People of the Tropical Rain Forests

Tropical rain forests are home to millions of people. Some inhabitants are descendants of people who have lived in the forest for hundreds or even thousands of years. Others are very recent arrivals. Following is a short list of some of the major groups that can be found in the forests.

Traditional Cultures

These cultures, such as the Kayapo and Yanomami of Brazil, the Lacandon of Mexico, the Efe Pygmies of Zaire or the Gimi of Papua New Guinea, have lived for many centuries in tropical rain forests. They sustain their livelihood in the forest through hunting and gathering, small scale cultivation, fishing or extracting forest products for their own use, to sell or to trade. Their numbers have been in rapid decline for many years as the forests shrink.

Rubber Tappers

Rubber tappers make their living from tapping and collecting latex from wild rubber trees. They are not tribal or traditional cultural groups. Since their livelihood is dependent upon the forest, they are strong advocates of rain forest preservation. In many areas they are unionizing to have a greater political voice. Rubber tappers may also tend small gardens, hunt, and gather forest plants for food, medicine and other household goods. To supplement their income, they may gather and sell Brazil nuts. Since the early 1900s rubber plantations have been planted in Asia and Africa.


Farmers can be divided into three main groups depending on how they cultivate the land.
Shifting Farmers
Shifting farmers cut and burn sections of the forest on which they raise crops for two or three years. When productivity drops they move to a new area where they repeat the process. This method of farming has been practiced by traditional forest people for thousands of years. On a small scale its impact on the forest is minimal. When it is practiced on a large scale with short or non-existent recovery periods, the forest may not recover.
Subsistence Farmers
Subsistence farmers cultivate a single piece of land on a sustained basis. The size of their plot, the fertility of the land and the farming practices they use allow them to provide enough food for their own use. They have little or no surplus to sell by which to accumulate wealth.
Commercial Farmers
Some of the most productive soils in the tropics are owned by large landowners or companies. Commercial farmers produce large acreages of crops, such as, coffee, bananas, cotton and other crops, for domestic use or for export. Commercial farming provides many jobs in production, marketing and transportation of agricultural and related commodities.

Cattle Ranchers

Many farmers may own a few head of cattle. Other ranchers may own thousands of head. Ranching has had a devastating effect on the forest where large areas of forest have been turned into pasture land. In Central and South America, ranchers hold prominent social standing.

Loggers and Miners

Because of the wealth of trees and minerals in the forest, loggers and miners are significant inhabitants of the forest. Though their numbers may be small, their harvest of trees or extraction of gold, iron, bauxite (for aluminum) or emeralds has affected the forest greatly. Logging and mining methods which are less damaging to the forest, often called minimal impact methods, frequently are not used because of their higher short-term cost.

River People

Throughout tropical rain forest areas rivers have been the main "highways" of travel. From ancient times traditional cultures have lived along the banks from which they have fished, farmed and traded. As more people move to the rain forest to exploit its resources, these villages have grown and diversified. They now are as apt to support bankers, lawyers and business owners as traditional cultures.

Causes of Destruction

Tropical rain forests are being cut at an alarming rate. Although estimates vary, some scientists believe that we are losing an area of rain forest the size of Pennsylvania each year. If deforestation continues at this rate we may lose rain forests altogether within the next one hundred years.

Tropical deforestation occurs for a number of reasons. As human populations increase in tropical regions, people move away from the overcrowded cities into the forest areas where they practice small scale farming. Commercial agricultural projects may require conversion of large plots of rain forest land and may cause more permanent damage.

Logging of forests for firewood, charcoal, building materials and other wood products is another cause of deforestation.

The conversion of rain forest to pasture land for cattle ranching has led to the destruction of millions of acres of forest.

Mining for gold, bauxite from which aluminum is made, and other minerals can lead to the drastic destruction of the land. Once the land is scarred by mining efforts it is left vulnerable to massive erosion.

Other events and issues such as natural disasters, war, the construction of dams and poverty in developing countries also contribute to the destruction of tropical rain forests.

What You Can Do?

Preserving tropical rain forests involves more than just deciding not to cut trees. Social, political and economic factors all need to be taken into consideration. Following are some suggestions on ways in which you can contribute to the solution.

Learn more about tropical rain forests and the plants and animals, including people, which live there. Investigate the complex issues surrounding deforestation and possible solutions through further reading. Several good books on tropical rain forests are listed on page 21.

Write letters to your congressional representatives or your local paper to express concern about the destruction of the tropical rain forests. The more you know about the topic and issues, the more specific you can be in suggesting actions you would like your elected officials to take.

Visit tropical countries to see the rain forest. Gaining first hand experience is one of the best ways to develop a sense of understanding of and commitment to an issue. During your travels, practice good ecotourism, which provides income to the local people and countries you visit and, because of those benefits, encourages the maintenance of natural areas, parks and reserves.

Support conservation and cultural organizations which are working to protect tropical rain forests and their indigenous peoples.

Think globally and act locally. Practices at home can have an impact on the preservation of rain forests.

In all things you do, practice the environmentally sound use and reuse of our resources. This will not only have a positive impact on the tropical rain forest but on all the ecosystems of the world.

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