The Kayapo Indians: Fighting For The Amazon Rainforest


The indigenous Kayapo Indians of Brazil have protected their vast amazon homeland from illegal loggers, ranchers and gold miners with the help of NGOs, ecologists and a Canadian solar energy company.

The life of Canadian-born ecologist, Barbara Zimmerman, changed even before her plane landed in the Amazon. From her seat high in the sky she had a birds-eye view of the devastation below. For mile after mile the picture was the same. Where evergreen canopies of trees had once stood, cattle pasture, roads, towns and light brown scrubland had taken their place and other areas were reduced to smoking ruins.

But then, as her plane began its descent towards Kayapo Land, the scene changed dramatically. Ahead – almost as though it was an island state – was an undulating carpet of dense green rainforest stretching continuously towards the horizon. The contrast could not have been greater.

That journey was a turning point for Barbara, then a 34-year-old tropical ecologist travelling to the Amazon to complete a PhD on frogs. “When you fly into Kayapo territories, you literally go from an area that is utterly devastated – cattle pasture as far as the eye can see – to intact tall green primary forest,” she said. “It was at that moment, not knowing anything about the Kayapo indigenous rights, the size of their area or the scale of the problems they faced, when I just thought: ‘Wow! Something really amazing is happening for conservation.’”

Barbara soon realised that on the 110,000 square kilometres of land they control – equivalent to the size of South Korea – the 7,000-strong Kayapo community were keeping the relentless chainsaws and bulldozers at bay and it became obvious they needed outside support. After all, it was Kayapo tribal leaders who had, in their naivety, allowed the illegal sector passage into their territories in the 1980s. In those early days, plentiful supplies of Coca Cola, coffee and sugar had been enough to buy loggers access to their mahogany forests. Over time the demands became more sophisticated, with boats, trucks, gasoline, beads, cash and even iPhones forming part of the exchange.

The invasion was a process, usually spearheaded by loggers who put in the roads that paved the way for ranchers and gold miners to follow in their wake. The use of mercury in mining was often responsible for high levels of pollution which seeped into waterways and decimated fish stocks.

“You can’t gain access to Kayapo territory without some Kayapo opening the door for you – you’d literally be killed if you tried to do it otherwise,” explained Barbara. “But the Kayapo had no experience with money at all – it wasn’t part of their society – so they had no clue what they were getting involved in. It was like offering candy to children. This was their only window on the outside world and in their utter naivety and lack of understanding of capitalist culture, all these guys wanted was access, right?”

Free for all

But the reality was different. The so-called ‘benefits’ they were receiving in return for access were not being shared within the community.Peoplestartedtowonderwhythechiefandhisfamily were getting all the gifts when the tribespeople had to put up with loggers throughout their forests. “It was just a free-for-all with loggers coming into all sorts of areas, claiming‘this land is mine,’ and then falsifying the source of these logs as being sustainable before exporting them to Europe and North America. By the time I arrived in 1992, many members of the Kayapo were starting to question what was happening to their homeland. I just thought: ‘There must be another way.”

Backed by the non-governmental organisation ‘Conservation International’, Barbara decided to develop a small research station, encouraging foreign graduate students to do their research on the forest’s eco-system with Kayapo tribesmen paid to be their guides. “The Kayapo quickly saw that the whole community was benefiting so we gave them a choice: ‘You can go down the path of the illegal sector which will inevitably lead not just to the destruction of your forest but to your destruction too or you can back this project which is going to benefit you all.’ The community made the decision to expel the loggers, protect their remaining mahogany and nurture the research station.”

With the help of other local NGOs, Barbara – now Kayapo project director for the International Conservation Fund of Canada and the Environmental Defense Fund of the USA – invested in surveillance programmes to help the Kayapo protect their borders. A recent overflight of Kayapo territory spotted gold miners in a remote area, resulting in their equipment being destroyed.

The Kayapo have also been assisted in setting up their own associations to empower them and give them a platform in nationalsocietysotheycanobtainoutsidefundingtoinvest in territorial monitoring. The Associação Floresta Protegida (Protected Forest Association) represents the Kayapo east of the Xingu river and is based in Tucum, Pará; Instituto Kabu represents the north-west Kayapo from Novo Progresso, Pará, while Instituto Raoni represents the Kayapo of the south-west and is based in Colíder, Mato Grosso. Each association now has access to a truck – to enable them to watch for invasions on roads – along with boats, radios, guns, ammunition and GIS satellite imagery analysis.

Crucially, they are also being taught how to earn money sustainably. This prevents heads being turned by chancers eager to get hold of their land. It also helps them to pay for big ceremonial events such as the naming ceremonies which are a major part of Kayapo culture. Many earn income from selling jewellery, woodcarvings and Brazil and Cumaru nuts that have been harvested from the forest floor.

“There has to be a bigger and better financial mechanism. The business community is going to have to be involved and everyone in the conservation world knows that and wants that support”

Barbara Zimmerman, Ecologist

Biggest fears

SpeakinginPortugueseviaSkype,tribesmanAmaury,44,oneof a growing number of Kayapo who can read and write, said: “Our biggest fear is that the presence of any illegal activity in Kayapo territories could be used as an excuse by the government to change the Brazilian Constitution so that our land is no longer protected from industrial development. We need the Associ- ations to help us explain to our people the dangers of getting involved with illegal logging and gold mining and that’s giving us the foundation to keep these people out.”

Amaury’s colleague, Benjamin, 43, added: “We really need all the communities to meet, to gain consensus so that everybody agrees we must not let these loggers and miners into our territory.”

But with NGOs largely funded by finite foundations which are typically endowed by an individual or family, Barbara is moving the programme into the next phase and that involves business investment. “We in the NGO community feel we have developed a model in economic development and forest conservation that works but we do not have the resources to carry on alone,” she said. “There has to be a bigger and better financial mechanism and it’s not something we can put off for 100 years. The business community is going to have to be involved and everyone in the conservation world knows that and wants that support.”

Toronto-based solar energy company, PURE Energies, was the first corporate to see the benefit of working with the NGOs. Attracted by the Kayapo’s proven ability to protect their land and sustainable lifestyle in the face of mounting threats, the firm saw the story as a perfect vehicle to showcase its home solar energy systems.

A team of five, including Zbigniew Barwicz, PURE Energies’ CEO, spent almost three days on five planes to reach the remote Kendjam community on the Iriri River. Once there, they filmed the photogenic Kayapo warriors for a series of YouTube films to promote their brand. In return, PURE Energies donated CAN$90,000 (£48,500) to Barbara’s International Conservation Fund of Canada, money that has been ploughed into the Kayapo surveillance programme. The firm also supplied a solar-powered lantern to light each of the village’s 22 huts at night so they can deliver babies safely and continue working and socialising.

Win-win situation

Elianne Mureddu, Partnership Marketing Manager at NRG Home Solar, which has taken over PURE Energies, said the joint venture was a win-win situation for NGOs and business. “We are trying to raise consciousness on solar and renewable energy and our association with the Kayapo gives us brand awareness. We’re creating an emotional connection with our audience beyond our product. People love stories and they like to be connected to a company that is doing something good. The Kayapo are easy on the eye so their images are great to use in our digital promotions. They are also the warriors of the Amazon – empowered people who will fight to protect what they love and we really liked that message and cause so that’s why we decided to support it.”

“But there’s plenty more out there for other corporations to pick up,” added Mureddu. “The Kayapo need resources to help protect their borders; things like fuel and trucks. But there are also so many things they don’t have access to, like an efficient waste disposal system for all the packaging that comes with the products that are brought in from the outside world. It’s really sad to see where they live just full of plastic.”

Barbara says the collaboration between PURE Energies and the NGOs has been “outstanding” and she hopes other businesses will follow suit. “PURE are attempting to balance profit with corporate respon- sibility. It’s not just ‘give them a donation and we’ll write it up in our annual report’. Of course, it’s a good marketing exercise for them as the Kayapo have got everything going for them. They’re photogenic and fighting an important battle. But they do care and they want to share the story.”

“We need to go down this route now,” added Barbara. “The world needs to understand how critically endangered these tropical forests are. They will be gone within 20 years if something isn’t done to help the Kayapo protect their land. We in the conservation world can see that investment in and empowerment of indigenous people, whose cultures and livelihoods depend on the forest, is the answer to its preservation. But they need more help because there are very, very powerful forces stacked against them. The Kayapo have done an amazing job in facing down these crooks. But without investment to help them navigate, understand and deal with our society so they can uphold their rights and develop, it will all be gone – there’s no doubt about it.”


Photo Credit: Cristina Mittermeier iLCP