Kayapo: Part 1


Traditional Cultures & NGOs Ally To Prevent The Wholesale Deforestation Of The Rainforest

The 8,000 strong Kayapo tribe are fighting valiantly to defend 11 million acres of rainforest from the total destruction caused by illegal mining and logging operations. Against the odds, they are succeeding, but only with the international support provided by outside NGOs. The Nature Needs Half Network prioritizes bringing greater attention to the efforts of Indigenous people to preserve and defend their home ecology.

Kayapo children, Brazil. Photo by Cristina Mittermeier.

IN 1954

Beneath the canopy of Brazil's rainforest . . .

. . . a meeting occurred between three men that would change the course of history for an entire culture and the living lands that this culture had defended for centuries.

Two of these were brothers, Cláudio and Leonardo Villas-Bôas. Both were citizens of Brazil entrusted by their government with a vital economic mission: the penetration of the tropical forests to prune from the densely living undergrowth areas wide enough for the construction of roads and airfields.

The brothers, though unambiguous emissaries of the industrialized world, were nevertheless singular in their compassion for the Indigenous people of the region. On excursion after excursion into the vine-tangled forests, the brothers encountered the previously uncontacted and, often, warrior-like tribes of the Amazon. And despite (or perhaps because of) the often confrontational and violent nature of these receptions, they lived and worked by one motto: “Die, if need be. Kill, never.”

Leonardo Villas-Bôas with Amazon Man - Picture from J.P. Vilas Bôas Family Archive.

The Third Man

The third man at the meeting was a young warrior in his early 20s by the name of Raoni Metukire. Decades later, Raoni would become chief of the Kayapo people, the ancient stewards of the rainforest. But in 1954, he was little more than a boy, eager to prove his worth to his tribe and curious about the outside world.

In fact, the meeting with the Villas-Bôas brothers was the first time Raoni had met outsiders and confronted the advancing wave of modernity.

For without the Kayapo’s commitment to its traditional culture, it is doubtful their home ecology would be as healthy as it is today. The implications of this potential loss are devastating, not just for the Kayapo, but for all life on the planet.

And the challenges they confront are daunting.

Chief Raoni. Courtesy of Martin Schoeller.

The Wild West

For without the Kayapo’s commitment to its traditional culture, it is doubtful their home ecology would be as healthy as it is today. The implications of this potential loss are devastating, not just for the Kayapo, but for all life on the planet.

And the challenges they confront are daunting.

Imagine an area the size of Virginia, only unlike Virginia with a surging population of 8 million, this area is sparsely populated by a few thousand people scattered here and there across 35 villages.

The “wild west” may be history in North America, but it is still very much reality in the Amazon of today where lawlessness is business as usual.

Lacking technological advantages, but rich in courage and conviction, these people confront an enemy assailing them across a vast 2,500 km frontier, a perimeter almost as long as the US-Mexican border. And their foes, illegal mining and logging operators, will stop at nothing to co-opt, coerce, and capture territory that will yield short-term profit at the expense of local culture and planetary health.

These are just some of the very real dangers the Kayapo confront on a daily basis. Their beleaguered lands and culture remain intact only because of the friendship laid down between Raoni and the Villas-Bôas brothers, and the enduring outside support this friendship made possible.

Chief among the Kayapo’s allies is the Kayapo Project led by Dr. Barbara Zimmerman, a tireless force for Kayapo sovereignty and their traditional role as rainforest stewards. Without this project, it is unlikely that the Kayapo people would have organized in time to resist the criminal incursion of their lands.

Next week we will reveal how Kayapo leaders aided by the Kayapo Project leverage the traditional skills and knowledge of their culture to defend their home and protect the Amazonian rainforests. Please check back then.

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The Kayapo Project remains effective because of the generous support of:

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