A look at life and death in the Amazon — and how we can find a new way forward

The Amazon rainforest: Pristine wilderness or forest garden? (Photos by Tomasz Falkowski/SUNY-ESF)

When Francisco de Orellana, a Spanish conquistador, completed the first descent of the Amazon River, he reported dense populations of indigenous peoples living on its banks. Gaspar de Carvajal, the Spanish chaplain who chronicled Orellana’s journey, wrote that the banks of the River were, “all inhabited…villages crowded cheek by jowl. Inland from the river, at a distance of one or two leagues… there could be seen some very large cities.” Scholars have dismissed his accounts. They considered Amazon to be a largely a primeval wilderness — a feral landscape untrammeled by human influence (Mann, 2012).

First, where were the grand cities, like those found in the Riviera Maya of Central America, the Incan empire of the Andes, or the Aztec temples of central Mexico?   

Second, the effervescence of life in the Amazon rainforest is an illusory Potemkin village. Despite the verdant vegetation and cacophony of life, the soils of the Amazon are generally nutrient-poor, rust-colored clay. Amazonian soils are generally old and weathered, tired and weary. Time has stripped them of their ability to retain the nutrients resulting from organic matter decomposition. Plants that survive here must be adapted to efficiently assimilate any available nutrients before they are leached out of the soils by torrential rains. The land could simply not support densely populated, stratified societies (Mann, 2012).

Finally, indigenous populations are low. Some 900,000 indigenous live in Brazil today and in the early 1980s, the number was likely lower than 200,000. Historians chalked up Carvajal’s descriptions to the exaggeration to which many explorers were prone (Mann, 2012).

Recent research, however, has cast this assumption into doubt. In fact, far from being a green desert largely devoid of human settlements, archaeological, anthropological, ecological, and pedological research suggests that the Amazon rainforest may be a cultural artifact engineered by indigenous cultures.

Building the rainforest

While archaeologists have uncovered the vestiges of geoglyphs, likely created by Amazonian indigenous cultures, most of the construction in the Amazon was probably wooden. It was an obvious choice of building material, given its abundance and the rarity of stone in the region. Unfortunately, wood decays if not maintained, explaining the lack of ruins in the Amazon basin. These indigenous civilizations, however, did bequeath a more perennial stele, one perhaps more inspiring than any ruin: the forest itself (Mann, 2012).  

Indigenous populations have altered large swaths of the Amazon rainforest, particularly near rivers where their settlements were concentrated. They planted a diverse array of fruit and nut trees near their communities, in part to ensure a stable and ample supply of food. Unlike most annual commercial crops that strip the soil of nutrients, these tree species are adapted to the nutrient-poor soils of the Amazon and cycle nutrients efficiently. They also support wildlife populations, many of which depend upon these trees’ fruits and flowers. This was a way for indigenous peoples to enact their sacred responsibilities to maintain balance between the physical and spiritual forces that permeated their world. Even conservative estimates suggest the plant community composition of up to 12% of the Amazon rainforest has been altered by indigenous management (Mann, 2012).

Just as they helped build the forest, so too did indigenous peoples build its soil. To overcome these nutrient limitations, indigenous peoples amended the soil with charcoal, bone, potsherds, and manure. These soot-black, rich soils, known as terra preta have helped recycle nutrients for centuries. To this day, terra preta soil is coveted for its fertility. It is so valuable that local farmers will sell it as potting soil rather than cultivating it. While terra preta is generally concentrated in riparian areas, it covers between 0.1% and 10% of the lowland rainforest in Brazil, again demonstrating the extent and degree to which indigenous peoples in the Amazon have modified the ecosystems in which they live (Lehmann, 2010).

A symbiotic relationship

These are but two examples illustrating how indigenous people around the world have learned to live with the land rather than merely on it. Their traditional ecological knowledge is a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief that has adapted to unique sets of environmental constraints and has been handed down from generation to generation using cultural practices and social structures. This knowledge body is expansive and considers the rights and responsibilities they have in relating to one another and nature (Berkes, 1999).

The sustainability and ingenuity of this traditional ecological knowledge supported diverse, populous, and complex societies that thrived throughout the Amazon basin before Europeans arrived. Much like the rhizobium bacteria, which provides plants with nitrogen essential for growth in return for sugars from the plants’ photosynthesis, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon lived in symbiosis with their environment, taking what they needed and returning the favor to sustain the complex ecosystem on which they relied.

Major threats to communities, ecosystem

This was no Garden of Eden, no Paradise Lost, but it was a home. In a matter of decades, however, it was laid to waste. In a few tumultuous years of pestilence and misery, European diseases laid waste to indigenous populations throughout Amazonia. A wave of death spread out ahead of the European colonists. Smallpox and measles were the harbinger of conquest.

By the time the early European explorers probed the interior of the continent, the once multitudinous indigenous communities had been overwhelmed by a pathogenic war of attrition. Then, the Spanish and Portuguese cannons roared, laying the survivors to waste. Ninety percent of the indigenous population of the Americas was wiped out in a matter of a few decades. Conservative estimates hold that 5 million indigenous lived in the Amazon in 1500. By 1900, the number had fallen to 1 million (Park, 2002).

Newcomers to the region still have not developed such nuanced adaptations to place. They impose their will upon the landscape and take what they can rather than heeding its guidance and accepting what it offers. With the construction of the Trans-Amazonian highway in 1972, farmers poured into the hitherto unfarmed Amazonian lowlands.

The highway served as the initial incision, which then splintered out across the landscape as communities sprung up around the highway, easily observed from satellite imagery as the rich carpet of green forest is tattered by patches of brown farms and ranches. These scars tell the stories of the colonists’ dreams — dreams of hope, dreams of greed. The colonists slashed and burned the vegetation that stood in their way, transforming the forest into fields. In so doing, they sowed the seeds of their own destruction alongside their crops.

Because Amazonian soils are largely infertile, intensive commercial crop cultivation can only be sustained for a few years before production declines. It can be exceedingly difficult for forest to regrow on land that has been cleared and abandoned after farming. Seedbanks in cultivated soils are generally non-viable, so forest plants must colonize what the colonists have abandoned (Holl, 2007).

Seeds that arrive in open fields need to successfully germinate, which is no small task, given the pressures of seed-eating animals and livestock-compacted soils. Once plants germinate, the seedlings still need to overcome nutrient limitations, oppressive heat, and dry soils. In many situations, only ruderal vegetation, such as ferns and grasses, can grow rapidly given these hurdles. Once these plants gain a stranglehold, they can outcompete any other pioneer species. Thus, the engine of agricultural development in the Amazon consumes the forest in a vicious, downward spiral (Holl, 2007).

Road to recovery?

While deforestation rates dropped precipitously after the government enacted regulations in 2004, they have crept upward since 2014. This trend is likely to continue as wealthy landowners pressure the embattled Brazilian government to reduce environmental regulations in light of an economic downturn and political upheaval (Cowie, 2017).

But this is not a ghost story. It is not a story of surrender. It is a story of resilience, hope, and faith. Indigenous peoples have survived and many continue to practice their traditional lifeways. They have not forgotten and they are willing to teach us, if only we are willing to learn. Just as the indigenous built the Amazon, so too can we rebuild it. But we cannot simply learn what they know of the rainforest. We must learn a new way of living ‒ a new way of relating to one another and to the earth. It is not looking into the past for answers, but rather aspiring toward a common future.

The dawning of a new day in the Amazon.


  • Berkes, Fikret. Sacred Ecology. Routledge, 1999.
  • Cowie, Sam. "Activists Decry Temer's Amazon Deforestation Bill." Al Jazeera. 22 July 2017.
  • Holl, Karen D. "Old Field Vegetation Succession in the Neotropics." Old Fields: Dynamics and Restoration of Abandoned Farmland. By Viki A. Cramer and Richard J. Hobbs. Island, 2007.
  • Lehmann, Johannes. Amazonian Dark Earths: Origin, Properties, Management. Kluwer Academic Publ., 2010.
  • Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Knopf, 2012.
  • Park, Chris C. Tropical Rainforests. Taylor & Francis, 2002.
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