The modern world is destroying the Amazon rainforest and the indigenous peoples who reside there.

Amazon Indian cultures are subject to Western influence.  They have done for hundreds of years.  Within RAMM’s World Cultures gallery are a couple of notable examples.  These are women’s beaded pubic aprons called ‘queyu.’  They were acquired in the early years of the 20th-century, during the time of the Amazon Rubber Boom.

In the 16th century, Walter Raleigh observed women in Guyana wearing cotton garments around their waist (see Figure 1).  No observations of bead-decorated garments had been seen.  Even in the 18th century glass beads were not present.  The beads came as a result of European trade.  Certain designs like flowers were a direct influence of the converting missionaries.  Europeans have been colonisers in the Americas since the 16th-century.  They intended to settle, find their fortunes and to look for valuable resources to bring back to Europe.

The Amazon rubber boom

This particular devastating period (1880-1920) led to further European colonisation of the Amazon rainforest (Brazil, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela for example).  As a result, Western metals and trade goods, such as glass beads, became ornamentation on items such as the queyu.  The Wai Wai of Guyana would traditionally have decorated their cotton aprons with dangling feathers and tiny seeds that had been woven into garments to create intricate and textured patterns.

Despite the growth in trade, the rubber boom was not a period of mutual benefit and prosperity.  The indigenous peoples were unfairly exploited.  Profiteering remains a fact.  The rubber barons required a vast workforce to conduct the high levels of labour needed to maintain the affluence of their expanding rubber tapping industries. Hundreds of thousands of native Amazonians were promptly enslaved.  The impact of this gross mistreatment and forced servitude caused many deaths. Some areas lost up to 90% of their indigenous population.

The problems continue today

Indigenous peoples remain the victims of exploitation, racism and other human rights violations.  The majority of Amazonian peoples struggle against illegal loggers and miners.  They continue to fight for the protection of their land rights.  Earlier this month forest fires caused by loggers threatened to wipe out the uncontacted Awá tribe. Last year fires started by loggers destroyed over 50% of forest cover in Arariboia indigenous territory.  This is a shocking 730 square miles of rainforest in Brazil.  This is tiny in comparison to other affected areas of the Amazon rainforest.

There is little known about Government support for their indigenous peoples.  Perhaps they are considered a hindrance and a problem than a credible concern?  This is the impression one receives when reading about the impact of continuing modernisation upon the Amazon region.

What about the Guarani?

For example, the Guarani Indians of Brazil have a constitutional and legal right to ancestral land that has been overrun by wealthy ranchers.  The people employed by these cattle farmers are encouraged to harass the Guarani in an attempt to stop them from resettling on their rightful lands.  The Guarani, who are camped nearby, regularly claim being shot at.  Such activity has resulted in a young boy being recently shot and severely wounded. Because the government are not seen to be helping the Guarani, they are forced to live in squalid camps by the roadside with no access to the normal resources, even those they would harvest themselves.  Many Guarani are starving, and many are reportedly suffering from poor mental health; to the extent that over 500 people are known to have committed suicide.

These issues continue being experienced by indigenous peoples in many parts of the globe.  It is through the efforts of charity organisations, such as Survival International, that these bleak violations of decency are being dealt with, and the vibrant diversity between modernised and traditional worlds preserved.  For many of us here in the West these people live far away and perhaps too far away for us to be concerned about them.  I wonder how we would act as a nation if we had indigenous people living within the UK?  Many of us might think of ourselves as being indigenous to the UK but actually most of us arrived here in the UK from other nations many centuries ago, think Romans, Vikings and Normans.

Beaded aprons

Museums serve to preserve human heritage and the natural world.  These two aprons from Guyana, displayed alongside other Amazonian items, will remain on display untouched and unchanged for many more years.  The display case will soon include other items freshly acquired from the Amazon region.  Sadly, this Amazon display at RAMM contains items that will likely outlive the people who originally made them.  No longer seen as souvenirs, these items instead will serve as markers for those peoples who could soon become unnecessarily extinct.