In 1989, Tuira Kayapó sent a clear message that caught the attention of millions around the world. She brandished her machete in the face of a government official who was trying to convince indigenous leaders to accept a mega-dam project in the Amazon. Tuira slid the dull side of the machete across his cheeks and made it clear that damming the Xingu river would mean a declaration of war by the Kayapo. The footage showing her audacity and defiance was a powerful message that undermined support for the project.

Photo: Potássio Nēne/Estadao Contuendo 1989

The fight against the dam was led by the Kayapo indigenous people and local activists and began as soon as it was first proposed in 1975. The first phase of resistance culminated in 1989 when the Kayapo staged an impressive protest in Altamira. During the protests, Tuira spoke with the pride and the audacity the Kayapo are known for: 

Electricity won’t give us food. We need the rivers to flow freely. Don’t talk to us about relieving our ‘poverty’ – we are the richest people in Brazil. We are Indians.”

(See “Adios Amazonia?” in the ecologist, Vol 19 No 2, March/April 1989)

The Kayapo stood united and won the battle. Their defiance was instrumental in convincing the World Bank to withdraw funding.

But they lost the war

A few years later the Altamira hydro dam project on the Xingu River arose again and so indigenous resistance continued. In 2010, after two decades of petitions, protests in Brazil and around the world, as well as multiple court hearings, the construction of the Belo Monte dam at Altamira was approved under president Lula. In a letter to the President, Kayapó leaders said:

‘We don’t want this dam to destroy the ecosystems and the biodiversity that we have taken care of for millennia and which we can still preserve’. – source

Cacique Raoni holding his petition against Belo Monte in Paris 2011, Photo : Gert-Peter Bruch

Cacique Raoni traveled to Paris in 2011 to raise international awareness about the threats facing the survival of indigenous people and the Amazon forest in Brazil including the dam.

As it’s most often the case, economic interests prevail over human rights, the environment, and the opinions of scientists. The third biggest dam in the world was built in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, on the wild Xingu river. After pouring 3 million cubic meters of concrete and diverting most of Xingu’s flow through its turbines, the dam flooded 500km2 of rainforest and displaced tens of thousands of indigenous people. Nicknamed “Belo Monstro” (The Beautiful Monster) the dam has exacted an array of devastating consequences for the regional and global environment, for the local population. 

Flood and drought

The Xingu River forms a major aquatic ecosystem that enriches the forest ecosystem it flows through for some 1,700 km. The river is home to innumerable aquatic species adapted to dramatic natural fluctuations in water level and unique to the region. 

Inevitably, dam construction was going to have a serious environmental cost. Yet, the damage goes far beyond the flooding, In fact, the government advertised a reduction in flooding of indigenous lands from 1200 to 500 km2 under a new design. But reduced flooding did not protect these lands from destruction.

Belo Monte takes advantage of a large bend in the Xingu River by creating a shortcut in water flow to flow to the turbines on the other side of the bend. The dam didn’t flood the land of the Yudjá tribe, (meaning: the people of the river), it dried it out.

The ecological balance of the river is disrupted by the low water flow caused by the dam and the retention of nutrients and sediments as well as the blockage of fish migration. In February 2021, the operator of the dam received permission to reduce the flow through the Big Bend (Volta Grande) of the Xingu for an entire year down to only 13% leading to severe consequences for the ecology and traditional peoples living along the Xingu.

This image from the Earth Observation Unit of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) illustrates the diversion of the Xingu River into a man-made channel (at center), resulting in lower water levels in the Big Bend (pictured on the right in red). Photo credit: Coordenação-Geral de Observação da Terra/INPE on Visualhunt / CC BY-SA. Source: mongbay

Many fish species such as the plant-eating piranha; endangered white-cheeked spider monkey; and threatened turtle species such as the Arrau River turtle lost their breeding grounds. Fishing communities have been devastated by the decline of fish and turtle populations.

,Arrau River turtle, Photo: Wilfredor

“The Volta Grande will turn into a cemetery. A cemetery of fish, a cemetery of dead trees,” Bel Juruna, of the Juruna (Yudjá) Indigenous people quoted by mongbay

Not a ‘green’ energy source

Hydropower is still regarded as a renewable energy source, but dams do emit greenhouse gases. Plant matter, initially trapped under the water or later brought into the reservoir by the currents, results in the emission of significant amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Dams in tropical regions have the highest emissions, due to deforestation and methane production. Researchers estimate that 83% of methane emissions of all dams occurred within tropical climate zones.

The growth of algae is another major issue. During the dry season when reservoir levels are low, algal blooms harm many aquatic species. The retention of sediments and nutrients and the low oxygen environment at the bottom of the reservoir causes the transformation of mercury, naturally present in the soil to a poisonous form, damaging the environment and the local communities. 

The displacement of indigenous people and the destruction of their livelihood also have direct environmental consequences. The construction of roads and the influx of workers have impacted the entire region surrounding Belo Monte, with deforestation levels soaring throughout several indigenous territories. Without its indigenous guardians, the rainforest is far more likely to fall prey to the ever-expanding beef and logging industries. 

Hydropower development in the tropics is anything but green.. The negative impacts on in biodiverse forests and  pristine riverine ecosystems are similar. 

The final bill is not yet in

The construction of the dam cost 18 billion dollars and was supposed to massively boost Brazil’s energy production. In reality, the externalities it created will likely never be repaid with the underwhelming amount of electricity it produces.

The turbines were built to generate up to 11.000 MW per month, but they never came close to this figure, even during the high water rainy season.  The mid to upper Xingu River flows through a region that experiences a strong 4-5 month annual dry season which is increasingly exacerbated by climate change and deforestation. The Xingu just doesn’t have enough water to generate the power promised by dam supporters. This overestimation of Xingu’s flow and impact of drastic seasonal water level fluctuation was repeatedly highlighted by environmentalists. The maximum power generated in a month never surpassed 7000 MW, while during the low water dry season this figure averages a meager 540 MW.

 The Destruction of Traditional Communities 

The impact of the Belo Monte dam on the indigenous and other traditional forest people (descendants of rubber tappers) of the region was devastating. It’s a process repeated across the Amazon where infrastructure projects, mining, logging, and ranching spread into primary forest. As well as devastation of natural ecosystems, with roads and machines, comes disease, alcohol, drugs, and prostitution, to communities without experience with these foreign social ills. The city of Altamira, located close to the dam construction site, saw its murder rate increase by 147%, making it the deadliest city on Earth in 2015.

The promises of economic opportunities for displaced indigenous people quickly reveal their emptiness. Outside the forest indigenous people are thrown into a world they do not understand and are ill-prepared to navigate. Their knowledge, skills, culture, and identity are tied to the forest, and without it, they are left impoverished and alienated.

“I had a better life than anyone in São Paulo.  If I wanted to work my land, I did. If I didn’t, the land would be there the next day. If I wanted to fish, I did, but if I’d rather pick açaí, I did. I had a river, I had woods, I had tranquility. On the island, I didn’t have any doors. I had a place … And on the island, we didn’t get sick.” – an indigenous man speaks about the effect the dam has had on his life. His story is the norm for displaced indigenous peoples.

Indigenous fishing communities rely on the health of the riverine ecosystem for their survival. Photo: Martin Schoeller

It’s impossible to calculate the real cost of the dam, as ecological and social externalities keep rising. Once the forest is cut there is no going back. The damage cannot be undone, rainforests take a long time to recover if ever, and in any case much longer than we can afford. Brazil and the Amazon region are the first victims of the destruction of the rainforest. While companies and elites are cashing-in quick profits, the bill they leave will continue to be paid by everybody else. Most projects involving massive environmental destruction are sold to the public based on exaggerations, denial, and lies. The international community and civil society should remain vigilant and organized. 

Bigger than the monster 

Hydropower development is far from being the only threat to this unique riverine ecosystem: predatory fishing, logging, mining, farming, and cattle ranching all pose a deadly threat to the fine ecological balance in which countless species have evolved for millennia. Belo Monte is one of many gruesome examples where short-term economic development prevailed over the efforts of indigenous peoples and activists.

The early victory of the Kayapo time, but in the end industry won. A powerful image such as a Kayapo woman, Tuira, holding a machete to the face of a government official can galvanize the world’s attention for a moment, but the struggle between the indigenous cultures and capitalism cannot be won by indigenous people on their own.

A 2019 photo of Tuira Kayapo by katie_maehler

World leaders have pledged to halt deforestation by 2030, but we cannot afford to wait to see if they implement their promises. We should learn from past mistakes and find ways to support indigenous peoples across the globe, for they are defending our common future.

The Belo Monte dam didn’t flood or dry out Kayapo land, goldminers, loggers, and farmers are kept at bay. The Kayapo remain unconquered. They fought for their rights and earned ratification of their traditional territories forty years ago. They remain unconquered and continue to protect their vast forested territory through alliances with environmental NGOs which provide the tools to meet the threats of the 21st century.

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.