The Amazon Rainforest – 500 Years of Exploitation in Brazil’s Forests

Dianne Castillo

Dianne Castillo

Aerial shot of Amazon rainforest
photo credit: Veja – Grupo ABRIL

The Brazilian forests have been suffering from deforestation for over 500 years.

Brazil’s history was built under the exploitation of its natural resources, since the colonization process of the country. In the past, the Atlantic forest was the most devastated.

On the same scale, the Amazon rainforest has been devastated for decades, and in the last 50 years, it got worse. What is happening now in the Amazon rainforest is the result of centuries of forestry exploitation in Brazil. 

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Amazon Deforestation has Surged to an All-Time High

Deforestation in Brazil started with the colonization process implemented by the Portuguese. Since then, much of the country’s vegetation has been devastated. 

The Amazon rainforest is being deforested

Something that began from the roots of its discovery and has not stopped throughout its history.  

The Amazon rainforest is one of Brazil’s six different types of forest, which includes the Atlantic Forest, the Caatinga, the Cerrado, the Araucaria Forest, and the Pantanal. Although the Amazon rainforest still presents a relative portion of preserved forests, it has been suffering more and more with the increase in deforestation. The main reason is the expansion of the country’s agricultural frontier. Over the last few decades, mass deforestation has been happening in the world’s biggest rainforest .

The Amazon rainforest has struggled with the effects of deforestation mainly caused by the rubber boom, soybean plantation and cattle ranching. Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has intensified over the last 50 years. Fires have burnt large areas with native forests causing mass cremation. Many parts of the forest were devastated by illegal deforestation that eventually became pastures for the cattle.

Cattle ranching in Brazil has always been linked to economic activities. It began at the beginning of Portuguese colonization, and now it is considered one of the main causes for deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. Although Brazil is considered one of the largest exporters of beef in the world, cattle ranching practices are destroying significant parts of the Amazon rainforest.

Zebu bull cattle
photo credit: Gabriela Cheloni / pexels

The “discovery” of Brazilian lands and the first contact with the native population

Brazil was “born” in 1500 when Pedro Alvares Cabral and his crew were on their way to India and accidentally landed in a city called Porto Seguro.  This city is between the states of Salvador and Rio de Janeiro. The Portuguese arrived in Brazil and came across the native population. Initially, the land was seen as a territory to be annexed and to collect natural resources. Later, it became a colony of Portugal and a space of rich nature that eventually would be deforested to give space to mineral exploration and agriculture.

The first contact made by the colonizers was with the Tupinamba Indigineous tribe. This group of native people was only the first from many different tribes they would encounter inlands. According to Pero Vaz de Caminha in his letters, the indigenous peoples were “brown-skinned, all naked, with nothing to cover their shame, and they carried bows and arrows in their hands”. There is evidence that suggests the Indigenous initially helped the Portuguese in harvesting brazilwood. 

The Portuguese tried to enslave the local indigenous people 

Essential in the harvest of brazilwood were the Tupí people. The natives of Brazil’s southern coast, with whom Europeans traded for their labor or, more commonly as demand grew, whom they coerced or enslaved. Later on, the desire to establish plantations on the vast lands increased and there was the need for a workforce. 

The Portuguese tried to enslave the Indigenous people to work in the plantations. Yet, despite resistance against the Portuguese, they had entire nations murdered by the colonizers. Territories were taken over, and locals were captured as slaves. Later, the Portuguese crown then turned to the African slave trade for their workforce.

Indigenous tribe having their first contact with the Portuguese
photo credit: Drawing by Alfredo Roque Gameiro (1864–1935)

Effects and impact: How the Amazon Rainforest population was heavily wiped out by smallpox

Smallpox was a catastrophic disease that wiped millions of indigenous people during Brazil’s colonial period. Introduced in Brazil by the Europeans who came to explore the lands, the disease spread very quickly.

The first reference was made by José de Anchieta in 1561 and the first recorded epidemic dates from 1563. The indigenous genocide that happened due to this disease is part of a deadly chapter in the history of Brazil.

The vaccine arrived on Brazilian soil in 1804, which means that the indigenous peoples suffered for almost 3 centuries from smallpox.

The diseases brought by Europeans to Brazil had a devastating impact on the Indigenous peoples. The lack of immunity for unknown diseases, the collective habits, and the lack of treatments made the native population especially vulnerable to diseases. Entire peoples were massacred by those carrying contagions of infectious diseases. 

Common European diseases have wiped out many indigenous people

According to an estimate by Funai (Fundação Nacional do Índio), the indigenous population was believed to have been more than 3 million. Today the number is scarcely more than 750 thousand, according to government data. Diseases such as smallpox, measles, yellow fever, or even the flu are among the reasons for the decline of indigenous populations in the national territory.

The causes of these epidemics are commonly treated by history as involuntary. However, there are several reports of intentional infection by indigenous tribes in the country: among the timbira, in Maranhão, the botocudos, in the region of the Rio Doce valley, the tupinambá, and pataxó, in Bahia, the cinta-larga, in Mato Grosso and Roraima, the goitacá among several others.

Nowadays the world is facing another pandemic and the indigenous peoples are the ones who are likely to suffer more. Fortunately, there are some organizations, such as Rainforest Trust, that are not only doing their best to protect our planet and nature, but also creating the COVID-19 Emergency Conservation Fund dedicated to providing immediate assistance to people with the most urgent needs.

Indigenous Amazon native wearing a face mask
photo credit: Brazilian Congress.

The beginning of Brazil as an export economy

Starting back in the XVI century with the European arrival in South America and eventually, the settlement of the Portuguese empire in Brazil, the first forest in Brazil that suffered most from deforestation was the Atlantic Forest. Located on the coast of the country, the forest ended up becoming the first place for society to settle in and where the Portuguese started the exploitation and deforestation of the Brazilian forests.

The economic exploitation of the Brazilian territory was based on brazilwood extraction (16th century), sugar production (16th–18th centuries), and finally gold and diamond mining (18th century).

Brazilwood harvesting

Brazilwood is an arboreal tree that is natively from the tropical forests of the Brazilian coast. When the first colonizers arrived in Brazil there was a vast number of Brazilwood (also known as redwood) in the Atlantic Forest. The Atlantic Forest is a stretch that comprises northeast Brazil, south along the Brazilian Atlantic coastline, and inland into northeast Argentina and eastern Paraguay. A huge scape of land.

redwood or palo brasil rainforest in the Amazon
photo credit: Bradley Allen / Unsplash

Brazilwood trees in themselves are a blaring blood-red colour that is unmissable amongst the Amazon’s rich green foliage. They were commonly harvested for their interior extract- a reddish tincture similar to a product found in East Asia at the time of sailing.

Brazilwood provided income for the Portuguese colony in the Americas. For a long time, it put food and water on the table for many families. Brazilwood is a symbol of the first great cycle of exploration of the Portuguese colony in South America. Numerous colonizers became extremely rich with the extraction of the plant, which lasted until 1875.

Sugar Production

The Sugarcane Cycle was a period in the history of Colonial Brazil between the 16th and 18th  centuries. Due to the great adaptability of sugarcane in our climate and soil, it was the basis of the colonial economy for a long period of time. Sugar was the first great agricultural and industrial product that brought wealth to Brazil. 

During this period the owners of large land properties appeared, also known as the owners of sugar mills (senhores de engenho), or the great landowners. The production of sugar was fueling the economy in that period, the farms needed more workforce, and as a consequence, there was the widespread use of slave labor for sugar production.

At the end of the 16th century, Brazil was already considered the world’s largest producer and supplier of sugar. However, the discovery of gold at the end of the 17th century (mainly in the state of Minas Gerais) removed sugar from being the top resource in the generation of wealth in Brazil, and its production retracted until the end of the 19th century.

cutting-the-sugar-cane Brazil
photo credit:

The Gold Rush

The news of the gold discovery spread throughout Portugal. A gold rush quickly started attracting people from other parts of the colony settled in Brazil and from Portugal as well. The largest portion of land where people could find and extract gold was the place that is located in the modern-day state of Minas Gerais.

Sugar production was replaced by gold mining activity in Minas Gerais, which became the leading and most profitable economic activity of colonial Brazil during the 18th century. In Portugal, gold was mainly used to pay for industrialized goods (textiles, weapons) obtained from England throughout the Treaty of Methuen  (1703)

Gold and diamonds brought wealth to the entire Portuguese Empire 

Portugal signed the Treaty of Methuen with the British Crown, which was in force between approximately 1703 to 1836. This agreement allowed Portugal to purchase English fabrics in exchange for the sale of Portuguese wines to the English. However, Portugal was unable to comply with the treaty and went into debt, and for this reason, a large part of the gold acquired from the mines in Brazil served as an abatement of this debt.

Gold and diamonds brought wealth to the entire Portuguese empire throughout the 18th century. At the end of it, gold became more scarce due to the depletion of mines. Then, planting coffee emerged as a new financial revenue stream. This economic activity was once again linked to the plantation system.

Coffee plant saplings, coffee plantation at its beginning
photo credit: Joudrey / Unsplash

The Coffee cycle is also part of Brazil’s export history

The Coffee Cycle in Brazil was a period that lasted up to 100 years, between the years 1800 and 1930. This period became known as the coffee cycle because, at that time, coffee was a fundamental product for Brazilian exports and the main economic activity in Brazil. 

In Brazil, coffee plantations have long served only for domestic consumption. The possibility of transforming the cultivation of this product into the important coffee cycle was due to the drop in exports of some products that supported the Brazilian economy. 

Given this context, the decline of the sugar cane cycle and also the scarcity of gold in the mines, it was necessary to consider other alternatives. The coffee cycle has also encouraged industrialization, helped to develop a middle class in the country, and devalued the institution of slavery.

coffee plantation
photo credit: carlitocanhadas /pixabay

The opening of the Brazilian ports

When D. João VI first arrived with his family in Brazilian lands, in 1808, he decreed the opening of the ports. Consequently, it opened many possibilities to sell products abundant in our territory, such as sugar, cotton, and tobacco, and to buy European goods.

The decree, entitled the Royal Letter of the opening of Brazilian Ports to Friendly Nations and signed on January 28, 1808, prevented the commercialization of brazilwood. The opening of the Brazilian ports provided the growth of the economy, and it represents the first step towards the emancipation of the country. 

The arrival of the industries occurred in 1844, when the Brazilian government extinguished the Commercial Treaty with Great Britain, increasing the cost of imported products.

The native trees have been cut down for centuries 

Brazil is a country of vast territory, where there is fertile land and a favorable climate for cultivation. For centuries, agriculture has been a core emphasis of Brazil’s economy, especially with the benefits farmers and cattle ranchers receive from the government. 

Deforestation in Brazilian forests happens since the harvesting of Brazilwood trees. The native trees have been cut down over centuries and it needs to stop for the sake of the Amazon rainforest.

Only in the last 50 years, The Amazon rainforest has already been devastated more than in 500 years of Brazil’s history. Millions of hectares of Its native forest are now being used for massive production of agricultural goods, especially soybeans and the raising of cattle.

Tribe sailing in a boat on a river in the Amazon rainforest
photo credit: Tom Fisk / pexels

What can you do to help her and the Amazon rainforest?

1) Sign online petitions 

 You can sign up for online petitions that aim to support the Indigenous peoples, quilombolas, and traditional communities that live in the Amazon region.

2)  Eat less meat!

Cattle ranching is the number one culprit of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.  You don’t need to give up meat altogether, but maybe have a meat-free day or two every week, look at where your meat comes from and try to eat less red meat overall. 

3) Support sustainable brands 

Support sustainable brands that are concerned about consumer awareness. Check that you are not buying furniture or jewelry made from illegal wood and gold taken from the forest. 

4) Support accredited organizations

Any brand that is serious about its sustainability creds will be certified, working with relevant regulators to prove it. Like B-Corp status that One Tribe secured, or these 10 friendly labels you should look for when shopping.

5) Become a volounteer

Raise people’s awareness  You can share stories about what is happening in the Amazon rainforest to raise your friend’s awareness. You can join campaigns that are concerned with the preservation of the forests as well. 

In our next story, we’ll talk about the products that sustain Brazil’s economy in the modern days and how some of them are linked to deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. In the meantime, check out all of our current rainforest protection projects.

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