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Amazonian People Malnutrition : causes, consequences and solutions

October 6, 2019

In this article written by Dr. Rafael Cartay, Venezuelan economist and historian, you will be able to obtain:

  • Food sources preferred by the indigenous groups of the Amazon.
  • Studies and data that demonstrate a balanced nutrition of indigenous peoples at the end of the 20th century
  • Studies and data that demonstrate an unbalanced nutrition of indigenous peoples at the beginning of the 21st century
  • Causes of malnutrition: an unfavorable integration.
  • Consequence: decreased quality of life.
  • Possible solutions and strategies:
    • The chakra.
    • Scheduled cyclical migrations.
    • Endogenous production.
    • Participation in the tourist activity of the Amazon.
    • Isolation:
  • Some final considerations.

First let’s know what the diet of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon consists of:


Food sources preferred by indigenous groups:

When comparing the daily nutritional diet of indigenous groups and its relationship with the main sources of subsistence (10): hunting , fishing , chakra , collection , we find that, out of a total of 12 Compared indigenous ethnic groups , four indicated that their main subsistence activity was hunting, none pointed to fishing or gathering, and eight to farming.

Fishing was not indicated as the main source of subsistence, but seven indicated that it was the second activity.

Sweet cassava and bananas are raw materials for the elaboration of the ritual and daily drink of the Amazonian indigenous people: masato or chicha.

Studies and data that demonstrate a balanced nutrition of indigenous peoples at the end of the 20th century

The diets of the Amazonian indigenous people presented satisfactory levels in terms of caloric and protein intake, at least until the 1980s.

The WHO recommended a caloric intake for an adult between 2,131 and 2,370 Kcal, and 37.9 g of protein.

Research carried out by anthropologists in the Amazon shows that the average caloric intake, in selected indigenous groups, ranged between 2,215 Kcal for the Siona-Secoya of Ecuador (1) and 3,356 Kcal for the Awajún or Aguaruna of Peru (2).

Protein consumption varied, meanwhile, between 68 g for the Yanomami of Venezuela (3) and 104 g for the Campa of Peru (4).

Until the 1980s, for which we had information, there was no serious malnutrition problem in the Amazon forest (5).

Back then, there was a close relationship between the indigenous communities and the nutritional sources coming from the forest, since hunting, fishing and the gathering of wild fruits abounded.

Studies and data that demonstrate an unbalanced nutrition of indigenous peoples at the beginning of the 21st century

The influence of the centers of consumption and the market created new pressures on the labor force and natural resources, modifying the relationship between the indigenous community and the environment.

Beckerman (9) stated that the size, permanence and density of indigenous settlements basically depended on the abundance of protein-providing foods.

A study by Lu, Bilsborrow and Oña (10) showed the imbalances of indigenous populations with respect to nutritional sources.

Studying the daily life of Shuar or Jíbaro groups in the Ecuadorian high jungle, they found that, in an observation period of 413 days, during 70% of the time the families did not consume the meat of game animals, in 60% they did not consume fish.

On the other hand, on 39% of the time they consumed meat from domestic animals or bought in the market, and on 45% of the days they consumed eggs.

This situation is not unusual in the Amazon, particularly in places located near urban centers or influenced by the market. Increased consumption of industrially processed food products such as wheat bread and crackers, sugar, salt, industrial pasta, tuna, canned sardines, vegetable oil is frequently observed.

Causes: an unfavorable integration.

The harmonious relationship of the indigenous people of the Amazon with nature has become unbalanced over time due to various factors.

One of them, the most important, was the increased contact of the jungle indigenous people with urban centers and the market, which strongly influenced the indigenous diet.

The populated center opened up possibilities for paid work for the indigenous people and allowed them partial access to some basic services (health, education, electricity, entertainment, etc.).

The market created opportunities to sell agricultural and animal products and expanded their daily diet with new products, but changing their quality.

Many indigenous families, particularly those culturally assimilated, learned to consume sugar and refined grains, soft drinks, vegetable oil, various snacks.

The jobs obtained were of low quality, most of them informal. And a marketing network was woven that turned indigenous producers and consumers into marginal and disadvantaged participants in the capitalist market.

The indigenous people who bring their products to the market end up selling them at a retail price to the local merchants, who collect products on the banks of the rivers, at the landing sites and at the entrance of the municipal markets to increase their profits.

Consequence: decreased quality of life.

In this way, “a chain of perverse economy is established that works without much rationality and with low levels of profitability, which moves by dint of low unfair prices for those who sell and almost auction prices for those who buy”, in a system where a lot of intermediation is involved in marketing (6).

Anthropologist Anne Roosevelt (8) pointed out that within the native Amazonian indigenous communities there were great inequalities in the distribution of food, which harmed children, the elderly, pregnant and lactating mothers, and benefited the adult male population.

Possible solutions and strategies.

Native communities develop strategies to achieve greater efficiency in food supply.

1. The farm

One of them, very important, is the practice of the farm where many agricultural items are grown, reducing the vulnerability of crops to the incidence of pests and diseases and climate change.

The observations made by the specialists indicate that horticulture (chacra and family garden) is the one that offers, in comparative terms, the greatest stability and regularity. The other livelihood activities are somewhat unpredictable to varying degrees.

The supply of carbohydrates, the main sources of energy, is obtained from the cultivation of the farm.

2. Scheduled cyclical migrations

Another interesting relationship is the one established between a sedentary lifestyle and the availability of food resources.

On the one hand, it exhausts them due to the frequency of exposure, as happens with large mammals, which are driven away, but not with smaller edible mammals that reproduce quickly and prowl near settlements in search of food.

The opposite happens with fishing. Fishing resources are hardly affected by their condition of relative “immobility” in relation to a population settlement site if fishing is done in moderation, without overexploiting the resource.

The periodic displacement of the community’s settlement site allows the recovery of the natural fertility of the soil and the reproduction of the animals of the forest not besieged in that site.

3. Endogenous production

Another strategy, which is timidly being presented, is the raising of domestic animals, and the spread of fruit throughout the territory thanks to the practice of eating fruit on the roads and throwing the seeds.

Fortunately, the raising of domestic animals (chickens, ducks, quail, pigs) has increased and there are more and more small local enterprises for the development of fish farming organized by cooperative associations.

In 2013 (11) some 800 indigenous families in the Peruvian Amazon were farming fish in ponds with technical advice, and their contribution had increased per capita fish consumption from 9 to 21 kg/p/year and improved annual income per family.

4. Participation in the tourist activity of the Amazon

A good strategy to apply is to make indigenous families participate more actively in defending the integrity of national parks and other protected areas, and incorporate them into rural tourism, academic tourism, and ecotourism activities.

5. Isolation

The anthropologist Dourojeanni (7) pointed out that indigenous peoples who live in isolation, or who have little contact with populated centers, can have a better quality of life, and with a higher spirituality and harmony with respect to nature.

Communities with more intense market contacts and urban centers face greater problems in obtaining an adequate diet, particularly protein.

The most isolated communities will, on the contrary, be able to more adequately satisfy their food needs, especially protein, thanks to hunting and fishing, which are less overexploited.

Some final considerations:

  • The group that has the greatest amount of nutritional sources at its disposal, can better organize its food diet.
  • In that sense, the two most secure and stable subsistence activities are horticulture and fishing, compared to hunting and gathering, since fish resources are less exposed to predation than game resources.
  • We must not forget that you do not always eat what you have, but what you choose, because food is mediated by culture, that is, by food beliefs and taboos.
  • Proof that traditional sources of subsistence are losing importance is that alternative activities, such as fish farming, animal husbandry and domestic poultry farming, are becoming increasingly important.


1 . Vickers, W. T. (1980). An analysis of Amazonian hunting yields as a function of settlement age. Homes, R. (Ed.). Studies in hunting and fishing in the neotropics. Working Papers on South American Indians. No. 2., 7-29. Bennington: Bennington College. Source

2 . Berlin, B. (1977). Empirical bases of the Aguaruna-Jíbaro cosmogony, Amazonas, Peru. Studies in Aguaruna Jibaro Ethnobiology, Report 3. Berkeley: Berkeley University of California. Source

3. Lizot, J. (1976). The Yanomami in the face of ethnocide. Copenhagen: International Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA); Lizot, J. (1980). Yanomami agriculture. Anthropology, 53, 3-93. Source

4. Berlin, Ibid. Source

5 . Cartay, R. (2016). The Peruvian Amazon table. Ingredients, corpus and symbols. Lima: San Martin de Porres University, 228-229. Source

6 . Cartay , Ibidem , 229. Source

7 . Dourojeanni, M. (2013). Loreto sustainable by 2021. Lima: GIVE. PDF

8. Roosevelt, A. (Ed.). (1994). Amazon Indians. From Prehistory to the Present. Anthropological Perspectives. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press. Source

9. Beckermann, S. (1982). The abundance of proteins in the Amazon: a reply to Gross. Peruvian Amazon, III (6), 91-125. PDF

10 . Cartay, Ibidem, 232. Source

eleven . Tello, S. (2014). Rivers and their resources. Male Gabal, R.; Maza, C. (Eds). Iquitos. Lima: Telefonica, 129. Source

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