During 2020, amidst the chaos of the pandemic, rising levels of deforestation, a spike in hateful rhetoric and defunding of Brazil’s environmental institutions, the Kayapo people have managed to stand their ground and defend their land, thanks to  courage, determination, organization and their alliances with NGO’s.

A successful year

A new report by Kayapo partner ICFC reveals the success of Kayapo territorial  surveillance program aimed at ensuring survival of over nine million hectares of ratified Kayapo indigenous territory and intact primary forest, savanna and riverine ecosystems. Defending such a vast territory, rich in natural  resources is a tough task, to put it mildly. Kayapo rivers and forest brim with  fish  and high value timber and, unfortunately, gold. Frontier society slavers to devour these riches.

Seen from space, the success of these alliances is striking: nine million hectares of NGO-represented Kayapo territory remained protected and no new invasions occurred in 2020; whereas approximately 1.2 million hectares of Kayapo territory in an eastern band that does not partner with NGOs and receives no outside conservation investment continued down the ruinous path of heavy degradation by logging and goldmining.

During 2020, ten guard posts located at vulnerable access points along the border operated from four to six months, despite all the challenges posed by the pandemic. Over 500 Kayapo men performed guard post duty and made at least one week’s wages which provides significant income for a Kayapo family to buy the supplies they need.

Operating a guard post for months in remote locations   poses  logistical challenges. Roads are unpaved and largely unmaintained;rivers are rock strewn and treacherous during the low water dry season. For instance, supplying the Iriri guard post requires transportl over 400 km (250 miles) of precarious dirt road to the banks of the Iriri river. Next supplies are loaded into motorized canoes and transported 150 km (94 miles) up the Iriri river to the guard post!

Illegal Fishing

If allowed entry, commercial fishermen using nets devastate fish stocks in pristine Kayapo rivers.. Kayapo culture and livelihoods depend on healthy ecosystems and they protect  some of the last stretches of wild rivers on the planet.  The Xingu guard post controls the northern access to this mighty river on Kayapo territory such that the Kayapo were able to  establish a catch-and-release sport fishery with partner “Untamed Angling” to generate sustainable income for communities. However, illegal fishermen entering the Xingu from the southern limit of Kayapo land were a problem until the Raoni and Kenmakaty posts were established. Both posts made good progress this year to teach fishermen that they may no longer fish the Xingu on Kayapo land. Several fishermen groups were sent out and their fishing gear confiscated or destroyed. Guard teams from posts on the Curua river in the northwest and the Pitxatxa river in the Midwest made similar progress to stop predatory fishing in their areas. 

The Kakakuben guard post on the Pitxatxa river of the western border.


Logging is often the first step in conversion of a biodiverse tropical forest to a monoculture field; therefore,  keeping Kayapo land logging free is essential. 

Loggers have been unable to gain entry to territory in the northeast represented by Kayapo NGO Associação Floresta Protegida. However, before the guard post program could be established properly in the west , loggers had been gaining entry to the Kayapo’s TI Mekragnoti from the nearby BR 163 highway and connecting roads of neighbouring ranches. It has been a process to halt logging, but the Achilles heel of the loggers is that they must build bridges for their trucks to cross rivers -and bridges can be removed. Kayapo guard teams from the Kakakuben and Krimei guard posts dismantled two loggers’ bridges crossing the Pitxatxa river.

Kayapo guards destroying a bridge across the Pitxatxa river.

These crossings had been dismantled by the Kayapo in 2019 but the loggers returned reinforcing the need for constant vigilance. Being thwarted from extracting timber during the dry season when transport conditions are optimal deals a heavy financial blow to loggers and it is doubtful they will attempt re-entry this year.   There were no new logging invasions of NGO Kayapo territory in 2020 and two previous entry points (bridges) were neutralized by the Krimei and Kakakuben posts that together with the Pukatoti and Kraynhoken guards patrol some 200 km (160 miles) of the western border along the Pitxatxa river.


The scourge of goldmining beats incessantly on Kayapo doors. Without helicopter-supported government enforcement, goldmining with road access is almost impossible to remove once it gains a foothold. Roads provide the means to bring in heavy excavating equipment as well as supporting economical transport of fuel and supplies. With roads, the flood gates open. Therefore, the objective of Kayapo surveillance is to keep goldmining from entering Kayapo territory in the first place. The western guard posts prevent goldminers as well as loggers from bridging the border rivers; and, therefore,  they cannot bring in the heavy machinery they need to wreak havoc.

Seventeen Kayapo traveled for almost three days by river and by foot and surprised 40 goldminers working at the Novo Horizonte goldmine. This goldmine had been operating for many years in the interior of the TI Bau but had not grown to unmanageable size because there was no road access to bring in heavy machinery. Goldminers were unable to bridge the Curua river near the border of the TI Bau because this river is large. Therefore, the Kayapo were able to close down Novo Horizonte on their own without the need for government forces. They seized weapons, motorcycles and mining equipment. 

Seized items from the Novo Horizonte goldmine.

Expeditions and Air surveillance

Expeditions by Kayapo teams and air surveillance by Kayapo NGO’s complement surveillance by guard posts. They fill gaps in territory that guard post teams cannot reach or areas where funding is not yet available to operate a guard post. Four expeditions were performed in 2020. One managed to bust the Novo Horizonte goldmine mentioned above while the others were aimed at clearing overgrown sections of their border, and locating the federal government geodesic disks that officially demarcate indigenous territorial borders so that ranchers can discern the border and not encroach on indigenous land.

Air surveillance is necessary due to the rough terrain and the sheer size of the territory. Overflights are used to confirm and map illegal activity;   for example, clandestine airstrips that support the advance of goldmining,   and monitoring the encroachment by ranchers. 

Overflight of the active Paiabanha clandestine airstrip, possibly used for drug running. Photo taken by AFP

Political Mobilization

The Kayapo face powerful forces;surveillance is essential but on its own cannot ensure  survival.. Although the constitution of Brazil enshrines the permanence and exclusivity of indigenous land rights, the government  has vowed nevertheless to open indigenous lands to mining and other industry. A key element of indigenous territorial protection, therefore, is political mobilization and protest in defense of constitutional rights: a voice in national society being a must. The three Kayapo NGOs provide poles of organization and function in outside society that imparts voice.  

For example, in August 2020 the northwestern Kayapo blockaded the BR 163 highway – the main export artery for soy and other agricultural products from the south—to pressure the government to renew the environmental compensation that is their legal right. The highway blockade forced a judicial review of the Kayapo’s case. The judge ruled in favour of the Kayapo and deemed their case could proceed. The Instituto Kabu will pursue a lawsuit until their legally mandated environmental compensation is released.

Kayapo from Instituto Kabu blockading the BR 163 highway.

The Kayapo of the NGO alliance safeguard the largest single tract of tropical forest under some form of protection anywhere in the world and the last intact forest ecosystems and refugia for biodiversity surviving in the entire southeastern Amazon. The Kayapo have proven that with partnerships they can continue to protect this vast area against intense invasion and deforestation forces even in a very unfavorable political climate. They will need ongoing philanthropic support to continue to deliver this unparalleled ecosystem and conservation service to the world. This year their greatest funding need is for guard posts.  Learn more about the fundraiser here: