Three to six million indigenous people lived in the Amazon basin at the time of Columbus, but fewer than 500,000 remain today. Worldwide, there are five to ten million such people, but their numbers are falling as they are driven out of forests by government decree, resettlement, or deforestation. As they disappear, we lose their extensive knowledge of the ecology of their areas. Many of these people practice subsistence shifting cultivation and hunting, and often represent the last bastions of traditional forest management systems. For their survival and the persistence of their way of life, large tracts of diverse forest are required. Population densities must be very low; otherwise resources will be overexploited and exhausted.

The Yanomami of Brazil are hunters, fishers, and collectors, and practice shifting cultivation of bananas, plantains, manioc and other tubers. The Kayapo, also of Brazil, live similarly, cultivating 250 varieties of fruits, numerous kinds of nuts and tubers, and many medicinal plants in forest openings and small fields. They grow 13 different types of bananas, 11 of cassava, and 17 of yams (a diversity unknown to countries like the United States, where agribusiness has reduced the varieties of corn raised commercially to six, for example). They raise bees, and have semi-domesticated some forest plants and animals. The government has carried out actions to force these people into more urban settings, and/or logged the forests they require for sustenance. In Borneo, the expansion of the logging industry into the interior of the island has similarly destroyed traditional life patterns. The indigenous groups receive very few of the proceeds of the timber industry (usually only a few percent), although many indigenous men now work at low-paying logging jobs. Because their salaries are so low, agriculture must provide a substantial portion of their livelihood. Therefore, many people have moved into locations where they can be employed, buy goods and market agricultural products. The new access to markets has encouraged many to expand their jungle swiddens for raising cash crops, with corresponding ecological damage. Many of these areas are unsuitable for the introduced crops. For example, many wetlands reclaimed for rice culture have become acidic. As many immigrants from other parts of Southeast Asia move into Borneo, attracted by jobs, they engage in environmentally destructive activities in the interior as shifting cultivators, timber concessionaires, unlicensed logging workers, and pepper farmers. Although some have been integrated into a cash economy, there are substantial areas of poverty; few farmers can make a good living, and hired labor is poorly paid.