Unknown Amazon Exhibit Debuts in London

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
January 18, 2002

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The indigenous peoples of the Amazon have a friend in the British Museum. The museum has mounted a major exhibition on the art and traditions of the peoples of the Amazonian rain forest and their deep spiritual connection with the land.

Titled Unknown Amazon, the exhibit features more than 200 artifacts that weave a picture of a way of life that goes as far back as 12,000 years.

Today, the culture and even the existence of indigenous peoples in Amazonia are in danger of being lost to disease, violence, and the loss of ancestral lands. Development in the Amazon is soaring, with major swaths of the rain forest eroded or disappearing as a result of mining, logging, hydroelectric dams, and conversion of land to agricultural use.

"Indigenous lands are being invaded with impunity," said Fiona Watson of Survival International, a worldwide organization that supports tribal people. Disease and violent attacks arising from conflicts "are commonplace" she added.

In conjunction with the exhibit, Survival International is hosting a study day Saturday, January 19, on the culture and threats to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. The participants were to include Amazonian natives along with archaeologists, ethnobotanists, indigenous rights activists, and others.

Shrinking Forests

Most of the tropical rain forests and savannas that make up Amazonia are in Brazil. Although modern divisions of state are meaningless to native Amazonians, appropriation of their lands is one of the biggest problems they face.

"Brazil is almost unique in that it doesn't recognize the rights of indigenous people to own their own land," said Watson. "It's very important to understand how important the land is to the people of the Amazon. They're bound up with the land in a very spiritual way. Holding communal title to the land is essential to safeguard their future."

According to a new report by U.S. and Brazilian scientists, the rate of forest destruction in the Brazilian Amazon has accelerated over the last decade. The findings of the research team, which was headed by William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, were based on detailed satellite images of the Amazon taken by Brazil's National Space Agency since 1978.

The scientists concluded that forest destruction from 1995 to 2000 averaged almost two million hectares a year.

"It's comparable to the bad old days in the 1970's and 1980's, when forest loss in the Amazon was catastrophic," Laurance said in a statement issued by the Smithsonian Institution. He is lead author of a report on the findings published in the journal Environmental Conservation.

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