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The Spirit of Survival

By Lindsay Renick Mayer on January 14, 2021   duration 6 min read

Photo by Cristina Mittermeier
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Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) changed its name to Re:wild in 2021

Kayapo Indigenous People Call on World to Help Protect Amazonia Against Extractive Industry, Brazilian Government

Silent.

That was how the Kayapo Indigenous people approached the illegal goldmining camp that had, for months, been destroying part of the Amazon rainforest, home to countless animals and plants, and polluting the nearby river in the Kayapo’s ratified territory of Bau.

As 17 Kayapo came upon the camp in mid-October, after traveling for two days by boat and then by foot, any noise would have been drowned out anyhow by the goldminers’ hydraulic machines. Their actions resulted in the peaceful removal of the trespassers from the land, which was accessible to these outsiders only by plane, and the complete dismantling of the camp.

“The area the goldminers destroyed is very large and the streams are badly damaged,” said Bepmoro-I, from the village of Bau located in Bau Indigenous Territory. “It’s awful there. But we blocked off the airstrip and so now the streams and forest will begin to recover. If goldminers come back, we will go and remove them again.”

Kayapo wait with goldminers from the illegal "Novo Horizonte" illegal gold mine in the Kayapo Bau territory. The air strip supplied their camp and here the goldminers wait to be picked up by their employer.

This is not the first time the Kayapo have had to remove invaders from 23 million acres of their rainforest and savanna territory in the southeastern region of the Brazilian Amazon, an area the size of the state of Virginia. For more than 40 years, the Kayapo have fought off many outsiders looking to exploit their natural resources. They have done so with the partnership of multiple NGOs, including Conservation International, Environmental Defense Fund, and GWC partner, the International Conservation Fund of Canada.

The removal of the goldmining camp came against the backdrop of a Brazilian Federal Government that has been considering a bill this year that would effectively legalize goldmining and other extractive industries in Indigenous territories across Brazil. This marks the latest in an onslaught of threats to Brazil’s Indigenous People’s cultures, lives and land, and to the wildlife and ecosystems that they protect.

A Message to the World

The Kayapo are anything but silent against the congressional bill, Proposed Law 191/2020, that could significantly weaken protection of Amazonia, and they want the world to know what is going on.

More than 6,000 Kayapo from 56 communities of the Bau, Capoto/Jarina, Kayapo, Las Casas and Mekragnoti Indigenous Territory, the Indigenous organizations Associação Floresta Protegida, Instituto Kabu and Instituto Raoni recently published a declaration expressing their opposition to the bill.

“How could we be in favor of such an activity that profoundly negatively impacts our environment, society and communities?” the letter asks. “How could we deprive our children and grandchildren of a vital territory that supports our livelihoods, autonomy, customs and traditions, as guaranteed by the federal constitution? We appeal to all Brazilians and international society to support our struggle to protect our forest and demand that the government respect the federal constitution and our right to use our territories according to our customs; as well as the right of all people to an ecologically balanced environment.” [READ THE FULL STATEMENT FROM THE KAYAPO]

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro introduced the proposed law in February of 2020 to open up demarcated territories to the extractive industries of mining, oil and natural gas. Two other proposed laws would have similar devastating effects: one aimed at the establishment of a general environmental licensing law, which would essentially allow industry to easily obtain licenses for environmentally damaging extractive activities easily—even through self-declaration (PL3729/2004); and another that would grant amnesty to invaders and in essence encourage deforestation and land-grabbing (PL 2633/2020).

“I have long admired the great courage of the Kayapo and their undying commitment to protecting their traditional lands, ever since I first visited them in 1991 with Barbara Zimmerman to help her establish her long-running program to work with these amazing people,” said Russ Mittermeier, GWC Chief Conservation Officer, who has visited the Kayapo lands and other parts of the Xingu region a number of times over the past three decades.  “If the Brazilian government opens indigenous territories such as those of the Kayapo and their neighbors to legal goldmining and logging, this could signal a death knell for the magnificent forests of Amazonia and the great and wonderfully diverse Indigenous Peoples who call it home. The vast forests of Amazonia are critical to the health of our planet, and the Kayapo and their fellow indigenous peoples are its most important guardians.”

We Won’t Give Up’

The Kayapo protect more than 2,000 kilometers of heavily threatened borders around their territory. Kayapo land represents the last large block of forest in the southeastern Amazon and stores an estimated 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon. It is hard to understate the critical importance of the Amazon rainforest—one of the world’s five designated High Biodiversity Wilderness Areas and home to one-quarter of Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity—to the health of the planet, and the critical role that the Kayapo and other Indigenous communities play in protecting it. An estimated 20 million Indigenous people from more than 350 Indigenous groups call the forests of Amazonia home and depend on their natural habitats and resources for their livelihoods and culture.

(Photo by Antonio Briceno)

Yet the forests of Amazonia continues to come under serious threats. Deforestation in 2019 and 2020 was the highest it has been since 2008 and represents a doubling in forest loss over 2012. Amazonia has experienced some of its worst fire seasons in the last two years, a result of previous deforestation, primarily for the expansion cattle ranching and cattle feed crops (soybeans), leaving a drier local microclimate. The fires themselves are often purposely started to clear land for agriculture, mostly cattle and cattle feed for export to the United States, EU, China and other countries.

“The Kayapo face today face what Native America Tribes 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,” said Barbara Zimmerman, director of the Kayapo Project for the International Conservation Fund of Canada and the U.S.-based Environmental Defense Fund. “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 Amazonia forest upon which their culture and livelihoods are based. If the Kayapo can win, if they can hold out, then I think that anything can be achieved in the conservation of our planet.”

For the Kayapo, beating these bills, which the Brazilian Congress could vote on as early as February, and continuing to protect the forests of Amazonia is going to depend on the willingness of the rest of the world to help safeguard this irreplaceable place. But no matter what, the Kayapo say that they are not going to give up.

Photo by Cristina Mittermeier

“We won’t stop doing this work. We won’t give up. We are going to keep fighting,” Bepmoro-I said. “We would like the entire world to see our effort, the work of the Kayapo people to protect our land and our culture—and help us with the resources we need to continue protecting our land and rivers.”

You can help. Make a donation to the Kayapo Fund today at Kayapo.org

About the author

Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay is the Director of Media Relations for Re:wild and has a particular interest in leveraging communications to inspire conservation action. Lindsay is passionate about species-based conservation and finding compelling ways to tell stories that demonstrate the value of all of the planet’s critters, big and microscopic.

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