Kayapo lands are located in the midst of one of the world’s highest deforestation regions — an agricultural frontier with expanding road network and little of any form of law enforcement.  Kayapo have fiercely protected their vast territory despite the ever increasing pressure from illegal incursions for goldmining, logging, commercial fishing, and ranching. Because of this success, Kayapo’s territory is still rich in natural ressources : precious metals remain in the soil, massive old trees are proudly towering above the canopy and fish stocks remain largely undisturbed.


Kayapo’s rainforest is home to countless large old trees, which are one of the main targets of illegal logging in the Southeast Amazon. They are highly valuable due to their size and the quality of the wood they produce. Removing old trees from rainforests has negative impacts on biodiversity, soil health, carbon storage, and water cycling. 


The increasing demand for gold is a driving factor for invasions. High gold prices are fueling an illegal industry which brings destruction to rainforest and poison to rivers and social upheaval to indigenous communities. Kayapo’s territory is rich in gold deposits and is therefor a prime target for illegal mining operations.


Thanks to the guardianship of the Kayapo people, the Xingu and Iriri rivers and their tributaries have remained pristine and abundant. However, the delicate ecological balance of these unique aquatic ecosystems is under threat from illegal fishing. The depletion of fish populations can have a cascading effect on the entire ecosystem.

Illegal Fishing


Failing to take action against threats can have serious consequences, as demonstrated by the situation of the Kayapo community residing in the eastern part of their legally recognized land. The eastern Kayapo were drawn into the illicit frontier economy in the 1980s and 1990s having had no experience with these activities and no support to develop economic alternatives or to foresee the inevitable and irreversibly destructive consequences of predatory logging and goldmining.

Severe land degradation in Eastern Kayapo land caused by goldmining.

Immersed in a region where lawlessness and corruption prevail, they have lost control over roughly 1.2 million hectares of their territory in the east, which is now a no-man’s land dominated by goldminers, loggers and other illegal actors. The Kayapo living in these eastern communities depend on these actors for outside goods. Most rivers in this area are choked with mud and polluted by mercury used in goldmining. The forest is degraded by logging which removes most of the big, old growth primary forest trees so pivotal to the overall ecology of this biome. This opens these once resilient forests to fire. Traditional culture breaks down in lockstep with environmental degradation and the introduction by loggers and miners of alcohol, drugs and prostitution.

This 2022 map shows the 1.2 million hectares (outlined in purple) of Kayapo territory that does not form part of the Kayapo Project. The region receives no conservation NGO investment and has been lost to the frontier of illegal activity (logging and mining).

Anti-indigenous policies

Тhe threats mentioned above all exist in the context of government enforcement. Mining, logging, fishing and farming are all illegal activities on indigenous territories recognized in Brazil’s constitution. There should be no deforestation on indigenous land, but in reality, enforcing these borders is logistically challenging and sometimes, governments don’t even try to respect indigenous land rights. 

In 2018, the election of Jair Bolsonaro marked the beginning of a difficult period for the Kayapo and other indigenous groups in the Amazon region. Bolsonaro’s administration’s policies were openly hostile to the environment and indigenous people, representing a direct threat to the territorial rights of indigenous communities. As a result, illegal activities such as logging, mining, and farming on indigenous land increased, encouraged by the government’s colonial rhetoric and lack of enforcement.

Despite these challenges, the Kayapo’s territorial surveillance program proved to be highly effective. Throughout the four years of Bolsonaro’s government, very few invasions occurred on Kayapo land. This success was attributed to the Kayapo’s remarkable ability to monitor and defend their borders, as well as their strong political organization. The Kayapo and their allies were able to counter the spread of misinformation that the government was using to sow division among indigenous communities.

“Bolsonaro is a disgrace to the Brazilian people. He wants to destroy us and destroy the Amazon. He speaks badly about indigenous people, he speaks badly about quilombolas, he speaks badly about women, about the environment, about everything that is important. He only thinks about himself and the rich people who support him.” – Chief Raoni