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.

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

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.

Goldmining

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: