Forget cute gophers, it's our survival that counts

Simon Jenkins

I was once sent as a young reporter to cover a conference on "the next ice age". It was sensational. Scientists were predicting that the current "holocene interglacial period" was drawing to a close. Within 10,000 years changes in the Earth's orbit and axial spin would shift the Gulf Stream. This would plunge the northern landmass into ice and lead to a "massacre of species". It was a great headline.

Science changes but not headlines. Fear of freezing has become fear of frying. Yesterday a hysteria of scientists predicted that a million species, a quarter of all animals and plants, "could be threatened with extinction" by 2050. "Advanced computers" suggested that something called "action", presumably involving scientists, might save "up to half" these species, though even the survivors "may" be at risk from " unspecified threats".

As a result the Scottish crossbill may have to migrate to Iceland. The outlook for the "smoky pocket gopher" is grim. "Up to 54 per cent" of Australian butterflies are also "at risk". From 15-37 per cent exactly of all global species "could be wiped out". Small wonder the 19 scientists responsible for this garbage were reported to be "in shock".

Whenever I see the words "up to" or "may" or "under threat" I smell dodgy science. All attempts to alter the essentially chaotic Earth climate are futile and hubristic. Kyoto was a religious treaty not a scientific one. The world's weather changes by the century. Only forecasts change by the year. One thing alone is certain. There are no grants and no conference tickets in failing to predict the end of the world. When the Danish scientist, Bjorn Lomborg, attacked the merchants of doom his professional colleagues declared him guilty of "scientific dishonesty".

Biological species have come and gone since the dawn of time. If the Earth cussedly refuses to tilt we are gonners anyway. Meanwhile global warming must surely be good for some of us. I see no "threatened" extinction of the red kite, now swarming across Wales. I would certainly miss the South African "at risk" protea and even the "spotless starling". But conferences will not save them. Changes in biodiversity are a by-product of how people use land. Human beings should worry first about their own kind and let biology adjust accordingly.

For this my text is one of the most harrowing yet heartwarming books I have read in a long time. In 1961 the young explorer, John Hemming, joined a Royal Geographical Society expedition to the headwaters of the Amazon. Penetrating an area of the Iriri jungle where no natives were believed to exist, he and his colleagues made contact with an unknown tribe called the Kreen-Akrore. The tribesmen killed the leader of the expedition, Richard Mason, with poison arrows and clubs.

Hemming rose to be director of the RGS and spent his life charting the fate of the Amazonian Indians. He began with his masterly Red Gold in 1971, describing early encounters with these Stone Age peoples. Now comes his sequel, Die If You Must, taking the story to the present day. As a record of mankind's struggle with mankind for the occupation of the planet it is titanic, fought out under the dripping canopy of the great Amazon forest. Yet its conclusion is one of hope.

The exploration of the Amazon was unlike those of North America, Africa or Australasia. In those regions, massacre, disease and slavery reduced the indigenous population to serfs or piles of bones. This also occurred in Brazil. But the impenetrable vastness of the Amazon basin preserved an undisturbed residue of original inhabitants into the modern age. Even today some 40 tribes are thought to remain "uncontacted" in Amazonia, a terra incognita more extensive and entrancing to imagine than anywhere on Earth.

The Indian population fell from a conjectural 2.5 million in the 1500s to just 100,000 by the 1970s. The advent of white men brought measles, smallpox, influenza and malaria and killed whole tribes. The search for rubber, gold and mahogany destroyed the social economy. It enslaved thousands of those Indians who survived disease. World Bank roads led to land seizures and deforestation. Official corruption impeded attempts at native protection. The extinction of the Amazonian civilisation by the end of the 20th century seemed inevitable.

I had assumed that the story would be one of Portuguese/Brazilian venality confronted by a small handful of foreign do-gooders. That is not so. Foreigners undoubtedly championed native protection, most recently through Survival International. Their role in rescuing the biggest Amazonian tribe, the Yanomami, from incipient genocide forms a dramatic climax to Hemming's book.

Yet the true heroes are Brazilians. They are young soldiers, doctors and anthropologists who, from the end of the 19th century, realised that they were custodians of a remarkable parallel civilisation. These sertanistas or backwoodsmen regarded the Indians as rightful owners of their land, in need of protection not "pacification". Many were anti-Catholic Positivists opposed to the Christian missionary campaigns of the Jesuits.

Their idol was Candido Rondon, a soldier who led the first expeditions into the Bororo tribal land near Bolivia and founded the Indian Protection Service in 1910. Rondon treated every tribe as sovereign and would always depart if made unwelcome. His motto to his men was, "Die if you must, but never kill". A malaria-racked dynamo of phenomenal stamina, Rondon was to Amazonia what Livingstone was to Africa. In his steps came Curt Nimuendaju, Sydney Possuelo and the Villas Boas brothers, men whose names and deeds would be famous had their domain been the British Empire. The tribal funeral given by the Xingu people for Orlando Villas Boas in 1998, attended by Hemming, was an astonishing two days of primeval ritual, eating, dancing and wrestling.

These Brazilians knew that without contact, medicine and some measure of acculturation, the Indians would be wiped out. Their genes would live on only in a few mestizos in the city slums. To save them, the sertanistas had to risk snakes, piranha, malaria and hostility both from Indians and from ranchers and government. Arrows laden with anticoagulant poison would rain down on their "attraction" camps. Corrupt Brazilian officials tolerated genocide against Indians well into the 1960s. World Bank surveyors drove highways through the jungle to help rubber barons and hardwood smugglers. Arsenic would be put in sacks of aid and children injected with smallpox.

Yet these people survived. Some became rubber collectors and even goldminers. Some sold wood. Deforestation remains the greatest menace to the Amazon basin. But this is a vast region. Most of the tribes remain inaccessible in their villages and keep to the ways of the jungle. From the Xingu national reserve in the southeast through the lands of the Nambiquara and Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau to the borders of Peru, 215 Indian tribes and 170 separate languages have been recorded and given territorial protection. At the last census the number of indigenous tribes-people was estimated to have risen from the 1950 low to 350,000 today. Designated reserves cover 11 per cent of the landmass of Brazil. This is the size of France, Germany and the Low Countries together.

Nor are the Indians drifting out of the forest into the cities. As I recall from an expedition up the Orinoco River in the late 1970s, the Indians were quite unlike the more vulnerable Native Americans or Canadians to the north. They seemed at peace with their ecology, aware and protective of its beauty. The reason is clear from Hemming's book. These people know and enjoy the forest. They are its best custodians. Unmolested they do not starve or crave change.

Hemming concludes his odyssey on a note of optimism. He concedes that these "beautiful, ancient and intricate cultures" may be seen by some as artificial curiosities for tourists and the politically correct. But there is no need for such paternalism. The Indians' indigenous heritage appears robust. It should be able to coexist and prosper in the hinterland of modern Brazil.

That is biodiversity that matters. It was chiefly achieved by Brazilians fighting and politicking between themselves within the boundaries of their own country. The survival of the Amazon Indians is key to preserving the delicate ecology of the rainforest and its species. It has been preserved not by shrill conferences but by raw courage.