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Dani man in New Guinea

Threats to rainforest people

There are several reasons the lives of forest peoples are changing. Tribes in places like the Amazon and Malaysia are losing their traditional land to governments and developers. The forests they have used for countless generations are being cut down by loggers, torn up by miners, and hunted by poachers. The rivers they use for water and fishing are being dammed to produce electricity for far-off cities. When forest people resist these developments, they may be ridiculed, arrested, forcibly moved, or even killed.

Rainforest people themselves are choosing to change the way they live. For the indigenous, the lure of urban culture is strong. Cities seem to offer the promise of affluence and the conveniences of an easy life. But in leaving their forest homes indigenous peoples usually meet with a stark reality: the skills that serve them so well in the forest don’t translate well to an urban setting. The odds are stacked against them; they arrive near the bottom of the social ladder, often not proficient in the language and customs of city dwellers. The lucky ones may find work in factories or as day laborers and security guards, but many eventually return to the countryside. Some re-integrate into their villages, others join the ranks of miners and loggers who trespass on indigenous lands, negotiating deals that pit members of the same tribe against each other in order to exploit the resources they steward. As tribes are fragmented and forests fall, indigenous culture—and its wealth of profound knowledge —is lost. The world is left a poorer place, culturally and biologically.


By Rhett Butler

Date published: June 24, 2004 | Last updated: December 5, 2015