In the Amazon Basin, as in North America, the destruction of nature came after the destruction of people. It was only after settlers had killed most of the Indians and imprisoned the rest on reservations that they began to cut the forests and plow the prairies.

When Francisco de Orellana led the first group of Europeans down the Amazon in 1540, his chronicler, Gaspar de Carvajal, wrote of riverbank settlements that ran almost continuously for hundreds of miles and flotillas of canoes carrying 60,000 warriors.

Just how many people lived in the Amazon Basin when Europeans arrived is the subject of hot controversy, but 5 million is a common estimate, and as we learn more about native systems of agriculture there, some think the estimate will rise to 15 million.

Native Amazonians started to die off almost immediately upon the arrival of Europeans. Orellana and his friends killed some. Imported diseases–smallpox, influenza, measles, malaria, tuberculosis–killed millions more. Slavers–who brought the diseases, in some cases–captured Indians for work under inhuman conditions that killed many more. By 1900, the Indian population in the basin was down to about one million.

Only about 200,000 Amazon Indians remain today. One careful estimate has it that 80 tribes were wiped out completely between 1900 and 1957. Between 1957 and 1963, tribes in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso were deliberately infected with smallpox and other diseases. And the machine gun has been widely used as a negotiating tool for tribes that got in the way of road builders, loggers, and cattle ranchers.

Genocidal policies toward North American Indians helped generate and sustain the myth that our continent was an unpopulated Eden, a place where nature held sway and humans did not intrude. We incorporated this myth into our national park system (the Miwok Indians were thrown out of Yosemite when it became a national park) and into our wilderness system.

What began as racism has become necessity. The dominant North American culture sees humanity as totally separate from nature and considers warfare an appropriate way of relating to the rest of creation. We have cut 90 percent of the old-growth forests of the Pacific northwest, and the logging industry is furious because it may be denied the opportunity to cut the rest. Idiots in off-road vehicles squash endangered species under their wheels. If we didn’t control access to our preserves, they would be destroyed, too.

The war between humanity and nature is hot right now in the Amazon. Forests are being cut or burned at an accelerating rate, and species are disappearing by the thousands. The destruction seems almost inexorable, a holocaust that will end only when there is no more forest to cut.

Some of the actors in this drama are familiar. On one side, there are an aggressive, corrupt government and greedy, ruthless capitalists. On the other are earnest spokesmen for Eden, for preserves protected from human incursion.

In Brazil, there is also a third side: the forest people. Their story is told in the 1989 book The Fate of the Forest (Verso, $24.95) by Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn. The forest people are what remain of the Indians of the Amazon Basin, along with people of European, African, or mixed descent who earn their living as rubber tappers, Brazil-nut gatherers, or small-time miners. These groups, which in the past have often been in conflict with each other, recently formed a coalition to speak for their way of life and for the forest that sustains them. They speak for a view that has never been adequately represented on our continent.

When we study the makeup of the Amazon forest and the ways that native people use it, we realize native populations have been treating this land as a huge garden. Hundreds of thousands of acres of babassu palm forests, once thought to be natural, are now believed to be deliberate plantations created by native peoples. The Kayapo Indians, an Amazon tribe, have collected and moved seeds across an area the size of Western Europe in order to have plants useful for food, fiber, or medicine in accessible locations.

The Kayapo are slash-and-burn agriculturists whose farming practices reflect an extremely sophisticated understanding of the forest. A Kayapo field starts with the cutting of a patch of forest at the beginning of the dry season, in April or May. The downed logs are allowed to dry for about four months before burning. Fires are controlled carefully; weather and other conditions have to be just right before a spark is struck.

Before the fires are set, manioc, yams, and sweet potatoes are planted so they will have sprouted when the fire burns and be ready to absorb the shot of nutrients’ contained in the ashes. Immediately after the fire, the Kayapo plant corn, beans, squash, and other short-cycle crops as well as woody, nut-bearing plants that will take longer to mature. Charred and unburned logs are gathered and piled on “hot spots” where secondary fires can be set. These hot spots are repeatedly planted with sweet potatoes, which thrive on the potassium released by the ash.

The growth forms and families of these domesticated crops closely follow the successional patterns that wild plants would take in the reforestation of burned ground. As the burned ground begins to lose its fertility, the Kayapo plant trees, especially those whose nuts and fruits are edible both to people and to the birds and other animals that supply the Kayapo with meat. (Indians in the Amazon have complained bitterly about the logging of Brazil-nut groves, saying the groves are not there naturally but rather because their ancestors planted them.)

Similar highly developed methods of sustained-yield exploitation are used by other Indian groups and by the mestizo backwoodsmen, called caboclos, in Brazil. They live in an environment where thousands of species struggle to survive, an area that does not take kindly to monocultures, and they have created a way of living that closely follows the natural system. Temperate-zone visitors have always looked on these systems with suspicion, and Hecht and Cockburn quote many 19th-century American visitors whose belief was that the Amazon could look just like Iowa if we could only bring in a lot of industrious white folks.

The Brazilian military government that took over after the coup of 1964 saw the development of the Amazon in geopolitical terms. The nation had to occupy this land or risk losing it to acquisitive outsiders. They laid out their development plans as military operations. The routes of the roads they built, the regions they picked as centers of development, were chosen for strategic reasons. The development of the Amazon was a national security operation.

Their plan called for the appropriation by private owners of vast amounts of land that had been under public control or–more commonly–under no control at all except by the native people who lived on it. Corporate buyers, most of them Brazilian, acquired vast estates, which they cleared and converted to cattle ranches. Hired guns drove away the people who had been living on these lands. The government provided tax breaks and other subsidies.

The biggest ranches averaged 60,000 acres. The new owners, who got nearly $1 billion in incentives from the government, have done poorly. Their average production has been between 8 and 15 percent of projections. Thirty percent of the ranches have been abandoned, and another 40 percent have never sold anything. Only three have ever turned a profit.

But the cutting goes on. In the inflationary climate of Brazil, land is one of the few investments that holds its value, so people with money keep on buying. And a hopelessly corrupt system of recording land titles makes it very difficult for anybody–especially small settlers–to get a clear, uncontested title to land. If you can show you are clearing the land, using it as pasture, you have a better chance of holding on to it than you do if you leave it as woodland.

So uncontrolled fires burn. Loggers move in, killing over half the trees in the forest in the process of trying to remove 3 percent of them. The most horrible irony is that every unbiased study shows that forest people–the Indians, the rubber tappers, the Brazil-nut gatherers–produce more goods and more money per unit of land than the ranchers. And they do it without destroying the forest.

Hecht and Cockburn see the forest people as the only way to save the rain forests of the Amazon. Their proposals–for extractive reserves, for the creation of cooperatives that would give forest people control over the marketing of their products–reflect an intimate knowledge of the actual situation and offer a hope based on reality.