Indigenous peoples

There were probably between three and five million indigenous people in Brazil when the Portuguese arrived. Today there are between 200,000 and 300,000. The effects of European colonization were devastating - whole tribes were wiped out under the Portuguese Amazon slave trade and others set to fight against each other for Portuguese advantage. Present-day tribal groups number about 220; each has a unique dialect, but most languages belong to four main linguistic families, Tupi-Guarani, Gê, Carib and Arawak. A few tribes remain uncontacted, others are exclusively nomadic, others are semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers and farmers, while some are settled groups in close contact with non-indigenous society. There is no agreement on precisely how many tribes are extant, but the Centro Ecumênico da Documentação e Informação (CEDI) of São Paulo said that of the 200 or so groups it documented, 40% have populations of less than 200 people and 77% have populations of less than 1000. Hemming underlines this depressing statistic when he reports that tribes contacted in recent decades have, as have others in previous centuries, suffered catastrophic reductions in numbers as soon as they encounter diseases which are common to non-indigenous people, but to which their bodies have no immunity.

Most of Brazil's indigenous people live in the Amazon region; they are affected by deforestation, encroachment from colonizers, small- and large-scale mining, and the construction of hydroelectric dams. Besides the Yanomami, other groups include the Xavante, Ticuna, Tukano, Kreen-Akrore, Kaiapó, Bororo and Arara. The struggle of groups such as the Yanomami to have their land demarcated in order to secure title is well-documented. The goal of the Statute of the Indian (Law 6.001/73), for demarcation of all Indian land by 1978, is largely unmet. It was feared that a new law introduced in January 1996 would slow the process even more. However all is not bleak. The populations of many indigenous groups have grown over the last decade and a number have their land rights, which have been protected under Brazilian Law, by Fernando Henrique Cardoso and by Lula (although the latter is alleged to have reneged on a promise to enshrine an important area territory in Roraima into law at the 11th hour in exchange for support by powerful members of the state elite). On occasion indigenous land rights are enforced. A flight out over the Xingu in northern Mato Grosso shows this starkly, with the indigenous territory as a huge green island in a sea of soya and cattle plantations. Funai, the National Foundation for the Support of the Indian, a part of the Interior Ministry, is charged with representing the Indians' interests, but lacks resources and support. There is no nationwide, representative body for indigenous people, although the Amazon indigenous lobbying group, COIAB, is increasingly powerful and Manoel Moura's FIUPAM is growing daily.


At first the Portuguese colony grew slowly. From 1580 to 1640 the population was only about 50,000 apart from the million or so
. In 1700 there were some 750,000 non-indigenous people in Brazil. Early in the 19th century Humboldt computed there were about 920,000 whites, 1.96 million Africans, and 1.12 million
and people of mixed Portuguese and indigenous origin (

The arid wastes of the
remain largely uncultivated. Its inhabitants are
; most live off a primitive but effective method of cultivation known as 'slash and burn'. This involves cutting down and burning the brushwood for a small patch of ground, which is cultivated for a few years and then allowed to grow back.


Racism is culturally rife in Brazil and often openly expressed in all-white company. Though there is no legal discrimination against black people, the economic and educational disparity - by default rather than intent of the Government - is such that successful Afro-Brazilians are active almost exclusively in the worlds of sport, entertainment and the arts.

Brazilian culture, however would be nothing without its African influences. Those interested in the development of Afro-Brazilian music, dance, religion, arts and cuisine will find the cities of Rio de Janeiro, Bahia and São Luís, which retain the greatest African influences, particularly fascinating. Black Pride movements are particularly strong in Bahia.

After the rigours of transatlantic shipment in tiny rat-infested spaces, the Africans suffered further trauma on arrival at the Brazilian ports. They were often sold in groups that were segregated to avoid those from the same family or speaking the same language being together. By breaking all cultural and sentimental ties, the Portuguese hoped to eradicate ethnic pride and rebellions on the estates. As a result African spiritual cults became mixed and syncretistic even before they mixed with Portuguese Catholicism and indigenous spirituality. In what is now modern day Nigeria, for instance, there were different groups of people, each with its own divinity or
(pronounced 'orisha'). These
were normally the spirit of a distinguished ancestor or a legendary hero and were worshipped only in a particular region. As the slaves went to Brazilian estates in groups made up of people from different African regions, they soon started to worship all the
, instead of just one. As a result uniquely Afro-Brazilian religions were born out of the template of African spirituality, notably
, and


Modern immigration did not begin in effect until after 1850. Of the 4.6 million immigrants from Europe between 1884 and 1954, 32% were Italians, 30% Portuguese, 14% Spanish, 4% German, and the rest of various nationalities. Since 1954 immigrants have averaged 50,000 a year. Most of the German immigrants settled in Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul, and Paraná. The Germans (and the Italians, Poles and other Slavs who followed them) did not, in the main, go as wage earners on the big estates, but as cultivators of their own small farms. Here there is a settled agricultural population cultivating the soil intensively.


There are some one million Japanese-descended Brazilians; they grow a fifth of the coffee, 30% of the cotton, all the tea, and are very active in market gardening.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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