There remains very few pure hunters/gatherers, that is, speaking anthropologically, non-sedentary populations living exclusively from hunting, fishing and the gathering of wild fruit and plants growing in the forest.

For the great majority of Indians, food is provided basically by agriculture, the remainder coming from hunting and fishing.
American Indians cultivate small areas taken from the forest by slash and burn method: during the dry season, a portion of the forest is cleared then burnt, the seeded plants developing when the rainy season starts.

Why burn ?
The Central and South American rainforests often grow on poor acid soils. Through burning, the necessary basic elements are brought to the soil.
- Manioc (manihot esculata) is particularly adapted to poor acid soils. The poorer the soil, the more prussic acid containing cyanide is found in the plant.
The juice of the manioc is very toxic and must be extracted before it can be eaten. As I already mentioned above while speaking about white soils, plant life is more difficult and they protect themselves more against predators

Poor soils get exhausted rapidly. A study has shown that the yield per hectare after the third year represents only 45% of the first year's yield.

New fields thus must continuously be cleared.
Populations being traditionally not dense, the impact on the rainforest is negligible but Indians have to move their villages from place to place often, which explains their semi-nomadic way of life.

Amerindians are experts at using the resources from the rainforest.
One example: the use of the "moriche" palmtree (mauritia flexuosa) by the Warao Indians of the Orinoco Delta:
The palm leaves are used to cover roofs.
Fruits are eatable.
Fibers are used to make superb hammocks.
Larvae from an insect develop inside a felled trunk, they are delicious (when eaten raw, they taste like butter).
Openings are made in the trunk on the ground. Rainwater accumulated in them ferments and produces an alcoholic beverage!

Indian villages are usually composed of few families. A community composed of 50 people is considered large. However, thanks to medical aid, their population increases sharply in certain zones. The pressure on hunting and fishing is more and more important. Indians sometimes have to travel far by dug-out canoes in order to find game.

They often overuse the "nivraie", a creeper which contains chemicals that prevent fish from breathing, forcing them to go up to the surface where they can easily be "picked".

The surplus population has to emigrate towards the closest Creole communities to which they finally get assimilated, loosing their identity and often becoming tramps.

The increase in population density in the rainforest breaks the equilibrium that maintained the traditional slash and burn cultivation method. More and more areas have to be cleared, on larger and larger surfaces.

On the poorest soils, if the vegetation is eliminated on a large scale, the rains soon wash away the fertile layer and a barren base remains on which only grasses and scraggy bushes will grow.

Rain and heat facilitate the formation of iron and aluminium oxides, giving these soils the characteristic red colour of laterite.

Don't expect to meet populations who have never had access to the outside world, especially during a hike that lasts but a few days. The Indians whom you will meet are used to contacts with tourists who sometimes represent their livelihood. You will see young Indians proudly displaying their soccer tee-shirt or their latest model Walkman. The adults possess motor dug-out canoes and hunt with rifles. But apart from these small details, their way of life has remained the same. And this is what counts for the preservation of their culture.

Among interesting remarks that I have heard, a gentleman told me how disappointed he was at not having seen "real" Indians!!! Does a true Frenchman always wear a beret and an Englishman a bowler hat?
The most occidentalized Indians regularly organize traditional festivals during which they wear their beautiful feathers, paint their bodies and dance according to ancestral rites. Foreigners are usually not invited, but sometimes you can be lucky.
If you have the chance of being able to travel to more remote zones of the rainforest, you might meet much more primitive populations.
Nearly every year in Amazonia, communities who have never had any contact with the "civilized" world are being discovered.
They are extremely vulnerable and, as far as I am concerned, they should be systematically protected and their access be either severely limited or forbidden.

Even with American Indians used to contacts with tourists, there are rules of good behaviour to be followed

First of all, according to my thinking, nothing is worse than condescendence ("oh, the poor things!").
Some people have the tendency to confuse happiness with material riches.
If Indians usually possess hardly anything, nothing allows us to state that they are not happy. Life is good in the forest, food is abundant, freedom is extraordinary, and stress is unknown. Indians are indeed materially poor, but they are certainly less miserable than the people who live in shantytowns or other "favellas" of the large sprawling cities.

I was once with a group in a Ye'Kwana village of South Venezuela when we chanced upon a French missionary who had been living with Indians for the past 37 years.
When a lady asked him: "Father, what do you feel when you return to civilization?"
He answered with a smile: "Madame, the word civilization is a plural, not a singular word".
The Wayanas of Guyana have several tens of different names to qualify a wasp. I personally know a Ye'Kwana chief of Venezuela who is capable of identifying in his language more than 350 tree and plant species. A botanist friend who worked at length with him was full of wonder. That too is culture…

The more primitive, structured and hierarchical the civilization, the more it imposes on its members strict rules of behaviour. Even though Indians are very conscious that these rules do not apply to foreigners, it is advisable to avoid behaviour that could put them ill at ease or shock them :
American Indians are usually calm, silent and rather introverted. They can perceive a loud or exuberant behaviour as an invasion.
They hate to have to take decisions hurriedly or abruptly. The decision taking process is for them slow and involves wide consultations. If someone tells you "no", don't keep on insisting.
You can commit a blunder unknowingly. For example, in certain tribes, to ask to speak directly to the chief or have a conversation with the sorcerer can be against protocol, especially for a woman.
Avoid excentricities and familiar behaviour, and don't bathe half or completely naked in front of them (furthermore, the eventual presence of the candiru is a good excuse not to do so!). The American Indians are extremely modest. Don't ask questions about their intimate lives.
Don't put them in situations where they can loose face, even as a joke. That is not how you will gain friends…

Taking pictures is a delicate question: you always have to ask permission to the villagers, even if you don't photograph people directly. If they refuse, don't take pictures behind their backs… (I seem to give obvious advice, but my experience has shown me that it is not so obvious, unfortunately!). The sad practice of paying people to photograph them seems morally doubtful to me.
Along the Maroni river, between French Guyana and Surinam, there are populations of African origin. They are what is called "marrons", that is descendants of former slaves who escaped from plantations of what used to be Dutch Guyana at the beginning of the 19th century. They have kept many ancestral characteristics. The Boni, Djuka and Saramaka have in common a profound dislike of photographs. They even put up signs to tell tourists not to take any. Be careful, they are built like Hercules! I once saw a transgressor receiving a good thrashing…

When you arrive in an Amerindian community, you might be offered the "cachiri", a weak beverage made of fermented manioc or other ground root. It looks yellowish, lumpy and not very appetizing. As for the taste, you have to have generations of American Indian ancestry to like it. Furthermore, in certain tribes (not all happily), women spit in the preparation to speed fermentation. However, it is rude to refuse. You can ask however to be served only a small quantity of it. Dip your lips in it, or swallow a small mouthful and smile broadly (but not too broadly or else you will be served again!).

If they offer you to share their meal (a rare thing) don't expect an unforgettable gastronomical experience. Indians only like nearly burnt meat and will not hesitate to boil together a fish and some game. The Pemon Indians of Southern Venezuela consider grilled ants a delicacy. These ants are the large winged stud Atta species, the leaf-cutting ant. As a matter of fact, it is not bad, leaving a peanut aftertaste.

BE CAREFUL OF THE ALCOHOL THAT YOU BRING INTO THE VILLAGES! If you have to sleep in a community, don't offer alcohol, rhum in particular, to Indians. The sweetest Amerindian becomes hard to bear and often violent under alcohol (they are not the only ones …). Don't drink ostensibly and don't leave the bottles conspicuously. This is also true in Creole villages.

Giving presents is another delicate subject. I have seen people arriving with bags full of old clothes and distributing them to Indians.
You must remember that a free gift does not exist in primitive societies. It always must be accompanied by a gift in return, there has to be a counterpart or else there is no equilibrium in the transaction. Don't think that Indians will be grateful or have some regard towards you if you act that way: they often consider that your gift is what you owe them as a consequence of some virtual obligation you might have towards them.
Once I wanted to please a dug-out canoe driver who had worked well and I offered him my forehead lamp. He was furious.
He wanted the lamp AND the fishing equipment!

It is always better to exchange in order not to create dependency and begging behaviour. There are always interesting things to exchange in villages: crafts, bows, blow-pipes, etc. But always choose things they like, not remains… Indians in general love things like knives, lamps and everything pertaining to fishing and hunting. The great majority of Amerindians use money to buy fuel, cartridges, etc…
A good way to help them is to buy their crafts if they sell some. You can of course bring candy for the children but choose some without paper wrapping or else you will find all the wrappings scattered throughout the village!

Don't expect the impossible from contacts with Indians. Some agencies use "meeting others" as a marketing device…
It is rather naïve if not foolish when applied to Amerindians.

They are fascinating but secret and introverted and will certainly not talk about their lives to a tourist spending two hours in their village.

It takes years for them to accept you.

The missionary whom I mentioned above told me that when he arrived with other members of his congregation, they settled outside the village and studied Indians for 5 years before starting their mission … 5 YEARS!

It seems to me that we have passed from the excesses of civilizing and evangelising missions to the excesses of humanitarian missions!

Culture loss phenomena must be analysed in the middle and long term…
For example, you will have the impression that you are doing a good deed by bringing medicine to Indians.
But you must realize that the result of the accumulation of this type of action leads Indians to abandon and finally forget their traditional medicine, which is often very efficient.
It is much easier for them to ask for a drug at the dispensary than to pass long hours in the forest looking for a certain root, for example…But if the dispensary disappears, they will be unable to cure themselves. It is possible to bring help on the short term but to destroy in the long run, I suppose that it is a moral problem which each one of us must solve according to one's conscience.

Personally, I always take great pleasure being with Amerindians. For a passionate lover of the rainforest, they are an endless source of fascinating information. I have true friends among them.
But if I have the choice, I prefer not to stay overnight in villages. I think that it is always better to camp in the forest, a little aside.
The nightly concert of barking dogs is followed at dawn by that of roosters and other domestic animals.
Their conception of hygiene is often quite different from ours, that is the least one can say. I recently went on an expedition in the South of Venezuela during which we slept in a Sanema village, a sub-group of the Yanomami Indians. As in most tribes, there is a communal central hut where visitors are welcomed, it is also used for festivals and other tribal meetings. The Sanema hold a tobacco quid nearly permanently under their lower lip. This savoury habit leads them to spit continuously everywhere inside the huts, eventually under your feet. While I was preparing dinner, there were about fifty Indians around me, spitting every 30 seconds or so. I must say that it somewhat cut our appetite… Furthermore, Sanemas very often suffer from tuberculosis.

Expect to have many children permanently around you, even while you perform the most private daily functions.
Finally, I have always been personally embarrassed by all the unpacking of equipment and food in front of people who possess nearly nothing…

In communities that regularly welcome tourists, the Indians, who are conscious of these small annoyances, often build aside a special hut for foreign visitors.