The IPCC recently came out with yet another report on the state of the climate. A month later, the historic report is barely ever mentioned, and our civilization continues on its course towards a climate catastrophe. Not everyone is apathetic to the state of our ecosystem. Millions of people across the globe are aware of the severity of the situation, but the right course of effective action appears unclear. In this article, we’re going to take a look at new research that points us towards arguably the most important step that humanity should take to avoid a climate catastrophe.

The clock is ticking

The climate crisis is not an ‘all or nothing’ game. Every fraction of a degree of global temperature increase translates into billions worth of damage, millions of people dead and countless animals and plants destroyed. We might not remain under the relatively safe level of warming of 1.5 degrees recommended by the IPCC, but that doesn’t mean that we should give up fighting. 

Our goal is to reduce CO2  in the atmosphere. There are two ways to achieve this: by reducing emissions and by removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Yet, there are countless actions we can take as individuals to reduce emissions or prevent carbon release in the first place. Every action, no matter how small, counts. So where should we focus our efforts first?

Carbon that doesn’t fit in our budget

We suggest beginning with  “irrecoverable carbon”: an idea presented in a recent study “Protecting irrecoverable carbon in Earth’s ecosystems” published in the science journal Nature. 

The study defines irrecoverable carbon as carbon that cannot be recaptured by the ecosystem within 30 years.

When comparing the climate importance of ecosystems, the irrecoverability of the carbon should be evaluated in conjunction with the total amount of carbon contained by the ecosystem and the rate of loss due to direct human action. For example, tropical forests are rich in carbon stored in trees; but recovering this carbon after the trees are harvested takes decades or centuries because the big trees of primary forest grow back very slowly, if at all.

Different ecosystems have wildly varying levels of carbon recoverability. A tropical grassland might take 20 years to recover lost carbon whereas a tropical rainforest will take a century or more, mangroves take up to 150 years, and it takes centuries for peatlands to replenish their carbon stocks. When these factors are weighed, moist tropical forests, mangroves, and tropical peatlands rank the highest concern. Therefore, for climate mitigation, it makes a great deal more sense to preserve these ecosystems of high irrecoverable carbon in the first place

Photo: Martin Schoeller

The future of these highly irrecoverable ecosystems rests on a knife-edge of vulnerability to human exploitation. Their fate will likely decide the balance of the global climate. Around 80,000 acres of rainforest are irreversibly destroyed every day. Contrary to what many people believe, we can’t simply replant or restore a rainforest -the web of animal-plant interdependency driving forest regeneration is far too complex for simple replanting to mimic. Over the course of hundreds of years, the carbon eventually will find its way back into the trees and soil; and over millions of years, evolution will replenish the biodiversity with new species. But we do not have hundreds or millions of years. 

We must preserve the world’s remaining ecosystems that store high amounts of irrecoverable carbon. The conservation of wet tropical forests, peatlands, and mangroves must be humanity’s number one priority. The preservation of these ecosystems can appear as daunting as the fight against climate change. So, where do we start?

Defenders of the climate

Tropical forests of high irrecoverable carbon are also home to indigenous peoples, especially in the Amazon. Indigenous Amazonians tend to live in balance with the primary forest that sustains their cultures and livelihoods. We can see the impact of indigenous people on forests from space: satellite data shows that deforestation on indigenous lands in the Amazon basin is twice as low as compared to non-indigenous protected areas. Empowering indigenous people to uphold their rights to territory and traditional culture offers an important path to climate mitigation. Similarly, if empowered for protection, local and indigenous communities living near tropical forests in Asia and Africa offer similar conservation opportunities. It is estimated that indigenous peoples and local communities manage 293 Gt C of carbon in tropical forests. 

It is estimated that indigenous peoples and local communities manage 293 Gt C of carbon in tropical forests. 

However, the pace of logging and mining and the spread of agriculture is accelerating.  No longer are any forests safe from predatory exploitation and/or deforestation; especially in the tropics where governance is often very weak. Likewise, indigenous lands everywhere are under increasing industrial pressure. Indigenous people and local communities often have few tools to defend their land against a wave of capitalist pressure and little or no voice in national society.  This is where we can help. The Kayapo people of the highly threatened Southeastern Amazon in Brazil provide a model of empowerment through alliances with outside conservation partners. The Kayapo allied with conservation NGOs more than two decades ago to help them navigate within a foreign culture and gain the capacity to continue defending and controlling their land in a lawless region of high deforestation.  

Satellite imagery shows that over nine million hectares of ratified Kayapo indigenous territory remain intact within a maelstrom of deforestation. This nine million hectares or almost 90% of Kayapo territory is land controlled by the Kayapo who have allied with the conservation movement and reject illegal activity namely goldmining, logging, and predatory fishing. More on the success of the Kayapo-NGO alliance here.

“Indigenous peoples must be part of the solution to climate change. This is because they have the traditional knowledge of their ancestors. The important value of that knowledge simply cannot — and must not — be understated,”

Patricia Espinosa,UN Climate Change Executive Secretary

Time to act

Anyone serious about fighting climate change should find a way to support the indigenous people from the Amazon to West Papua. 

These people are fighting every day against the entire machine of our industrial civilization and need all the support they can get. They are fighting for their survival, but by doing so, they are fighting for the survival of our entire species. We cannot release the carbon stored in the soil and the trees of these ancient forests without putting humanity on track for a devastating climate crisis.

Only a third of rainforests are left, but seventy percent of this remainder are largely intact, wild forest.  

This number should give us hope for the future and energy to act in the present. A high percentage of the remaining tropical forests are still wild, biodiverse, and store hundreds of hundreds of gigatonnes of CO2. We have irreversibly lost hundreds of millions of hectares of rainforest, but we still have a chance to save more than a billion if we choose to act urgently and effectively. Start by contributing directly to the Kayapo territorial surveillance program. The ICFC is raising funds for new Kayapo guard posts, operating in the months when the forest is the most vulnerable. Join the fight and become an ally of the Kayapo.

Traditional Indigenous societies are outstanding stewards of the natural world. This fact is backed by satellite data showing that deforestation rates on indigenous lands in the Amazon basin are twice as low as compared to non-indigenous protected areas (UN report). This result is unsurprising. If indigenous people had not lived in harmony with nature, they would have disappeared long ago. A vibrant society like the Kayapo continuing to thrive in a biodiverse forest attests to their ability to protect ecosystems. Today, however, indigenous culture and knowledge that sustained these people and their forests for thousands of years can not guarantee the continued preservation of either.

Ancient cultures, capitalist states

All indigenous lands are now heavily pressured by economic forces and the global economy.  Indigenous peoples are often marginalized, repressed and their rights violated. Brazil has become a world leader in this process of violating indigenous rights and taking over over indigenous land.

Bolsonaro’s government is not shy about its contempt for indigenous rights. Several bills before congress propose opening indigenous lands to industrial mining, logging, and agriculture while ignoring environmental regulations and the constitutional rights of indigenous people. We have discussed the devastating consequences of the proposed bills in a previous blog, but in short, notwithstanding the protected status of indigenous territories under the constitution, the aim is to open vast tracts of indigenous territories to the industry as well as stripping the indigenous landowners of veto power. This article by Amazon Watch details four legislative projects that could become law soon and would have genocidal and ecocidal consequences. (the PL 490 just passed in Congress).

Kayapo protest blocking the BR163 highway. Photo: Instituto Kabu

To make this diabolical land-grab more palatable to the public and the international community, the government is portraying this plan for the wholesale destruction of the Amazon forest as good for indigenous people who, claims the government, no longer wish to live in the forest and will benefit from industrial projects on their land. This campaign of deception sows confusion and infighting among indigenous groups who possess little grasp of capitalist society and the powerful forces poised to engulf their world.  

How can indigenous people deal with a proto-fascist government, backed by powerful industry interests? Most have very little understanding or experience in dealing with an utterly foreign capitalist society.  This is one area where their NGO allies play a vital role: informing on threats and socioeconomic and political processes, facilitating unity, and giving indigenous people the means for a voice in national society. Lacking outside help, indigenous people are vulnerable to the traps set for them by outsiders coveting the riches on their land. 

A recent example of this deception is the media campaign orchestrated by Bolsonaro’s government surrounding bill 191/2020. Bolsonaro has appeared in front of the cameras with Kayapo involved in illegal gold-mining and logging who claim their people support the government’s plans to open their territories to industry. Nothing could be farther from the truth for the majority of Kayapo who are struggling to protect their land from goldmining and logging. The Kayapo united, informed and supported by their NGOs have repudiated this claim.

At the end of April, Kayapo leaders met in the village of Kriny to denounce the government’s plans to gut indigenous rights and the idea that somehow destruction of their forests and cultures will herald a better future. The meeting itself and full understanding of the bill changes before congress was supported by the three Kayapo NGOs (AFP, IK and IR) and national partner NGO ISA (Instituto Socioambiental). Without this support, it would have been impossible for the semi-literate Kayapo living in far-flung communities and speaking little of the national language Portuguese to gain a full understanding of the government’s plans and to unify in resistance to the trap being set with false promises.

Alliances that deliver results

Information and understanding about the wider world combined with the means to meet are but one vital facet of survival strategy provided by the Kayapo NGOs and their conservation and indigenous rights partners. The effectiveness of the full portfolio of NGO investment which also includes sustainable income generation for Kayapo communities and territorial surveillance is strikingly clear from space. 

Satellite images show that nine out of the 10.2 million hectares of Kayapo ratified indigenous territory remain intact within a maelstrom of deforestation. This nine million hectares or almost 90% of Kayapo territory is land controlled by the Kayapo who have allied with the conservation movement and reject illegal activity namely goldmining, logging, and predatory fishing.Critically, NGO partnerships support Kayapo territorial surveillance-based from a series of border guard posts, and; development of sustainable enterprises that fit with Kayapo culture and generate equitably distributed income for Kayapo communities. Learn more about the sport fishing initiative and the brazil nut trade, both of which are made possible with the outside support of NGOs. 

Conservation Value

Photo: Pedro Peloso

Approximately 1.2 million hectares of  Kayapo indigenous territory along an eastern band do not participate in the NGO alliance and, therefore, receive no outside conservation and development investment. Here satellite imagery reveals a much different story than NGO-represented Kayapo territory: this eastern band has been heavily invaded, deforested, and degraded by goldmining and logging. The Kayapo of this area were co-opted into involvement in illegal activity before the arrival of NGOs. Subsequently and inevitably they have lost control over this area which has become the domain of hundreds of goldminers and loggers.  The NGO alliance is trying to contain illegal mining is advancing into eastern Kayapo land; polluting and destroying rivers and forests and introducing alcohol, drugs, prostitution, and disease to innocent communities.

Contrasting the satellite imagery of these two areas of Kayapo territory proves the effectiveness of outside support for the Kayapo’s ability to protect most of their land.

The Kriny meeting was a watershed moment. Kayapo leaders who participated in this meeting represented both NGO-allied communities from across vast Kayapo land and communities from the east involved with illegal activity.  Therefore, the united Kayapo statement against the government plan to take over indigenous land was particularly strong as it included some of the eastern communities involved with an illegal activity that the government had been showcasing as supporters.  The Kriny manifesto, therefore, is a comprehensive repudiation of the government’s attempt to lead the world into believing widespread indigenous support exists for the draft bills and that Indians wish to abandon their lives in the forest. We believe the Kayapo-NGO alliance will prevail in this struggle between right and wrong.

Become an ally

It’s not just about Bolsonaro. The entire global economy hungers to devour every centimeter of the world’s remaining ecosystems. Gold prices keep rising as does the demand for beef, soy timber, fish and agricultural land. Kayapo territory is huge, the size of a small country; and it’s covered by primary forest with huge trees and gold under the soil. 10,000 Kayapo on their own cannot secure the integrity of their territory against the global economy in a region without law and with a government plotting against them. The Kayapo need outside help to survive, they need resources and legal assistance…and the world needs the Kayapo. We need their culture and fighting spirit to keep the forest standing and the carbon stored in their trees and their soil from entering the atmosphere

Barbara Zimmerman, director of the Kayapo Project for the International Conservation Fund of Canada and the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund.

“The Kayapo are unconquered but face today what the warrior tribes of the American plains 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. 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 Amazon forest upon which their culture and livelihood is based.”– Barbara Zimmerman, director of the Kayapo Project for the International Conservation Fund of Canada and the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund,

Photo: Martin Schoeller

Join the Kayapo-NGO alliance. Contribute directly to Kayapo territorial surveillance. We are trying to raise funds for new Kayapo guard posts, operating in the months when the forest is the most vulnerable. Join the fight and become an ally of the Kayapo.

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.