Unknown Amazon Exhibit Debuts in London

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The results of the study are contrary to the Brazilian government's assertions that threats to Amazonian forests have decreased in recent years because of improved environmental laws and public attitudes.

Intense Development, Outside Threats

At the same time, large-scale development plans for the region are now being discussed. According to the researchers, the Brazilian government plans to invest more than U.S. $40 billion in new highways, railroads, hydroelectric reservoirs, power lines, and gas lines in the Amazon over the next few years. About 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) of highways will be paved.

The government has said that such projects will have only limited effects on the Amazon—a claim the research team disputes.

"There's no way you can criss-cross the basin with all these giant transportation and energy projects and not have a tremendous impact on the Amazon," said Laurance. "When you build a new road in the frontier, you almost always initiate large-scale forest invasions by loggers, hunters, and slash-and-burn farmers."

Survival International cites examples of the tragic consequences that often occur when indigenous people are deprived of their native lands.

There are fears, for example, that the long-isolated Awá people in Brazil may soon be wiped out as a result of heavy invasion by loggers, ranchers, and settlers in the past decade.

In the 1980's many members of another isolated tribe, the Yora Indians in the Peruvian Amazon, died of common diseases to which they had no immunity—such as colds and flu—after contact with the outside world when their lands were explored for oil.

Amerindians have also faced growing violence related to conflicts over land.

"In the last few years there have been two convictions for genocide, one resulting from an incident when gold miners massacred 16 Yanomami Indians," Watson noted. "This is a major achievement, but these were very high-profile cases. These things are happening all the time, and for the most part go unreported."

Appeal for Help

Earlier this week, Survival International urged the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to address the dangers facing isolated tribal peoples. The appeal called for governments to recognize and protect indigenous peoples' right to land ownership and to self-determination.

To put a human face on issues such as these, two indigenous Amazonians, José Bonifacio, a Baniwa Indian, and Zenilda Vilacio da Silva, a Sater Maw Indian, are among those participating in the Amazonia study day activities. Both are artisans who also work to protect the forest and natural resources and the traditional activities that are central to the lives of the region's native people.

William Milliken, an ethnobotanist at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, will discuss the importance of indigenous plants in treating some of the diseases that have been introduced by contact with the outside world.

The Yanomami Indians, the largest surviving indigenous group in Brazilian Amazonia, lived in almost complete isolation until the late 1980s, when thousands of gold prospectors invaded their land. With the prospectors came malaria, which killed many members of the tribe.

Modern pharmaceuticals are expensive and largely unavailable, so the local people are heavily dependent on natural remedies. Other indigenous groups in the region with a longer history of contact with the outside world, such as the Maiongong, Macuxi, and Wai-Wai, have discovered plants that alleviate the symptoms of malaria.

Cristiana Barreto, an archaeologist and co-curator of the Unknown Amazon exhibit at the British Museum, will discuss the cultural significance of the artifacts on display, which include baskets, war clubs, amulets, ceramics, beaded loincloths, woven hammocks, and feathered pieces.

The exhibit, which was organized in association with BrasilConnects, closes April 1.

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