Land rights in Amazonia: a history


Amazonia is a region in South America which extends into seven nations states (the ‘seven sisters’ of: Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Venzuela, and Guyana) and broadly covers the Amazon River Watershed that cuts through the heart of the region. The first humans to settle in the region likely migrated over the Bering Strait and arrived in Amazonia some 11,000-9,000 years ago (Alexiades 2009). These people were the ancestors of the indigenous people who live there today. Indigenous people have been described and defined in many ways over recent decades; for the purposes of this article they are conceived as people who employ: traditional lifestyles, a culture and way of life that is different from other segments of the national population, and live in historical continuity in a given area (ILO 1991).

This is but one map of Amazonia. Defining the limits of such a changing and dynamic region, both politically and biologically, is impossible. But representations such as these help illustrate the vastness of the area.

This is but one map of Amazonia. Defining the limits of such a changing and dynamic region, both politically and biologically, is impossible. But representations such as these help illustrate the vastness of the area.

The most important issue facing indigenous people in Amazonia today is access to land (Ortega 2004). And yet, such a simple statement is somewhat misleading because access to land has been problematised for indigenous groups in a multitude of different ways and at different levels across Amazonia (such as local, national, and international). In Colombia, for example, by 1991 the Political Constitution had recognised fundamental rights of indigenous people and had ratified the ILO Convention 169. In 2011 there were an estimated 1.3 million indigenous Colombians belonging to 87 different groups 70 of which were small and highly dispersed in lowland Amazonia. Conversely, in Suriname, there still has been no recognition of indigenous Amazonian groups in the national legislation and no land has been demarcated in their favour (IWGIA 2012).

Despite this complex setting there are some broad issues relating to land that are consistent for indigenous people across the region such as:

  • their desire for autonomous management
  • their desire for involvement in decision-making over land management
  • their increasing urbanisation and dislocation from officially recognised territories
  • issues of how they self-represent themselves, organise themselves, and conceive ‘territory’

(Ortega 2004, Stocks 2005, Davis and Wali 1994, and IWGIA n.d.).

Understanding these issues over land in Amazonia can only be achieved when they are placed within a wider historical context that assesses the processes that occurred before, during, and after the conquest by the Spanish. These processes have generated historical trajectories through time and space, creating legacies that shape land claims today.

A brief history of Amazonia:

According to Alexiades (2009) plant and landscape domestication began across South America from 10,000-8,000BP. The expansion of trade networks and chiefdoms, particularly along major rivers in Amazonia, occurred in force much later on, some time after 1,000BP. These networks created surplus food and involved the use of status items such as precious stones. The presence of such practices, it is claimed, suggests the region hosted large, sedentary societies that expressed social stratification and hierarchical power relationships. The region was therefore politically and socially dynamic and was involved in trade, exchange, and war. Europeans entered this picture at the start of the 16th century and had a swift and profound impact. Alexiades (2009) further highlights a couple of key post-conquest processes; European diseases, to which indigenous people had no immunity, spread throughout Amazonian populations causing widespread epidemics, demographic collapse, and social dispersion. Following this, as colonists began to settle in the region and create colonial states, many Amazonian groups found themselves pulled into agro-extractivist economies. These two processes varied in space and time but were crucial in drastically altering trade networks, populations, and political groups during the decades after conquest and created widespread migration, dislocation, and social devastation across the region.

Rubber tapping

Rubber tapping

As the process of colonisation continued indigenous groups encountered further periods of depopulation as well as periods of relative stability all of which varied in place and time (Rival 2002). One of these important periods of depopulation centred around the rubber boom, a case study which illustrates the devastating effects colonisation could have on indigenous people and their access to land. Little (2001) has shown that, in the decades around the turn of the 20th century, latex from Amazonian rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis and Castilloa elastica) was in high demand due, in part, to the discovery of vulcanisation, western demand for cars and bicycles, and the demands of the First World War. Due to this, indigenous labour was incessantly demanded by rubber barons during this time and brutal methods were used across the region to varying degrees in order to meet the demand; slavery and wanton killing became commonplace. Many groups between the Putumayo and Caqueta rivers in Colombia, for example, were

Rubber tapping in 1921

Rubber tapping in 1921

decimated in the early 1900s from the impact of the trade in rubber by the infamous Peruvian Amazon Company and Casa Arana; today virtually none of the ancestral territories of this area are now occupied by groups that lived there at the start of the 20th century (Echeverri 2005). Coupled with the boom’s capacity to destabilise and disperse indigenous groups from ancestral territories, it also helped consolidate the emergence of modern nation states in many regions and created focal points around urban areas (Alexiades 2009).


The emergence of modern nation states, from the 18th century onwards, promoted the expansion and contraction of frontiers that often came into direct conflict with indigenous groups. These 18th and 19th century frontiers were different to the North American frontiers. In North America, there was essentially one continuous frontier that spread from east to west. In Amazonia the frontiers were multiple in space and time spanning centuries and coming in waves which reflected different struggles over hegemony and territory (Little 2001).

As Amazonian nations gained independence and developed around these fluid frontiers official state policies towards resources and indigenous people began to be formed. Ortega (2004) suggests that official policy towards indigenous people across Amazonia until at least the 1930s tended to be one of assimilation. Under the banner of national unity governments attempted to abolish both the communal governance and collective territorial policies of indigenous peoples. The underlying justification for this lay in the conception of indigenous societies as savage and backwards, irreconcilable with the building of national societies founded on representational democracy and economic liberty (Ortega 2004). Such notions had developed alongside the imperatives of global industrial capitalism which had become the predominant economic system in Amazonia over the 18th and 19th centuries. This system demanded the extraction and extensive processing of natural resources in order to maintain and produce goods and labour and had become increasingly influential to national political agendas in the region by the early 20th century. The Ecuadorian government, for

Oil in Yasuni forest, Ecuador.

Oil in Yasuni forest, Ecuador.

example, started giving concessions for private oil exploration in 1921 and by 1937 the Anglo Saxon Petroleum Company had been granted a concession for exploration covering an area of 8.3 million hectares (Little 2001, p.51). Concessions towards natural resource extraction and private capital investment such as these became ever more common across Amazonia. By the middle of the 20th century national political leaders in Amazonia were espousing notions of development and progress which paved the way for the selling or allocating of land to extraction groups; for the first time development and colonisation projects in the region had created truly large-scale privatisations of land (Little 2001, p.31, Smith 2003 and Hemming 2003).


  • Alexiades, M. N. (2009). Mobility and migration in indigenous Amazonia: contemporary ethnoecological perspectives (Vol. 11). Berghahn Books.
  • Davis, S. H., & Wali, A. (1994). Indigenous land tenure and tropical forest management in Latin America. Ambio, 485-490.
  • Echeverri, J. Á. (2005). Territory as body and territory as nature: Intercultural dialogue? In The land within: indigenous territory and the perception of the environment. (Eds.) A. Surrallés and P. G. Hierro, Copenhagen: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 234-250.
  • Hemming, J. (2003). Die If You Must: Brazilian Indians in the Twentieth Century, Macmillan, Basingstoke and Oxford.
  • ILO 169. International Labour Organisation Convention 169, (1991).–en/index.htm
  • IWGIA, International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (2012). The Indigenous World 2012, (Ed.) Cæcilie Mikkelsen, Eks-Skolens Trykkeri, Copenhagen, Denmark. Online. [Accessed 22nd March 2013].
  • IWGIA, International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (n.d.). Indigenous Peoples in Latin America – a general overview, Online. [Accessed 22nd March 2013].
  • Little, P. (2001). Amazonia: Territorial Struggles on Perennial Frontiers, The John Hopkins University Press.
  • Ortega, R. R. (2004). Models for recognizing indigenous land rights in Latin America (No. 99). World Bank, Environment Department.
  • Rival, L. (2002). Trekking Through History: The Huaorani of Amazonian Ecuador, Columbia University Press, New York Chichester, West Sussex.
  • Smith, R. C., Benavides, M., Pariona, M., & Tuesta, E. (2003). Mapping the past and the future: Geomatics and indigenous territories in the Peruvian Amazon. Human organization, 62(4), 357-368.
  • Stocks, A. (2005). Too much for too few: problems of indigenous land rights in Latin America. Annu. Rev. Anthropol., 34, 85-104.



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