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PEOPLE OF THE RAINFOREST by John Hemming review

  • Written by  Elizabeth Wainwright
  • Published in Books
PEOPLE OF THE RAINFOREST by John Hemming review
06 Jan
by John Hemming • Hurst • £20 (hardback)

As I write, climate strikers, forest dwellers, anthropologists, activists and scientists from Brazil are discussing how the climate crisis might be solved. They travelled deep into the Amazon rainforest by canoe to do so, even as Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro supports loggers and criticises environmental protectors. In 2019, land defender Paulo Paulino Guajajara told the Reuters news agency that: ‘there is so much destruction of nature happening... We have to preserve this life for our children’s future.’ In October, Paulo, who worked to protect the Arariboia Indigenous Territory, was shot dead by illegal loggers.

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Challenging as the necessary discussions might be, protecting and restoring the Amazon rainforest is essential for maintaining global biodiversity and a stable climate. Earth scientist Antonio Nobre suggests how we might do this: ‘Greta [Thunberg] says we should listen to the scientists. But what scientists need to do is listen to the wise people of the forest.’ We can be thankful, then, that John Hemming introduces us to some of them in People of the Rainforest.

Hemming, who was director of the RGS from 1975 to 1996, is a renowned explorer of the Amazon and a leading authority on the history of Brazil’s Indigenous people. He introduces us to three Brazilian pioneers: the Villas Boas brothers. We journey with them as – lured by the ‘romance of pure exploration’ – they gain experience, quickly becoming South America’s most famous explorers.

It almost didn’t happen. The colonel in charge of the government-sponsored first mission into the ‘forested heart’ of its nation declared ‘you cannot imagine the region we are going to penetrate. It is the centre of the country, full of wild Indians, jaguars and so forth.’ Terrified of what lay ahead, he decided to engage woodsmen over ‘dainty city boys’. But the young brothers found their way onto the expedition and began a life spent exploring and living with the resilient tribal communities they encountered.

Having experienced relative luxuries in the camp they established in the Xingu National Park, as well as the challenges of ‘first contacts’ with isolated groups, the thrill of exploration eventually evolved into the Villas Boas brothers’ advocacy for the people they encountered. In the late 1980s, the brothers defended the rights of indigenous people to the new constituent assembly, elected after 21 years of military rule. They ‘wanted Indians to play a distinct role in Brazil’s future, not just its past,’ explains Hemming.

In the most recent census, only 0.4 per cent of Brazil’s population considered themselves ‘Indigenous’. One legacy left by the Villas Boas brothers is a model of land protection that ‘combines swathes of tropical rainforest with homeland for Indigenous peoples’. But, ‘a mere half-million Brazilian Indians are guardians of some 11 per cent of all Brazil.’ Hemming reiterates the importance of the biodiversity, carbon repository and water found in the forests that they protect, and paraphrases Winston Churchill: ‘rarely have so many – we in the rest of the world – owed so much to so few.’ Megaron Metuktire, a Xingu leader, deplored the damage done by thoughtless deforestation. He declared, ‘to be Indian is to live in the forest, to know all its sounds. It is different to the life of a white man.’ Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research recently confirmed that the ‘majority of fires we’re seeing now are because of deforestation.’ Hemming argues that the scale of deforestation, and ‘expanses of soya plantations, cattle ranches and desolation...’ could never have been conceived by the Villas Boas brothers in the 1950s.

As we write the future, we might do well to keep in mind the words of Orlando Villas Boas describing the Indigenous society he had come to know: ‘This is a stable and harmonious society... each man owns his household, the aged own history, and children own the world. Power as we understand it does not exist in an Indian tribal community: it is diluted for the community’s benefit. No-one may profit from power nor exploit it.’

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