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.