Sustainability is much more than a buzzword thrown around by marketing departments and politicians. Sustainability defines in a single concept the greatest challenge facing our species: the building of a human civilization that has the potential to last and coexist with Earth’s ecosystems. Given our current trajectories of increasing production, consumption, and extraction, this goal sounds like a pipe dream. While we’re debating  about the necessity or the possibility of building a sustainable civilization, the Kayapo are putting the concept into practice, just as their ancestors lived sustainably for thousands of years.

I will plant Brazil nut seedlings that will grow and give fruit. When I die, my children, my grandchildren, and the grandchildren of my grandchildren are going to be able to see them grow. When I no longer exist they will remember that I planted these Brazil nut trees with my own hands for them to break open and eat the nuts.

A pillar of the rainforest ecology

The Brazil nut (PI’Y in Kayapo) beautifully illustrates the co-evolutionary dependence of tree regeneration and animals; a co-dependent relationship that predominates in all tropical forests. It appears that the Brazil nut tree co-evolved with the agouti -or an agouti ancestor -a large forest floor rodent related to the guinea pig. The agouti is for all intents and purposes the only animal in the forest able to open the pods which it does by gnawing a hole in the outer casing to release the trove of richly nutritious seeds inside. Similar to the North American or European squirrel, the agouti is a scatter hoarder that buries some nuts for a rainy day. With the hard pod protecting the nuts until an agouti happens by, the Brazil nut tree ensures that some of its nuts escape non-scatter hoarding seed predators, and; that some nuts will be dispersed and buried away from under the shade of the mother tree in places where they will have a chance to catch a few rays of light and grow.

Furthermore, the Brazil nut tree relies on specific species of large bee for pollination; bees that survive only in undisturbed primary forest. Without the bee there can be no pollination and therefore no fruit production; and without primary forest there are no bees. Therefore the Brazil nut is perhaps the only non-timber product from tropical forest that has never been domesticated and relies totally on primary forest for its existence.

Kayapo harvesters also act as seed disperses for the Brazil nut tree because they too are able to open the hard seed casings and a certain number of nuts fall out of the baskets along forest trails when they are being transported. Perhaps the greatest service the Kayapo perform for the mighty Brazil nut tree is protection of their primary forest habitat with their co-evolved animal vectors intact.

Photo: ©Simone Giovine, Gathering Brazil nut pods

Fruits of the wild

Brazil nut is a cornerstone sustainable enterprise of the Kayapo, because of its abundance and forest ecology combined with reliable domestic markets for Brazil nuts in the food industry. These delicious nutritious nuts generate equitably distributed annual income for Kayapo communities. Every family or person may choose to collect and sell nuts; an activity that has always been practiced by the Kayapo and so fits well with Kayapo culture and worldview. Each year during the fruiting season of the Brazil nut tree from December to March in the rainy season, Kayapo families spread out through the forest and camp near concentrations of huge Brazil nut trees.

Photo: ©Simone Giovine, Transporting the nuts

Locating Brazil nut groves, navigating often long distances through forest and harvesting the nuts relies on knowledge and skills passed down for generations. Brazil nuts come packed like orange slices in hard wooden pods weighing up to  six pounds that grow on some of the tallest trees in the forest-which makes  it dangerous to spend time under massive Brazil nut trees during the fruiting season. Harvesters remove the fallen pods to places away from under the canopy of a Brazil nut tree where they break open the pods and remove the seeds (nuts) inside -an operation performed deftly with precise machete blows. The forest camps of Brazil nut harvesters are an opportunity for transmission of knowledge from old to young and, therefore, contribute to preservation and promotion of indigenous values and culture. 

Photo: ©Simone Giovine, Breaking Brazil nut pods with a machete.

Watch this short film, made by Floresta Protegida, on the harvest of the Brazil nut and become immersed the beauty of rainforest and the wisdom of its guardians:

An ancient seed

Brazil nut is the main economic enterprise of Kayapo communities, but not the only one. Cumaru (or Tonka bean as it is sometimes known) is another tree seed harvested by the Kayapo for its medicinal properties.

”Some time ago timber men cut down a lot of tonka bean trees. Only the ones that were in our land are still alive. In the ”white man’ land, they’ve already knocked down all of them.” – a Kayapo man

Cumaru trees are also large trees of primary forest and their nuts are harvested by the Kayapo from the forest floor during the summer dry season when cumaru fruits. Finding cumaru trees relies on traditional knowledge. Usually the hunters who first smell the loose bark of the seeds. The fragrance tells them that harvest time is near, so they inform the community. As with the Brazil nut, entire families camp for many days in the forest to collect cumaru seeds from the ground where they have fallen. Cumaru nuts are taken back to the village where people break them open with a hammer to extract the fragrant bean-like seed from its hard nut casing.

Photo: ©Simone Giovine, Breaking the shells of cumaru nuts.

The seeds are laid out to dry under the sun and then sold for fabrication of cosmetics by the UK company Lush: the main buyer of Kayapo cumaru. Dried cumaru seeds are much lighter and easier to transport than the tons of unshelled Brazil nuts. Cumaru generates important income during the dry season especially for the most remote communities where river transportation is difficult and production must be taken out by air at great expense. 

Learn more about the cultural and economic importance of Cumaru with another great short, made possible by Floresta Protegida:

A blueprint for sustainable development

Brazil nut and cumaru demonstrate the possibility for and importance of sustainable non-timber product enterprises to forest protection by local communities. The Kayapo, however, export another extremely valuable forest product: climate stability. The huge trees and the soil of their land store and absorb vast amounts of carbon (see blog to come).

Kayapo Brazil nut and cumaru seed enterprises are examples that demonstrate sustainable income generation for forest communities is possible. These enterprises may not generate the same order of profit as goldmining or logging; but unlike these industrial activities that ultimately enrich only a few while forever destroying the incalculable benefits of natural forest including sustainable development opportunity for local people; sustainable enterprise development benefits many over the long-term. 

Photos: ©Simone Giovine, storing and packaging

Brazil nut is a perfect blueprint for sustainable development: it can only be harvested from primary forest and generates sustainable and equitably distributed income for the communities that protect it. The defense of the forest, the well-being of the people, and the preservation of their culture are linked to a single economic activity. That’s sustainability in a nutshell.

The Brazilian government is trying to gut indigenous rights by passing a notorious bill, PL 191/2020 known as the “Bill of Devastation”. The proposed bill would open protected indigenous lands to mining and other industry; mining alone has already issued thousands of mining requests covering vast areas of pristine land. (you can find more info on its details and impact here)

Divide and Conquer

Today, the Kayapo are facing a campaign by the Bolsonaro government aimed at sowing confusion and division with the ultimate goal of taking their land without a fuss. Bolsonaro hopes to slide through the legislative changes without having to fight the Kayapo: a fight that would not be pretty and likely garner unflattering media attention. It would be much easier if the Indians would simply roll over and accept empty government promises of the moon, stars and perfect lives in exchange for their land. Towards this end and to avoid charges of human rights abuses and environmental destruction in face of indigenous outcry, the government has trotted out a few coopted Kayapo in front of the media to say that the Kayapo of southern Para support the government’s plans.

Kayapo NGOs perceived the trap and from the beginning stated that the few Kayapo individuals the government has in its corner do not speak for the majority of Kayapo communities that occupy most of Kayapo land. At the end of April, Kayapo leaders met in a village called Kriny where they discussed the future of their land. The Kayapo arrived at a united position to denounce the government plans to open indigenous lands to industry. This unity was facilitated by partner NGOs like ISA (Instituto Socioambiental) who explained the full implications of PL191 so that the Kayapo could gain a full understanding of nefarious government strategy and the trap being set with false promises.

Unity in the face of extinction

The outcome of the meeting was outstanding : Kayapo unity against the government’s plan -and declaration that they will fight. It is particularly notable that Kriny is a village involved with gold-mining and that most of the others involved in illegal activity were part of the meeting as well. This is a great example of the Kayapo organization and unity which have allowed them to claim their rights in the past and protect them until the present.

In their statement, 60 Kayapo villages repudiated the bill and rejected the government’s proposals :

(…)The government and its big business allies have managed to coopt a few Kayapo into supporting their plans in order to divide and weaken us; thereby avoiding a fight -a fight that will not be pretty. We know that the government seeks to open our lands and its riches to non-Kayapo “whites” for mining, farming, logging, hydro-electric projects and other economic activities that ultimately benefit only a few; whereas we Kayapo will be left landless and without means to survive. These industrial activities destroy our forests, pollute our rivers and reduce our lives to misery.

We must constantly struggle to survive as Kayapo on Kayapo land. We will never renege our
constitutional right to exclusive, permanent and sustainable use of our territories; nor will we
ever agree to our land being usurped for destructive industries of outsiders. We seek sustainable development autonomy that fits with our culture.

We ask parliamentarians and our allies to help us defend our survival, sovereignty over our
territory and the great forests that sustain us. Supporting indigenous people to protect their
territories supports life because it is we who keep forest standing.

Footage from the Kriny gathering, Associação Floresta Protegida

The threat intensifies

Between 2018 and 2020, a period that coincides with Bolsonaro’s campaign and mandate, deforestation in the Kayapó IL due to mining has already exceeded 31% of the total deforested in almost 40 years – between 1980 and 2017. “We are in constant struggle for our survival and to remain who we are. We are not going to give up our lands for false promises coming from the Bolsonaro government”, warn the Kayapó.

It is important to note that most Kayapo’s territory : 9 out of 10 million hectares is represented by the Kayapo-NGO alliance and remains untouched by loggers and miners even during 2020. This spectacular success is the result of the Kayapo territorial surveillance program funded by the Kayapo Project in partnership with Kayapo NGOs AFP, IR and IK. You can learn more about the results of Kayapo’s territorial surveillance in this 2020 report.

Despite these positive outcomes, the fight for the protection of Kayapo’s land is far from over. Gold prices are soaring and industry and the government will not abandon their attempts to access the riches hidden under the soil of the rainforest. More than 4.7 thousand hectares of gold mining were registered in just 3 years, between 2018 and 2020. The rate continued to rise in the first two months of the year 2021, when 256 hectares were deforested in the Kayapó IL, 18% more than January and February 2020.

“I don’t want them to end up with my land and water. We just want our forest standing so that our grandchildren can survive ” says a Kayapo woman.