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: 

Most of the time thinking about deforestation is depressing and discouraging. And while this article starts on a grim note, bear with me, by the end you will have more hope and you’ll be ready to take effective action today!

2019 & 2020: catastrophic years for the Amazon

Do you remember how bad the summer of 2019 was for the Amazon rainforest? The massive fires, the skyrocketing levels of deforestation, the denial and spiteful rhetoric by the Brazilian government… The reason why many people remember these forest fires is not just because they were particularly bad, the worst levels of deforestation since 2008, but because the media covered them in a manner that reflects the severity of the situation. Social media played a huge role in elevating the topic in the public consciousness and because of this, it was profitable for regular media to report on it. Of course, they did so in the usual, sensationalist manner, focusing on the spectacle and oversimplifying the root causes of the crisis by blaming one evil person, Bolsonaro. It’s not like he didn’t deserve all the criticism, but the systemic problems which lead to this, were as usual, ignored. Capitalism’s insatiable need for growth, consumerism’s destructive nature and the racism against indigenous peoples are not great topics for selling advertisements, therefor we can’t expect the media to discuss them.

Nevertheless, many people around the world realized that there is a major crisis going on in the Amazon. Millions prayed for rain and hoped for change. For a brief moment, many thought that this must be a turning point, that governments were going to take serious and urgent measures to halt deforestation, and that we’ll start moving towards a better future for tropical conservation. Unfortunately, thoughts, prayers, likes and retweets alone can’t do much to change the real world, unless they are backed by actions. The rain season finally came, and most people moved along. Bolsonaro continued his crusade against the territorial rights of indigenous people and gave green light for the illegal destruction of their forests. Capitalism continued to demand more meat, soy, gold and timber…

In the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, we saw many articles and images showing a slow down of environmental destruction and pollution, because of the lockdowns. Some hoped that this would slow down tropical deforestation, but the fires were about to sweep through the Amazon once again. During the dry season, humans start setting fires in order to clear up new land for grazing cows and plating soy. Last summer, we didn’t hear much about forest fires. Of course, environmental outlets reported on the situation, but there was no serious coverage by the mainstream media. While this may have led people to believe that the situation was not so severe, the reality on the ground was dire. Deforestation rates in the Amazon have increased by nearly 10% in comparison with 2019, which was already a catastrophic year for Earth’s most biodiverse forest ecosystem. An area of at least 11,000 km2 was destroyed. The panic of the pandemic and the fear of an economic crisis were ideal pretexts for uncontrolled devastation.

How can 2021 be any better?

Is 2021 going to be bad for the Amazon rainforest? Yes, most certainly. Deforestation rates have been unsustainable for decades, there is absolutely no reason to believe that things will magically change now. We saw that even during an economic recession in 2020, the destruction of the forest accelerated. Capitalism has one solution to everything : growth, and I don’t see this changing in the near future. Unless the world’s economy grinds to a halt, we know that the pressure on the forests will keep on increasing. Reversing this worsening trend seems to be an impossible challenge. Both climate change and forest degradation are making the Amazon more vulnerable to fires, which cascades into even more deforestation. A vicious cycle that is hard to slow down, let alone to stop. Furthermore, the looming economic crisis resulting from the pandemic is already being used as an excuse to slow down international efforts to combat climate change and deforestation. We know that the pandemic is not going to be the last major global crisis humanity is going to face in the coming decades. So is there any hope left for the future of the Amazon?

We don’t need to wait for the summer to put out a couple of angry tweets and share some depressing photos of burning trees and scorched animals. Instead of praying, hoping and gesturing, we have to do whatever we can in the present, in order to increase our chances of experiencing a brighter future. But can we, regular people, really do something to have a real impact?

Personal and systemic change

Living in the West and taking action against deforestation can appear as a very abstract thing to do. Generally, we think of two types of solutions. On a personal level, we can lower our consumption of goods related to Amazon deforestation. This can feel good, taking action is empowering, it appeases our consciousness and it’s certainly effective to some extent. Global markets respond to our demand, and less demand for beef and exotic timber will eventually translate into less deforestation. Taking political action can also be very effective, after all our politicians have the power to control the economic and diplomatic levers of our societies. Yet it’s hard to see how our small electoral victories at home can translate into effective action that will prevent the damage that is currently being done to the Amazon. It’s hard to feel satisfied with this type of action, when the news from the forest are often so grim. We are close to dangerous tipping points that could push forest degradation beyond our control. While we’re fighting to build up the environmental consciousness of our societies, while we’re waiting for the market to respond to our better consumer choices and while we’re lobbying our institutions to make effective structural changes, we must directly support the people who are on the ground defending the forest from the invasion of the industrial world. If we want to protect the tropical forests, if we want to avoid a complete disaster, supporting the rights of indigenous peoples is the most effective type of action that we could be taking today.

They give us hope

In South East Amazonia, right at the front-lines deforestation lays a huge area of pristine rainforest guarded by the Kayapo. Against all odds, these Indigenous Peoples have managed to secure, constitutionally recognized, territorial rights over an area of 100,000 km2. This land is three times the size of Belgium, bigger than Iceland or South Korea. Thanks to Kayapo’s social organization and warrior attitude, they have managed to preserve both their forest and their cultural identity. Partnering with international NGOs has allowed the them to control the unfathomably large border of their territory, despite the lack of support from the government. Studies have shown that deforestation, mining and grazing remain outside of their lands despite the massive exploitation around their borders. They have managed to protect their lands for decades, but that doesn’t mean that they will be able to do this forever on their own.

It’s time to act

The Brazilian government has turned its back on the indigenous peoples and is in fact painting their territorial rights as an unjust privilege that is hampering the economic development of the country. Currently, the Kayapo Project is trying to raise funds in order to strengthen the territorial integrity of the Kayapo land along the mighty rivers Xingu and Iriri. The Kayapo shouldn’t be alone in this fight. While they are trying to protect their land and culture, they are also protecting the future of all of humanity. Supporting this campaign is likely the N°1 thing that you could do in order to help protect this large piece of the Amazon forest in 2021.

There are two ways in which you can do this: support the campaign directly and/or help them spread the word. Sure, sharing on social media is great and it doesn’t take much effort, but let’s try to do something even more effective: old fashioned talking to people. You will find concise information about the Kayapo right on the fundraiser page, so soak it in and talk to a couple of friends or family about the importance of this forest. Talk to them about the incredible effectiveness and bravery of the Kayapo. Convince them to support the campaign and convince them to follow your example and talk to someone else they know. When we are organized and when we speak with courage we can achieve truly great things!

We need to act swiftly, once destroyed, the rainforest is not going to come back. The choices we make today will shape the world for thousands of years ahead. The Kayapo have made the choice to continue living in a way which is truly sustainable and enables the protection of this ancient ecosystem. Do we chose to support and fight for them?