GLobal wildlife conservation: guest blog


The Spirit of Survival – Written by: LINDSAY RENICK MAYER from Global Wildlife Conservation Original Blog


Kayapo Indigenous People Call on World to Help Protect Amazonia Against Extractive Industry, Brazilian Government


That was how the Kayapo Indigenous people approached the illegal goldmining camp that had, for months, been destroying part of the Amazon rainforest, home to countless animals and plants, and polluting the nearby river in the Kayapo’s ratified territory of Bau.

As 17 Kayapo came upon the camp in mid-October, after traveling for two days by boat and then by foot, any noise would have been drowned out anyhow by the goldminers’ hydraulic machines. Their actions resulted in the peaceful removal of the trespassers from the land, which was accessible to these outsiders only by plane, and the complete dismantling of the camp.

“The area the goldminers destroyed is very large and the streams are badly damaged,” said Bepmoro-I, from the village of Bau located in Bau Indigenous Territory. “It’s awful there. But we blocked off the airstrip and so now the streams and forest will begin to recover. If goldminers come back, we will go and remove them again.”

Kayapo wait with goldminers from the illegal “Novo Horizonte” illegal gold mine in the Kayapo Bau territory. The air strip supplied their camp and here the goldminers wait to be picked up by their employer.

This is not the first time the Kayapo have had to remove invaders from 23 million acres of their rainforest and savanna territory in the southeastern region of the Brazilian Amazon, an area the size of the state of Virginia. For more than 40 years, the Kayapo have fought off many outsiders looking to exploit their natural resources. They have done so with the partnership of multiple NGOs, including Conservation International, Environmental Defense Fund, and GWC partner, the International Conservation Fund of Canada.

The removal of the goldmining camp came against the backdrop of a Brazilian Federal Government that has been considering a bill this year that would effectively legalize goldmining and other extractive industries in Indigenous territories across Brazil. This marks the latest in an onslaught of threats to Brazil’s Indigenous People’s cultures, lives and land, and to the wildlife and ecosystems that they protect.

A Message to the World

The Kayapo are anything but silent against the congressional bill, Proposed Law 191/2020, that could significantly weaken protection of Amazonia, and they want the world to know what is going on.

More than 6,000 Kayapo from 56 communities of the Bau, Capoto/Jarina, Kayapo, Las Casas and Mekragnoti Indigenous Territory, the Indigenous organizations Associação Floresta Protegida, Instituto Kabu and Instituto Raoni recently published a declaration expressing their opposition to the bill.

“How could we be in favor of such an activity that profoundly negatively impacts our environment, society and communities?” the letter asks. “How could we deprive our children and grandchildren of a vital territory that supports our livelihoods, autonomy, customs and traditions, as guaranteed by the federal constitution? We appeal to all Brazilians and international society to support our struggle to protect our forest and demand that the government respect the federal constitution and our right to use our territories according to our customs; as well as the right of all people to an ecologically balanced environment.” [READ THE FULL STATEMENT FROM THE KAYAPO]

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro introduced the proposed law in February of 2020 to open up demarcated territories to the extractive industries of mining, oil and natural gas. Two other proposed laws would have similar devastating effects: one aimed at the establishment of a general environmental licensing law, which would essentially allow industry to easily obtain licenses for environmentally damaging extractive activities easily—even through self-declaration (PL3729/2004); and another that would grant amnesty to invaders and in essence encourage deforestation and land-grabbing (PL 2633/2020).

“I have long admired the great courage of the Kayapo and their undying commitment to protecting their traditional lands, ever since I first visited them in 1991 with Barbara Zimmerman to help her establish her long-running program to work with these amazing people,” said Russ Mittermeier, GWC Chief Conservation Officer, who has visited the Kayapo lands and other parts of the Xingu region a number of times over the past three decades.  “If the Brazilian government opens indigenous territories such as those of the Kayapo and their neighbors to legal goldmining and logging, this could signal a death knell for the magnificent forests of Amazonia and the great and wonderfully diverse Indigenous Peoples who call it home. The vast forests of Amazonia are critical to the health of our planet, and the Kayapo and their fellow indigenous peoples are its most important guardians.”

We Won’t Give Up’

The Kayapo protect more than 2,000 kilometers of heavily threatened borders around their territory. Kayapo land represents the last large block of forest in the southeastern Amazon and stores an estimated 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon. It is hard to understate the critical importance of the Amazon rainforest—one of the world’s five designated High Biodiversity Wilderness Areas and home to one-quarter of Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity—to the health of the planet, and the critical role that the Kayapo and other Indigenous communities play in protecting it. An estimated 20 million Indigenous people from more than 350 Indigenous groups call the forests of Amazonia home and depend on their natural habitats and resources for their livelihoods and culture.

(Photo by Antonio Briceno)

Yet the forests of Amazonia continues to come under serious threats. Deforestation in 2019 and 2020 was the highest it has been since 2008 and represents a doubling in forest loss over 2012. Amazonia has experienced some of its worst fire seasons in the last two years, a result of previous deforestation, primarily for the expansion cattle ranching and cattle feed crops (soybeans), leaving a drier local microclimate. The fires themselves are often purposely started to clear land for agriculture, mostly cattle and cattle feed for export to the United States, EU, China and other countries.

“The Kayapo face today face what Native America Tribes faced in the mid-1800s: an infinitely more numerous and better armed capitalist society building along their borders and slavering to devour their land no matter the law,” said Barbara Zimmerman, director of the Kayapo Project for the International Conservation Fund of Canada and the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund. “The difference is timing: in the 21st century there exist indigenous rights, international media, the internet and NGO Indigenous allies. We are about to see whether these factors help the Kayapo to save themselves and a vast tract of Amazonia forest upon which their culture and livelihoods are based. If the Kayapo can win, if they can hold out, then I think that anything can be achieved in the conservation of our planet.”

For the Kayapo, beating these bills, which the Brazilian Congress could vote on as early as February, and continuing to protect the forests of Amazonia is going to depend on the willingness of the rest of the world to help safeguard this irreplaceable place. But no matter what, the Kayapo say that they are not going to give up.

Photo by Cristina Mittermeier

“We won’t stop doing this work. We won’t give up. We are going to keep fighting,” Bepmoro-I said. “We would like the entire world to see our effort, the work of the Kayapo people to protect our land and our culture—and help us with the resources we need to continue protecting our land and rivers.”

You can help. Make a donation to the Kayapo Fund today at Kayapo.org

Most of the time thinking about deforestation is depressing and discouraging. And while this article starts on a grim note, bear with me, by the end you will have more hope and you’ll be ready to take effective action today!

2019 & 2020: catastrophic years for the Amazon

Do you remember how bad the summer of 2019 was for the Amazon rainforest? The massive fires, the skyrocketing levels of deforestation, the denial and spiteful rhetoric by the Brazilian government… The reason why many people remember these forest fires is not just because they were particularly bad, the worst levels of deforestation since 2008, but because the media covered them in a manner that reflects the severity of the situation. Social media played a huge role in elevating the topic in the public consciousness and because of this, it was profitable for regular media to report on it. Of course, they did so in the usual, sensationalist manner, focusing on the spectacle and oversimplifying the root causes of the crisis by blaming one evil person, Bolsonaro. It’s not like he didn’t deserve all the criticism, but the systemic problems which lead to this, were as usual, ignored. Capitalism’s insatiable need for growth, consumerism’s destructive nature and the racism against indigenous peoples are not great topics for selling advertisements, therefor we can’t expect the media to discuss them.

Nevertheless, many people around the world realized that there is a major crisis going on in the Amazon. Millions prayed for rain and hoped for change. For a brief moment, many thought that this must be a turning point, that governments were going to take serious and urgent measures to halt deforestation, and that we’ll start moving towards a better future for tropical conservation. Unfortunately, thoughts, prayers, likes and retweets alone can’t do much to change the real world, unless they are backed by actions. The rain season finally came, and most people moved along. Bolsonaro continued his crusade against the territorial rights of indigenous people and gave green light for the illegal destruction of their forests. Capitalism continued to demand more meat, soy, gold and timber…

In the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, we saw many articles and images showing a slow down of environmental destruction and pollution, because of the lockdowns. Some hoped that this would slow down tropical deforestation, but the fires were about to sweep through the Amazon once again. During the dry season, humans start setting fires in order to clear up new land for grazing cows and plating soy. Last summer, we didn’t hear much about forest fires. Of course, environmental outlets reported on the situation, but there was no serious coverage by the mainstream media. While this may have led people to believe that the situation was not so severe, the reality on the ground was dire. Deforestation rates in the Amazon have increased by nearly 10% in comparison with 2019, which was already a catastrophic year for Earth’s most biodiverse forest ecosystem. An area of at least 11,000 km2 was destroyed. The panic of the pandemic and the fear of an economic crisis were ideal pretexts for uncontrolled devastation.

How can 2021 be any better?

Is 2021 going to be bad for the Amazon rainforest? Yes, most certainly. Deforestation rates have been unsustainable for decades, there is absolutely no reason to believe that things will magically change now. We saw that even during an economic recession in 2020, the destruction of the forest accelerated. Capitalism has one solution to everything : growth, and I don’t see this changing in the near future. Unless the world’s economy grinds to a halt, we know that the pressure on the forests will keep on increasing. Reversing this worsening trend seems to be an impossible challenge. Both climate change and forest degradation are making the Amazon more vulnerable to fires, which cascades into even more deforestation. A vicious cycle that is hard to slow down, let alone to stop. Furthermore, the looming economic crisis resulting from the pandemic is already being used as an excuse to slow down international efforts to combat climate change and deforestation. We know that the pandemic is not going to be the last major global crisis humanity is going to face in the coming decades. So is there any hope left for the future of the Amazon?

We don’t need to wait for the summer to put out a couple of angry tweets and share some depressing photos of burning trees and scorched animals. Instead of praying, hoping and gesturing, we have to do whatever we can in the present, in order to increase our chances of experiencing a brighter future. But can we, regular people, really do something to have a real impact?

Personal and systemic change

Living in the West and taking action against deforestation can appear as a very abstract thing to do. Generally, we think of two types of solutions. On a personal level, we can lower our consumption of goods related to Amazon deforestation. This can feel good, taking action is empowering, it appeases our consciousness and it’s certainly effective to some extent. Global markets respond to our demand, and less demand for beef and exotic timber will eventually translate into less deforestation. Taking political action can also be very effective, after all our politicians have the power to control the economic and diplomatic levers of our societies. Yet it’s hard to see how our small electoral victories at home can translate into effective action that will prevent the damage that is currently being done to the Amazon. It’s hard to feel satisfied with this type of action, when the news from the forest are often so grim. We are close to dangerous tipping points that could push forest degradation beyond our control. While we’re fighting to build up the environmental consciousness of our societies, while we’re waiting for the market to respond to our better consumer choices and while we’re lobbying our institutions to make effective structural changes, we must directly support the people who are on the ground defending the forest from the invasion of the industrial world. If we want to protect the tropical forests, if we want to avoid a complete disaster, supporting the rights of indigenous peoples is the most effective type of action that we could be taking today.

They give us hope

In South East Amazonia, right at the front-lines deforestation lays a huge area of pristine rainforest guarded by the Kayapo. Against all odds, these Indigenous Peoples have managed to secure, constitutionally recognized, territorial rights over an area of 100,000 km2. This land is three times the size of Belgium, bigger than Iceland or South Korea. Thanks to Kayapo’s social organization and warrior attitude, they have managed to preserve both their forest and their cultural identity. Partnering with international NGOs has allowed the them to control the unfathomably large border of their territory, despite the lack of support from the government. Studies have shown that deforestation, mining and grazing remain outside of their lands despite the massive exploitation around their borders. They have managed to protect their lands for decades, but that doesn’t mean that they will be able to do this forever on their own.

It’s time to act

The Brazilian government has turned its back on the indigenous peoples and is in fact painting their territorial rights as an unjust privilege that is hampering the economic development of the country. Currently, the Kayapo Project is trying to raise funds in order to strengthen the territorial integrity of the Kayapo land along the mighty rivers Xingu and Iriri. The Kayapo shouldn’t be alone in this fight. While they are trying to protect their land and culture, they are also protecting the future of all of humanity. Supporting this campaign is likely the N°1 thing that you could do in order to help protect this large piece of the Amazon forest in 2021.

There are two ways in which you can do this: support the campaign directly and/or help them spread the word. Sure, sharing on social media is great and it doesn’t take much effort, but let’s try to do something even more effective: old fashioned talking to people. You will find concise information about the Kayapo right on the fundraiser page, so soak it in and talk to a couple of friends or family about the importance of this forest. Talk to them about the incredible effectiveness and bravery of the Kayapo. Convince them to support the campaign and convince them to follow your example and talk to someone else they know. When we are organized and when we speak with courage we can achieve truly great things!

We need to act swiftly, once destroyed, the rainforest is not going to come back. The choices we make today will shape the world for thousands of years ahead. The Kayapo have made the choice to continue living in a way which is truly sustainable and enables the protection of this ancient ecosystem. Do we chose to support and fight for them?