Children of the Amazon follows Brazilian filmmaker Denise Zmekhol as she travels a modern highway deep into the Amazon in search of the Indigenous Surui and Negarote children she photographed fifteen years ago. Part road movie, part time travel, her journey tells the story of what happened to life in the largest forest on Earth when a road was built straight through its heart.
For countless generations, the Amazon rainforest provided a home to the Surui and Negarote people who lived in what they called “forest time”— utterly beyond the realm of contemporary human life. Their only contact with the “outside” world was through rubber tappers, who first settled the forest in the 19th century and whose work did no harm to the trees.
And then . . . everything changed. Footpaths gave way to a road and then a highway cutting through 2000 miles of forest. With the coming of this connection to the rest of Brazil, the world of “forest time” was overrun by farmers, loggers, and cattle ranchers. Lush forest was clear-cut and burned, deadly diseases killed off thousands of Indians, and “forest time” suffered an irreversible transformation.
Zmekhol’s cinematic journey combines intimate interviews with her personal and poetic meditation on environmental devastation, resistance and renewal. The result is a unique vision of the Amazon rainforest told in part by the Indigenous people who experienced first contact with the modern world less than forty years ago. The film’s central characters are the now grown children Zmekhol photographed more than fifteen years earlier: among them are Chief Itabira and Chief Almir, Surui navigating a risky course between cultural preservation and economic survival; and Chico Mendes, the legendary rubber tapper who organized a non-violent movement to save the forest and was assassinated by cattle ranchers.
As she nears the end of her journey, Zmekhol discovers how the combined efforts of Indigenous people, rubber tappers, and their allies have begun to safeguard the rainforest. Ultimately we grasp our own intimate connection to this remote forest and its people: We are — all of us — Children of the Amazon — breathing the same air, walking the same planet, and in some sense that we have yet to understand, sharing the same fate.
The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical forest and has the greatest biodiversity on the planet. Profoundly abundant in natural resources, it is a rich source of medicinal plants, hosts the greatest number of species on Earth, and provides home to diverse Indigenous peoples.
Roughly the size of the forty-eight contiguous United States and spanning nine Latin American countries, the Amazon is instrumental in regulating global weather patterns. It is a biological factory that transforms carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into oxygen, significantly stemming the effects of global warming.
Sixty percent of the Amazon forest is located in Brazil and is home to more than half of its Indigenous population. Prior to the arrival of European settlers in the 1500s, Indigenous peoples numbered two to four million. For centuries, the Amazon acted as a natural barrier, protecting the forest inhabitants from colonizers. But as the barrier has been weakened, so have the forest dwelling populations.
In the 1960s, Brazil embarked one of the most ambitious public-works project in the country’s history: BR-364—a two-lane highway spanning 2,000 miles from state of Mato Grosso to the state of Acre. A joint effort between Brazil’s government and multilateral development banks, the road gave hundreds of thousands of landless farmers and poor laborers access to cheap land. In the decades that followed, clashes between the new settlers and the forest dwellers over land rights have been frequent and violent.
Contact with outsiders has decimated Indigenous communities. Exposure to disease and violent conflicts over forest resources reduced the Amazon Indians to about 10 percent of their pre-European population. They have experienced immense cultural loss and witnessed irreversible damage to their forest home.
In 1988, after decades of displacement and relocation, Brazil began recognizing Indian rights to reclaim original lands and preserve their way of life. Government land surveyors have demarcated hundreds of Indian reserves. However, protection often exists only in theory, and Indigenous Areas are regularly plundered by illegal ranching, mining and logging operations.
Today, despite dire warnings, the rainforest continues to be razed for pasturelands and logged to meet the worldwide demand for hardwoods. Nearly 300,000 square miles of forest have been obliterated since 1970 in Brazil alone (estimate from Brazil’s National Space Research Institute). Recent declines in deforestation offer hope that increased enforcement and government conservation initiatives are working. But monitoring efforts have achieved only partial success. If deforestation continues at its present rate, within a few years it will be the single-greatest contributor to climate change.
Rubber Tappers & Chico Mendes
At the end of the 19th century, in response to a growing demand for rubber in the US and Europe, a wave of workers from Northeastern Brazil came to the Amazon to tap the wild rubber trees. Over the course of the next 100 years, as the price of rubber rose and fell in the world market, rubbers barons deserted their estates while the tappers remained to eke out a living through a sustainable practice of extracting latex from trees. Since the 1970s, with the expansion of highway BR-364 and government programs subsidizing ranchers, millions of acres of rainforest were destroyed for pastureland. Uprooted and without jobs, homeless rubber tappers drifted to the cities becoming part of the urban poor.
In response to the loss of land and work, a rubber tapper named Chico Mendes began to organize his fellow workers to resist large-scale deforestation. In 1985, the National Council of Rubber Tappers was formed. The Council originated the idea of government protected extractive reserves devoted to sustainable use of the rainforest by rubber tappers and Indigenous people. While Mendes’s work generated international support, his efforts also provoked brutal responses from vested interests. In 1988, Chico Mendes was assassinated by a cattle rancher at his home. In the 20 years since his death, 65 reserves covering twenty-seven million acres have been established.
— Chico Mendes. 1988
In the 1960s, highway BR-364 bulldozed through the state of Mato Grosso and the homelands of the Nambiqwara Indians, the parent tribe of the Negarote. Their forest existence cultivating small gardens, hunting with bows and arrows, and sleeping on the ground under makeshift palm shelters, was devastated as lands were clear-cut for thousands of new settlers. Many Nambiqwara died from sudden exposure to the measles and influenza. Those that remained were forcibly removed to a small, barren reserve. Unable to sustain themselves on the inadequate reserve, the surviving Nambiqwara set off on a 200-mile walk back to their homelands. Thousands died along the way from starvation and disease. By 1975, only 530 Nambiqwara Indians remained—90 percent of their population had been decimated.
The Negarote were forced to work for no pay by rubber barons and ranchers who invaded their homelands. Today, they live on a small reserve 15 percent of the size of their traditional lands, which continues to be threatened by logging operations. Their response to the exploitation of the forest is varied. Some are adamantly opposed to any logging concessions, while others, lured by profit, are complicit in the illegal harvesting of their trees. At least eighteen truckloads of wood a day leave a remote logging site deep inside the Negarote reservation, often free from tribal supervision.
For centuries the Surui (known in their own language as the Paiter or “True People”) were among several large groups of Indians who roamed the Amazon forest along the borders of what are now Rondônia and Mato Grosso states. They lived in longhouse communities hunting, fishing, and harvesting small gardens. In 1969, government agents contacted the Surui hoping to minimize conflicts between the Indians and the influx of settlers brought by BR-364. Exposure to disease nearly decimated the tribe. In the early 70s, settlers inadvertently purchased false titles to Surui land and established small farms. A decade of violence followed, ending with the forced removal of the farmers by the Brazilian army. The Surui reclaimed their traditional land and began harvesting the coffee trees left by farmers. In 1983, Surui land was officially recognized as an Indigenous Area. Yet government agencies proved ineffectual at stopping illegal logging and, despite the protective status of the land, all hardwood trees have been cleared from the area. A movement to preserve Surui culture and the rainforest they inhabit has led to projects supported by various international organizations. Throughout Brazil, however, the Surui and other advocates of rainforest preservation continue to clash with loggers and ranchers over forest resources.