A Brief History of the Indigenous People Along the Amazon

Authors note-This is an article I wrote before leaving on a trip with Rediscovering the Amazon, a team following Orellana’s route down the Amazon.  I also designed the site for the trek and worked with local businesses who sponsored us.  I will be adding articles about the journey from Coca, Ecuador to Iquitos, Peru in the near future.  Jon

The Indigenous people of Ecuador, Peru, Columbia and Brazil have faced many hardships and injustices since Orellana’s journey 500 years ago.  When Orellana took his journey, there were an estimated 2,000 ethnic groups and nations of Indigenous people in South America, today there are barely more than two hundred.

This is partly due to the Spanish slaughtering whole tribes and using the native people as serfs, living in poor conditions and being worked to death. Other causes are from diseases that Europeans brought with them and which the native people were not  immune.

In recent history alone,  the Rubber Boom and the extraction of oil have impacted the indigenous way of life and hampered the very existence of the people.

The Rubber Boom of 1879 to 1912 arrived with the advancement of vulcanization, a process that turns raw latex into usable rubber.  Automotive makers and other industry leaders from the United States and Europe quickly set up shop in Ecuador, Peru, present day Columbia and Brazil to harvest and export the rubber from trees deep in the jungle.

The labor needs for this endeavor were large, and the rubber barons relied heavily on Indigenous Indians to fill the demand. The methods and conditions in which the powers that be recruited and put to work were among the most cruel and inhuman to date.  During the first boom, employers kidnapped Indians from their villages and forced to work a year of slave labour.
Employers then “civilized”new recruits by locking them into stockades for days, weeks and months.  Once freed, they were sent into the jungle for months at a time.  If they did not return with their expected quota of rubber, they were systematically tortured and murdered.

The Witto community in Columbia, 20, ooo out of 30, ooo who worked harvesting rubber were murdered or died of disease.

In Peru, Roger Casement, a British console sent to investigate the atrocities reports that in one plantation,  the Indian work force started with 50,000 Indians and  only 8,000 survived the ordeal.

A British company stealing rubber seeds and stating their own farms in Asia caused the end of the first rubber boom.   The new rubber was cheaper to harvest and easier to export.  As quickly as the boom came, it ended, leaving the entire work force without job, food and homes.

The second boom brought no reforms.  During WW2, the Japanese seized the rubber plantations of the British is Asia and a new demand for rubber inundated the Amazon.  Automobile companies and the U.S. government itself made deals with the Amazon government for enormous amounts of rubber. These governments then made service harvesting rubber mandatory.  Imposing a death sentence as a consequence of not enlisting to the Indigenous people.

The north-east region of Brazil alone sent 54,000 workers to the Amazon. Rubber companies uprooting    100,000 Indians In total   to work in the Amazon.

Workers were recruited; given tools, 60% of a meager salary, clothes and cigarettes.  Their employers held them in barracks under military guard and sent to the deep jungle to work for three months at a time.

30,000 Indians died of diseases such as malaria, yellow fever and hepatitis, according to estimates.  In addition, as part of the terms of work, the Brazilian government promised to return the workers home after their service.  It failed to do so and only around 6,000 Indigenous people returned home at their own expense.

Today, the people of the Amazon are still struggling  to survive on their land.  Facing the new threat of pressure from oil companies.

Oil extraction has a serious environmental and social impact. It violates some of the most fundamental human rights of the indigenous people of the Amazon such as the right to life, to health, to property and social peace.

In Ecuador there are 21 different groups of Indigenous people, In Peru there are 92, In Columbia there 80, and in Brazil there are 67 different unconnected tribes alone.

The effects of oil drilling are widespread.  In Ecuador, a national court found Chevron  guilty to the sum of 1.8 billion dollars for dumping nearly 16 billion gallons of oil waste products into the Amazonian rainforest.

In Peru,  there are similar lawsuits filed by indigenous people; in Brazil Chevron is facing an 11 billion dollar lawsuit for damages to the environment caused by two oil spills.

The damage that oil companies cause goes past the immediate shock value of the pollution they cause.  Indigenous communities often have no choice but to sell their lands to oil companies, uprooting entire communities. The companies build roads through previously undisturbed jungle disrupting the delicate, ecological balance. The companies ignore the villages nearby to new drilling sites  when they petition for the right to approve or deny.

Governments have leased 688,000 square kilometers of the Western Amazon for oil and gas development.  In Peru alone, they lease 64 oil blocks  which cover 74% of the Amazon rain forest. 17 of which overlap Indigenous lands, some of which are communities  in voluntary isolation.

While the outlook is discouraging and reminiscent of the Spanish conquest, there are some battles being fought for the Indigenous people and the environment.

Organizations like Amazon Watch are fighting to stop oil drilling while working with the people to get Chevron to pay their settlement.

In Ecuador,  there are initiatives like the Napo Wildlife Center to offer alternatives to the selling of lands to the Indigenous communities.

The Napo wildlife Center sits square on prime oil reserves but more importantly as with most of the lands being drilled, is one of the most bio-diverse areas in the Amazon.

The Anangu Quichua community, with the help of some generous funding from the States, created a stunning eco-lodge built and run by the community.

Since its inception, Napo Wildlife Center has become the top eco-lodge in Ecuador boasting visits by the President and offering first class guides, accommodation and well planned tours which respect the environment.

Our expedition plans on raising awareness to the problems facing the people of the Amazon.  We have thoughtfully researched the issues and are eager to see them with our own eyes.   Check back with this site for ongoing updates, pictures and videos based on what we find.


Rediscovering the Amazon


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