Site icon Conservation news

Exploring the history of the Amazon and its peoples: an interview with John Hemming

Xikrin Kayapó family. Photo by John Hemming.

Xikrin Kayapó family. Photo by John Hemming.

  • Dr. John Hemming is a legendary author and historian who has spent the past six decades documenting the history of Indigenous cultures and exploration in the Amazon.
  • Hemming has traveled in the remotest parts of the Amazon, visiting 45 tribes and being present with Brazilian ethnographers at the time of four first contacts. Of the course of his career Hemming has authored more than two dozen books from the definitive history of the Spanish conquistadors’ conquest of Peru to a 2,100-page, three-volume chronicle of 500 years of Indigenous peoples and exploration in the Amazon.
  • Hemming’s latest book, People of the Rainforest: The Villas Boas Brothers, Explorers and Humanitarians of the Amazon, tells the remarkable story of the Villas Boas brothers, middle-class Brazilians from São Paulo who would go on to become arguably the largest driving force for the conservation of the Amazon rainforest and recognition of the rights of its Indigenous peoples.
  • Hemming spoke about his work and the legacy of the Villas Boas brothers in a September 2020 interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

Earlier this month Rieli Franciscato of the Brazilian government’s Indigenous affairs agency FUNAI was killed on the edge of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau Indigenous territory in Rondônia, Brazil. Franciscato, a sertanista or elite forest Indigenous expert, had worked to protect the rights and territory of Indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation in the Amazon rainforest. His death is thought to be linked to rising encroachment of Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau lands by outsiders ῀ the “uncontacted” sub-group of Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau had no way of knowing that Franciscato was working on their behalf.

Franciscato’s death hit close to home for Dr. John Hemming, a legendary author and historian who has spent the past six decades documenting the history of Indigenous cultures and exploration in the Amazon. On his earliest Amazon expedition in 1961 — the first attempt to descend and map the Iriri River in central Brazil — Hemming lost one of his best friends to an uncontacted tribe. The friend, Richard Mason, was ambushed just a few kilometers from the expedition’s camp by a hunting party from a group that would found to be called Panará when they were eventually contacted twelve years later.

Iriri river with Panará children playing in it. The Iriri is the river Richard Mason and John Hemming tried to descend before Mason was killed. Photo © John Hemming.

Despite the inauspicious start, Hemming would go on to work across the remotest parts of the Amazon, visiting 45 tribes and being present with Brazilian ethnographers at the time of four first contacts, when members of the Surui, Parakanã, Asurini and Galera Nambikwara tribes had first known face-to-face interactions with outsiders. Of the course of his career Hemming has authored more than two dozen books from the definitive history of the Spanish conquistadors’ conquest of Peru to a 2,100-page, three-volume chronicle of 500 years of Indigenous peoples and exploration in the Amazon. His Tree of Rivers is one of the finest overviews of the Amazon rainforest.

Hemming’s latest book, People of the Rainforest: The Villas Boas Brothers, Explorers and Humanitarians of the Amazon, tells the remarkable story of the Villas Boas brothers, middle-class Brazilians from São Paulo who would go on to become arguably the largest driving force for the movement to protect the Amazon rainforest and recognize the rights of its Indigenous peoples. Hemming explains how the Villas Boas brothers became Brazil’s most famous explorers and used their fame to help indigenous peoples, including advocating for the creation of Parque Indígena do Xingu, the Xingu Indigenous area which became the model for protecting the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and beyond.

The Villas Boas brothers in 1947 after their first great expedition. Photo © the Villas Boas Archive

“You cannot exaggerate the conservation legacy of this Indigenous park, because it has been replicated all over Amazonia, particularly in Brazil and Colombia,” Hemming told Mongabay during a September 2020 interview. “Many later Indigenous territories are far larger than the Xingu, but it was the pioneer.”

Hemming says that the great progress Brazil has made in recognizing Indigenous rights, demarcating Indigenous territories, and establishing protected areas is now being undermined by rapidly rising deforestation, weakening of environmental laws and policies, and heated political rhetoric against Indigenous peoples and forest defenders.

“During the thirty years since the 1988 Constitution contained excellent clauses about Indigenous peoples and their land rights, every Brazilian president had respected Indigenous territories and actually added to them,” Hemming said. “[Brazilian President Jair] Bolsonaro has declared that he will not demarcate a hectare more of Indigenous land.”

“Bolsonaro claims to be a God-fearing Christian. But he has no qualms about destroying the lives and habitats of millions of creatures that his God has put on our planet.”

Fire near the Branco river in the Jaci-Paraná Extractive Reserve, in Porto Velho, Rondônia state. Taken 16 Aug, 2020. © Christian Braga / Greenpeace

Beyond his many books, Hemming has been active in a wide range of endeavors. Hemming’s reverence for Indigenous cultures and concern about threats against them led him and three others to co-found Survival International, an Indigenous rights advocacy NGO that celebrated its 50 year anniversary last year. Hemming also helmed the Royal Geographical Society for 21 years, revitalizing the institution and enabling it to launch a number of expeditions and research projects around the world, and served on the board of several charities, including Earthwatch, The Rainforest Foundation, and The British Council, among others.

Hemming’s lifetime of achievements have won him many accolades, including, among others, the Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG), the President’s Medal of the British Academy, the Royal Geographical Society’s Gold Medal, the Brazilian Ordem do Cruzeiro do Sul, the Boston Museum of Science’s Bradford Washburn Medal, and the Peruvian government’s two highest civilian honors: El Sol del Peru and the Grand Cross of the Orden al Merito Publico.

Hemming spoke about his work and the legacy of the Villas Boas brothers in a September 2020 interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN HEMMING

A recent photo of John Hemming. Photo © John Hemming

What prompted your interest in Amazonia?

In 1961, long before satellite GPS and soon after I left Oxford, my best friend Richard Mason had the idea of making the first mapping descent of the Iriri River in central Brazil, one of the longest unexplored rivers in the world. Our plan was welcomed by the Brazilian mapping authority IBGE, who sent three of its surveyors with us, and by the Air Force FAB whose pilots got lost over those unexplored forests. We consulted Orlando Villas Boas, then Brazil’s foremost explorer and authority on Indigenous peoples, who told us that he was not aware of any forest people in that area.

For four months we cut a trail out from FAB’s isolated airstrip Cachimbo, found what we reckoned was the headwater of the Iriri, carried up supplies and had our five woodsmen carve two dugout canoes. Mason was carrying a load up the trail when he walked into the ambush just a few kilometers from our camp. We found his body lying on the trail, surrounded by arrows and clubs. Richard was unlucky to have been the first of the eleven men on the expedition to walk into the ambush – it could have been any of us. He was the last (perhaps the first) Englishman ever to be killed by a totally unknown tribe. The people who ambushed him – unknown even to Orlando – were later found to be the Panará, who were finally contacted in 1973 by the Villas Boas brothers after two arduous expeditions. I was with the Panará in 1998 and we discussed the ambush, which had been a major event in their history – the first time they had seen clothing, metal or any alien person.

Claudio Villas Boas and John Hemming on the Xingu in 1971. Photo © John Hemming

You were co-founder of Survival International more than 50 years ago. How did that come about?

In 1967-68 Brazil’s military government issued the Figueiredo Report into shortcomings of the moribund Indian Protection Service SPI. I think that this was done to discredit the chaotic Goulart government overthrown in 1964 (every crime in the Report was prior to that date); but, if so, it backfired spectacularly. The world’s press used abuse of Indigenous peoples for violent attacks on Brazil, culminating in Norman Lewis’s explosive ‘Genocide’ article in the Sunday Times. This inspired four of us: the anthropologists Francis Huxley and Nico Guppy (both now dead), another great Oxford friend, Robin Hanbury-Tenison, and me to launch a charity specifically for Indigenous peoples. Survival International seeks to help these minorities throughout the world; but its main inspiration was Brazil and the work of the Villas Boas.

After a shaky start, Survival has grown in stature and outreach and has done its bit to help threatened Indigenous minorities everywhere. We were proud to celebrate its 50th Anniversary with a reception last year, before Covid-19 lockdown.

Orlando Villas Boas and Ikpeng women at the moment of first contact. © the Villas Boas Archive.
Panará contact procession.  Orlando Villas Boas leading and Claudio Villas Boas in third place, entering an abandoned Panará village, carrying presents and making as much noise as possible to show they were not enemies.  Had the Panará been watching from the surrounding forest, they could have shot them with arrows. Photo © the Adrian Cowell Archive.

You’ve had an impressive career as an author, historian, researcher, and explorer — including serving a director of the Royal Geographical Society. What are your current projects?

My Oxford doctorate was in History. I had spent a year traveling all over Peru, before the Iriri expedition, so decided to write what became The Conquest of the Incas – a book that has been in print for fifty years, and has just had another Spanish edition. I researched and wrote this during the 1960s, while building up a successful business (which is currently being badly damaged by the pandemic). I then decided to write the conquest of the eastern side of South America, so spent the early 1970s back in Brazil. I had the good fortune to get permission to visit some 45 Indigenous peoples all over that great country, including four at the time of their first contact by sertanistas of the Indigenous foundation Funai: Suruí, Parakanã, Asurini and Galera Nambikwara. But the ‘conquest’ of the Brazilian half of South America is still ongoing. So this history turned into three large volumes totaling 2,160 pages: Red Gold (covering 1500-1760), Amazon Frontier (1760-1910) and Die If You Must (1910-2000).

Kayapó mother, with her son’s hair shaven. Photo © John Hemming.

I was Director of the Royal Geographical Society for 21 years, from 1975 to 1996. Those were decades in which the world was becoming passionate about the environment, so I was able to modernize and improve that venerable Society in every way – finances, membership, activities, research, expedition training and support, public and youth outreach, and academic geography.

I am particularly proud of eleven multi-disciplinary research projects that the Society organized during those years – each in response to an invitation from the host country. I myself led one of these, the Maracá Rainforest Project in northern Brazil in 1987-88. This grew to be the largest Amazonian forest research effort ever organized by Europeans. It involved about 150 doctoral-level scientists and 50 forest expert técnicos. This was a partnership between the RGS, the Amazon research institute INPA and SEMA (precursor to the environment department IBAMA), and most of the researchers were Brazilian. It did considerable work on rainforest regeneration, the hydrological cycle in such forests, insect disease vectors, human development on the forest frontier, and an inventory of flora and fauna on Maracá island in the Uraricoera river. 12 books, about 120 papers, almost 200 species new to science, and a greater understanding of how tropical rainforests function resulted – and this was probably the only such project to be featured on Brazil’s most popular TV program Fantastica! Brazil awarded me the order of Cruzeiro do Sul for leading this.

Your latest book is People of the Rainforest: The Villas Boas Brothers, Explorers and Humanitarians of the Amazon. Why did you choose this subject and what can we learn from the Villas Boas story?

I knew, liked and admired Orlando and Cláudio Villas Boas – the third brother Leonardo died during a cardiac operation in 1961. The Villas Boas story was unique. I can think of nothing comparable anywhere in the past, and it will certainly never happen again. In 1946-47 the three glamorous young brothers, from a good São Paulo family, came to lead a great Presidential effort to cut into Brazil’s Amazonian forests rather than explore them by river. This tough 18-month expedition ended on the upper Xingu river, where a dozen magnificent tribes had survived largely intact.

The Villas Boas brothers: Orlando, Leonardo and Claudio. Photo © the Villas Boas archive.

After a few years’ more exploration, the brothers came to devote their lives to these Indigenous peoples. Their expedition cleared a string of airstrips diagonally across the heart of Brazil, so that the Air Force could run weekly flights by WW2 C47 Dakotas. This meant that invited anthropologists, journalists and a few politicians – but no-one else – could visit the Xingu. The combination of Brazil’s most famous explorers, with photogenic Indigenous people, in an Amazonian paradise, was a journalistic dream. So the brothers used their fame in the media to change public (and government) opinion completely, to see indios (as they were then called) as a proud element of national culture.

The Villas Boas instinctively devised a new modus operandi, acting as partners, friends and equals of the Indigenous people rather than colonial commissioners representing the government. They realized that change was inevitable, but were committed to introducing novelties slowly, at a speed the Indians wanted. So their remarkable achievement was to bring these fine, ancient hunter-gatherer societies into awareness of modern Brazil, without losing their pride in a communal traditional way of life, and in only two generations. Most young Xinguanos and other Indigenous peoples now have social-media sites and know what modern society has to offer. Indigenous leaders perform on a world stage. But – pace President Bolsonaro – absolutely none of them want to leave their lands and communal societies.

Metuktire Kayapó family. Their skin is painted with black pain from the genipap berry, which is common throughout Amazonia. Photo © John Hemming.

Another achievement of the Villas Boas brothers was many more months of arduous expeditions often saturated during rainy seasons; and they made dangerous first contacts with five hostile Indigenous peoples. They brought a ‘Pax Xinguana’ to those warring forest peoples, persuading them that their greater struggle was against the encroaching settlement frontier. These years of explorations and contacts make Indiana Jones look like a stroller in the park. I know, because I have done a little cutting into unexplored forests myself. The brothers also had to contend with the imported diseases that had literally decimated (reduced by ninety percent) native Brazilians during the previous four centuries. They succeeded, so that deaths from disease (pre-covid) ceased altogether and the admittedly tiny populations are increasing faster than the national average.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the Villas Boas were very famous in Brazil, loaded with medals, awards and honors there and in other countries – including two nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize (supported by all Brazilian anthropologists and leading academics in other nations), a rare ‘National Hero’ in 2000, and many others. But they are surprisingly little known outside Brazil. And apart from their own writings and much media coverage, there has never been a biography of them in English or Portuguese.

The Villas Boas brothers played an instrumental role in the establishment of the Xingu Indigenous Park. What is the conservation legacy of the park?

In 1952, soon after reaching the Xingu, Orlando and three others (the anthropologists Darcy Ribeiro and Eloisa Torres (Director of the Museu Nacional) and Air Marshal Aboim, head of civil aviation) had the revolutionary idea of creating a vast area of protected forest solely for its Indigenous inhabitants and natural flora and fauna – not a national park open to visitors. They persuaded Brazil’s then president and vice-president. But none anticipated nine years of violent opposition from the governor of the State of Mato Grosso and his real-estate friends, with passionate media campaigns on both sides, and endless debate in Congressional and Senate committees. This log-jam was finally broken in 1961 when Brazil elected in a landslide the dynamic President Jânio Quadros, who was a personal friend of the Villas Boas family and admired their Xingu experiment. So Quadros rammed it through as a presidential decree – admittedly after reducing it drastically to (now) 26,000 square kilometers, to pacify the state governor. This is still a significant area, roughly the size of Massachusetts or New Hampshire.

Orlando Villas Boas with Raoni Metuktire. Raoni, born in 1932, is one of the best known spokespeople for Indigenous people on a world stage. Raoni inspired the pop star Sting to create the Rainforest Foundation. Photo © Dr. Murillo Villela, who recently died.
Aritana of the Yawalapiti people as a young man. Aritana, who was groomed for high office by the Villas Boas brothers, became the “much loved and revered” paramount chief of all the Xinguanos. Aritana Yawalapiti died of COVID-19 on August 5, 2020. Photo © John Hemming.

You cannot exaggerate the conservation legacy of this Indigenous park, because it has been replicated all over Amazonia, particularly in Brazil and Colombia. Many later Indigenous territories are far larger than the Xingu, but it was the pioneer. Indigenous lands in Brazil alone amount to 1,125,000 square kilometers which is 24% of that country’s northern half, the states known as Amazonia Legal. Indigenous peoples are the only ones who live sustainably within forests – unlike others who can only destroy this ‘hostile environment’ to try to create pasture or grow soya (the only cash crop that can grow on very weak soils under cleared rainforest). Brazil has about half the world’s surviving tropical rain forests. So Indigenous people are custodians of a significant proportion of this richest terrestrial ecosystem. To paraphrase Winston Churchill: rarely have so many (the rest of humanity) owed so much to so few.

Brazil has been widely lauded for establishing protected areas, demarcating Indigenous territories, and the declining deforestation rate in the Amazon. But that’s no longer the case and critics of conservation efforts are taking arguments from the era of Brazil’s military dictatorship to make a case for expanding deforestation. How has the public consensus around the Amazon changed since you started working in the region?

When I was first in the Amazon sixty years ago, its forests were largely intact, there was minimal environmental awareness, and the Villas Boas were just starting to change public opinion in favor of Indigenous people. During subsequent decades, environmental messages were issued more strongly than in almost any other country, culminating in the 1992 UNCED Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Xinguano men filming their own ceremony for posterity. Photo © John Hemming.
Huka-huka wrestlers. Huka-huka is the favorite sport among Xinguano men, with contests regularly taking place between villages and tribes. Photo © John Hemming.

Conversely, military presidents launched the PIN Plan for National Integration in the 1970s, which drove the Transamazónica and other ‘penetration highways’ deep into the great mass of forests. This was enabled by two inventions: chainsaws and earth-movers. The result was massive internal migration and deforestation during the ‘Decade of Destruction’ of the 1980s, particularly along the BR-364 highway on the south-western edge of the forests, in Rondônia and Acre; followed by the north-south BR-163 ‘soya highway’.

On a positive note, during these decades each Indigenous people and its supporters fought to create the great reserves mentioned above, and there were many other environmental protected areas and national forests throughout Amazonia – all widely lauded internationally. Thanks to the Villas Boas and many other activists, the 1988 post-military Constitution contained two outstanding pro-Indigenous clauses.

Deforestation has increased substantially in recent years, and there are signs that part of the biome may be approaching a tipping point where rainforest gives way to transition forest and wooded grasslands. Given these trends, plus the current political discourse in Brazil, what’s your long-term outlook for the Amazon rainforest as we know it?

The scientific community is not agreed about the threat of a tipping point, and unsure what the threshold for such an event would be. An Amazon-wide tipping point would be when loss of forest – through deforestation or fires – causes a reduction of rainfall which in turn causes further retreat of forests. There could also be an unimaginably great release of carbon sequestered in that biome, which would be a catastrophe on a world scale. There are signs that deforestation, drought and fire are pushing the fringes of the Amazon forest (which includes the Villas Boas’ Xingu) towards such a point. Scientists do not know for sure. But the precautionary principle would argue for strengthened protection.

Xinguano Kuarup funerary ceremony. This ceremony is held only when a great chief dies and for a handful of white men like Claudio Villas Boas in 1998, Orlando Villas Boas in 2003 and Dr Roberto Baruzzi in 2018. According to Hemming, “there will certainly be a big one for Aritana, but not until August 2021, because of Covid raging now, and because it has to be at the end of the dry season when fish are plentiful.” Photo © Noel Villas Boas
Flute players announcing a kuarup in front of a Xinguano maloca (communal hut). Photo © Noel Villas Boas

Brazilian public opinion is still generally in favor of environmental conservation and against widespread deforestation in Amazonia. But many feel that this is of secondary importance at this time of rampant covid-19 and economic depression, They have become indifferent to the alarming indices they constantly hear. There is an ideological polarization, with much fake news – such as that deforestation is not that bad, or that its critics are ill-intentioned environmentalists who want to destabilize the government. Bolsonaro and his government are, in the words of a law professor, preoccupied only with their captive electorate of ignorant fanatics, and his Environment Minister Ricardo Salles is “a scoundrel explicitly compromised by anti-environmental interests”. The climate expert Professor Paulo Artaxo of the University of São Paulo wrote that Bolsonaro’s government does not care about public opinion: the only thing that could change its predatory policies would be an economic boycott.

Is there anything that gives you hope for the Amazon?

During the thirty years since the 1988 Constitution contained excellent clauses about Indigenous peoples and their land rights, every Brazilian president had respected Indigenous territories and actually added to them. Bolsonaro has declared that he will not demarcate a hectare more of Indigenous land – but this hardly matters because there are almost none left to be protected. So far, although he has emasculated the Indigenous foundation Funai, he has not yet dared to destroy any Indigenous territory or issue mining licenses on one.

However, Bolsonaro has declared that he will ‘revise’ (allow land claims against) any territories that have not been fully homologated into the land registry. A ‘normative instruction’ on 16 April 2020 sanctioned certification of irregular occupation on such Indigenous lands. And the beleaguered agents of the environmental agency Ibama know that the regime turns a blind eye to illegal deforestation, logging or wildcat prospecting – all of which are rampant.

Metuktire Kayapó mother with her son wearing the two favorite body paints: red urucum and black genipap. The Metuktire Kayapó are one of the Kayapó groups native to the Xingu. Photo © John Hemming.

There is a slim hope that this government will realize that rainforests generate rainfall. Thus the profits and export earnings from soya and beef reared on destroyed rainforest are far outweighed by losses from drought in the breadbasket of southern Brazil, in metropolises like São Paulo, and in energy from hydroelectric dams on dried-up rivers. They are too bigoted to appreciate the two other great benefits from these forests: that they sequester gigantic quantities of carbon from atmospheric pollution; and that they are the world’s richest ecosystem. Bolsonaro claims to be a God-fearing Christian. But he has no qualms about destroying the lives and habitats of millions of creatures that his God has put on our planet.

What can the average person in places like the U.S. and Europe do to help the Amazon?

Consumers could try to avoid buying timber, soya, or beef from deforested Amazon lands. This is of course extremely difficult to identify – particularly since soya is extensively used in animal feed and there are billions of chickens world-wide. But consumers could pressure their supermarkets and stores to make every effort to identify and boycott such produce.

Canoes leaving for the second Panará contact expedition. Orlando and Claudio Villas Boas are in the left-hand canoe. Most of the men on what proved to be a very tough 13-month expedition are Kayabi from the Xingu Park. The Kayabi had migrated into the Park from persecution in their homeland and preferred to wear clothing. Photo © Villas Boas Archive.
Xinguano shaman in straw. Photo © John Hemming.

Nobody in the world likes to be told what to do by foreigners, least of all proud Brazilians in their great country. A leading Brazilian anthropologist told me that direct action, such as bombarding politicians, is counter-productive. But she said that Brazilians like to be liked. We should therefore try to generate critical media comment and coverage, which does get reported back by diplomats. So Mongabay is doing a valuable job.