacucho 52,526). These urban centers supply smaller towns that are at the forefront of frontier expansion. They serve as networks for the natural resources flowing to the regional, national, and international markets. Thus, large catfish from Peru goes to the Colombian market, while Brazil nuts and some Amazonian leathers are commercialized in the world market.

Outside most of these Amazonian cities and towns remains the rural landscape, more so up the tributaries. Grasslands and pastures dominate many eastern Amazonian river areas, while in the Brazilian Amazon, the expansion of a network of roads initiated in the 1950s has given space to modern soy crops that dominate the landscape. In the Peruvian Central Amazon, for instance, an area colonized 150 years ago, the descendants of European settlers have forced the Yanesha indigenous peoples to the fringes of the valleys now occupied by pastures, grasslands, and Europeanlooking urban settlements. Similar phenomena have occurred with other European settlers in different areas of the Amazon. Beyond these areas, the subsistence economies of small colonists and indigenous peoples occupy the smaller tributaries with their family settlements. In the upper section of some of the less occupied headwaters, some noncontacted indigenous peoples still remain. That is the case of the Peruvian–Brazilian border where the national societies stopped their search for rubber at the edge of the rubber forests leaving the hills untouched by the rubber trade. In the western Amazon, many indigenous peoples living in the upper section of tributaries retain their traditional costumes, language, and organization, while those indigenous peoples of the lower lands are commercial, riparian societies open to commerce and trade since very early times. Traditional Amazonian trade involves coca, salt, stones for knives and axes, cotton, and fauna among other products.

The Effect of the Timber Trade

In the last two decades, efforts to produce a tropical forest reform sprouted in the Amazonian countries. Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru passed new legislation to move away from the mismanagement and forest mining into sustainable forest management. Forest certification schemes and the support of USAID helped Bolivia experiment with forest reform in the 1990s. Peru took until 2002 to start granting forest concessions. However, corruption, mismanagement, and short-term policies favored reform that did not change the relevance and priority of illegal logging, which feeds the national and international markets.

In Peru, between 2002 and 2004, approximately 7.8 million hectares of forests were granted in forest concessions that struggled to comply with the prices offered in the auction and the poorly enforced management plans. Although forest concessions are the official main source for timber production, permissions to agricultural producers for habitat conversion also allow them to sell timber, while another 12 million hectares of forestlands are in the hands of indigenous peoples and sought by loggers aiming to set up contracts with these communities to access the timber. Protected areas are an important source of illegal timber as much as they are territorial reserves for noncontacted indigenous peoples.

Indigenous peoples are the most deeply affected by the timber trade that drains their forests and many times their organizations and trust, too. Indigenous peoples are affected by the forest reform through the overlapping of forest concessions with indigenous lands, particularly, land that is not yet registered; the lack of an adequate process of consultation prior to the awarding of all forest management categories; the invasion of communal land and territorial reserves for noncontacted indigenous peoples; and the government’s failure to meet its offers of technical advice in support of communal forest management. At the same time, these indigenous peoples can be affected by corruption from the illegal logging market.

Recent progress in decentralization does not offer much hope for the forests. Regional and national politicians in Madre de Dios, Loreto, and other Amazonian regions are proud representatives of illegal timber interests. The regional president of Loreto announced in 2008 at an international conference attended by the minister of the environment of Brazil that Loreto will not grant 1 square meter to protected areas or indigenous lands, in accordance with the demands of loggers and other extractive industries.

Regional political leadership is very much influenced by the regional economic forces, which in many cases are also strong, local political actors.

To strengthen compliance with forestry legislation, a possible innovation could be the requirement to use the global positioning system (GPS) to link a forest production area with a log going to the market. This would trace the route of a legally harvested log instead of supporting a timber market characterized by wood coming from illegal logging. These actions coupled with a sound database that discounts the timber harvested can be a useful tool for tracing the origin of legally harvested timber.


The asymmetry between the actors involved in land use and extractive industries is a central issue in socioenvironmental conflicts occurring in the region. The opening of roads and the paving of the already existing ones will foster the arrival of new populations demanding land and resources and expelling the old population without land titles or capital to new deforestation areas. When looking at socioenvironmental conflict around natural resource policies, we find a divorce between the discourse of the legislation and of the public officials and the implementation at all levels. The assumptions of the legal framework have very little relevance to resource users making decisions in the forests about how to manage resources, how to solve conflicts, and how to compensate for damages. Under these circumstances, the opening of new areas by the South American Regional Integration initiative (IIRSA by its Spanish acronym) suggests the intensification of conflicts affecting indigenous peoples, colonists, peasants, and riparian populations due to the increase in the demand for land, forests, minerals, oil and gas, and illicit crops.

Until the financial crisis of October 2008, a wealth of financial resources from the international financial institutions set up the conditions to carry out large-scale projects, such as IIRSA. IIRSA aims to develop road and communications infrastructure to favor trade and economic development. Geopolitically, it is the affirmation of the continental role of the Brazilian State in the South American region. IIRSA is a proposal to build not only roads coming out of Brazil to connect with its neighbors but also roads among Brazil’s neighbors, as well as ports in the Amazon and in both oceans and communications networks.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), whose social and environmental policies are below the standards of the World Bank, plays an important role in the region financing corporations, governments, and megaprojects, such as the components of IIRSA. Another important player is Brazil’s National Development Bank that will invest $220,000 million as part of a plan to accelerate growth (PAC by its acronym in Portuguese) by developing infrastructure, telecommunications, and energy lines between 2007 and 2010. IIRSA is one of the projects funded by PAC.

Many Amazonian countries lack adequate environmental and social management of infrastructure development. Some of the international financial institutions that are financing these projects also lack these adequate standards. Some governments see these standards as a hindrance to development preferring, though, to avoid the introduction of necessary reforms or proposing to weaken the mechanisms already in place.

In Peru, IIRSA is building the Northern (PaitaYurimaguas-Huallaga-Amazon River) and Southern (IloCusco/Puno-Madre de Dios-Assis) Interoceanic Highways while a Central Interoceanic Highway from Pucallpa to Cruzeiro do Sul with connection to Lima has been proposed. In addition, at least two proposals have been mentioned in regard to trains. The social and environmental effects of this expansion to the last frontier in South America will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations in these areas, the indigenous populations, both noncontacted and settled and other rural populations. For instance, the current proposed design for the Pucallpa to Cruzeiro do Sul highway aims to cross over a proposed Sierra Del Divisor National Park and over the Isconahua Territorial Reserve in Peru for noncontacted indigenous peoples. The reserve is set up for the noncontacted indigenous peoples, and the crossover is going to negatively affect them by providing open access to the area.

The implementation of IIRSA will only contribute to accelerating the processes already affecting Amazonian peoples and their forests. Protected areas and forest production areas will be crossed by new lines of flow of mahogany and other forest products. At the same time, the national government transfers few responsibilities to regional and local governments, mainly responsibilities in areas in which the national government finds no profit such as artisan gold mining, whereas the profitable concessions of gas, oil, and timber remain in the hands of the national government.

Brazil’s Amazonia can be seen as a showcase of the risks posed by current development as usual to the region’s rich biological and social diversity. In the 1950s, Brazil decided to open two main roads into the Amazon (one south to north, and another east to west). Along with the road came the settlers into the newly opened areas. Since then, deforestation has had a significant effect in modeling future climate change in the region with an expected increase between 2.3 ºC and 5.5 ºC for the next 100 years. Similarly, other models predict a rainfall reduction around 20% for the same period. This reality is particularly harsh when we look at the development of urban centers and towns in the Amazon. A study by the Brazilian-based Instituto Socioambiental of seven Amazonian tributaries (Jurua, Purus Madeira, Tapajos, Xingu, Araguaia, and Tocantins) showed that unplanned settlement is creating a network of deforested urban centers that lack recreational areas and tend to elevate temperatures at the local level thus building islands of deforestation in the Amazonian forest with a tendency to more deforestation.

Oil and Gas

In 1867, only 4 years after the first pioneer oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania, a well was drilled in Zorritos on the northwest Peruvian Pacific coast. Peru started production in La Brea and Pariñas oil fields in 1905 (PetroPeru, 1995, p. 5). The first exploration for oil in the Peruvian Amazon occurred in 1911 on Ashaninka land in the central Peruvian Amazon (Dandler et al., 1998, p. 32). In 1962, Peru started to import oil (PetroPeru, 1995, p. 5). The military junta led by General Juan Velasco Alvarado (1969–1974), following the nationalistic trend of developing countries at the time, decided to expropriate International Petroleum Company, a subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey, ESSO. As a result of this, the government created the Peruvian state oil corporation (PetroPeru) on July 24, 1969 (PetroPeru, 1995, p. 12). The aim was to develop a national state-oil-corporation able to explore and produce oil. The junta also decided to build an 854 km-long pipeline from the Marañon river town of San Jose de Saramuro to the port of Bayovar on the Peruvian north coast. This pipeline has a capacity of 200,000 barrels per day (bbl/d), but it carried only 75,000 bbl/d of crude oil during the 1990s (Ministerio de Energia y Minas, 1999, p. 50).

In the 1960s, Ecuador and Peru initiated the development of oil resources with the collaboration of foreign corporations; however, these countries had no environmental regulations or any concern for environmental matters. By the end of the millennium, both countries had started to develop environmental regulations and set up standards to manage the social and environmental effect of oil activities. However, the transition from discourse into action was and still is slow. This was a particularly difficult issue for Amazonian populations, particularly indigenous peoples.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, Peru’s oil production had a downward trend. In 1985, PetroPeru produced 188.5 bbl/d, and in 1992, oil production was 115.6 bbl/d (PetroPeru, 1993, p. 7). From 1990 to 1992, the oil sector was affected by the economic and political crisis left by the Garcia administration (1985–1990). The Fujimori government (1990–2001) was confronted by lack of investment because the country had been declared ineligible by many international financial organizations. Economically, the country was hit by unusually high rates of inflation and devaluation, while politically, drug traffickers and two terrorist organizations were in control of some areas of the country. This economic and political environment had an effect on an already declining trend in foreign investment in the oil sector. In this context, in 1989, PetroPeru shared the market with one operation of Oxi-Bridas (joint oil venture) in oil block 11 in the northwest and an operation of Occidental Oil Company in block 1-AB (Ministerio de Energia y Minas, 1999, p. 49).

In the case of the environmental and social effects of energy development, the case studies from my dissertation looking into the 1990s showed how the process of development of the legal framework evidenced some tension between the text of the law and enforcement of the social fact (Habermas, 1997, pp. 1–9). On one hand, there is the normative text, the letter of the law, expressing the results of the political debate, and parallel to it runs the social interpretation of the facts, the interpretation done by politicians, the private sector, NGOs, and the general public. In the Ecuadorian case, there was tension between the legislation that forbade oil pollution in protected areas and the final interpretation made by President Durán Ballén (1992–1996) allowing oil activities in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Production Reserve. In the middle, lay a number of diverse interpretations of the law made by oil companies operating in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In the Peruvian case, this tension resulted in the modification and overruling of one third of the environmental code in order to favor foreign investment at the beginning of the 1990s. However, in early 1999, the Peruvian government approved the National Strategy for Natural Protected Areas by Supreme Decree 10–99-AG. This decree stated that nonrenewable resources could be exploited only in protected areas where direct use of resources is allowed, a policy still in force today.

Since 2004, a second oil and gas boom fed by the growing economies of the United States, Europe, China, and India and a price hike that reached $140 per barrel in 2008 expanded oil activities in Peru from 13% of the Peruvian Amazon to 75% of this region. This occurred amidst poor enforcement in environmental management and lack of resources to operate at an adequate level while maintaining very low legal standards. Political pressure on technical officers caused the Camisea pipeline to fail so bad that it broke down five times in its inaugural year—amid claims of human rights violations over the lack of adequate compensation to local peoples and over its effect on noncontacted indigenous peoples and indigenous peoples in initial contact. The Peruvian ombudsman’s office produced a report in 2005 based on citizens’ complaints citing environmental impact assessment infractions. Political pressure came directly from President Alejandro Toledo who stated that the gas had to arrive in Lima at the city gate on August 9, 2004. The Ministry of Environment was created in 2008 by the Garcia administration only as a requisite for a free trade agreement with the United States and also by the pressure of the IADB involved in financing a second Camisea gas pipeline. This new ministry does not oversee oil, gas, electricity, or piped water. Today, oil activities affect two territorial reserves for noncontacted indigenous peoples and many reserves. A second pipeline adjacent to Camisea, which has changed 50% of its original route, is being built with plans to build a third one. Despite 500 years of European activity and despite current disturbing and threatening oil exploration, noncontacted indigenous peoples still remain in the forests in three other proposed territorial reserves.

In Brazil, oil activities occurred mainly on the coast. In the 1990s, an oil spill in Rio de Janeiro forced a change in support of the environmental policies of Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil corporation. Later on, when Petrobras went into the Urucu oil fields, it had already improved its environmental and social standards; however, the local populations near the pipeline to Manaos still had to make demands to obtain gas and other benefits with a $20 million environmental management plan and a $20 million social management plan package. Petrobras is now expanding activities in Peru in areas involving noncontacted indigenous peoples while some Brazilian politicians are aiming to mirror such policies in their own side of Amazonia.

Future Directions

The expansion of extractive industries and the development of road and energy infrastructure are the main threats to the health of the Amazonian rainforests and ecosystems and its inhabitants. Particularly, the very vulnerable noncontacted indigenous peoples in Ecuador and Peru are facing the pressure of oil activities and loggers, while cattle ranchers are the main threat on the Brazilian’s side of the Amazon. This is an example of a human rights catastrophe that goes unaccounted by regional politicians interested in accessing natural resources not only at the cost of lives but also at aiming to end a lifestyle that has kept a healthy forest and ecosystems. Development at the hands of individual interests fails to address the broader issues of resilience, sustainability, and governance. These latter issues are central considerations in the planning of a sustainable future for Amazonia. Some Amazonian regional and local governments, civil society, and social movements are demanding accountability in the land-use allocation process; the overlapping of multiple uses has long been a tradition in the Amazonian rainforests. However, when one of these uses forbids the possibility of the other uses—as in the case of extractive industries—the recipe for social conflict is ready, as the processes of social unrest show in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. In the short term, the need for prior informed consent by indigenous peoples appears to be the key to finally developing indigenous peoples’ public policies. In the long term, the process of urbanization and its rate of growth suggest that unplanned development will continue to deplete the forest, affecting the water rainfall and the climate.


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