The Kayapo Indigenous Territories

The Kayapo Indigenous Territories

Case Study by: Austin Perez

In one of the world’s most intense deforestation zones, the southeastern Amazon, nearly 11 million hectares of rainforest survives within the Kayapo indigenous territories. The Kayapo are an indigenous group of Brazil with a population of approximately 7,000 people whom occupy five contiguous and legally ratified indigenous territories in the Xingu River Basin. Despite intensifying external pressure from outsiders seeking access to their land and natural resources in a region that has otherwise been cleared for ranching, roads and towns, the Kayapo have managed to protect and maintain nearly all the forest encompassed within their territories. The Kayapo are granted permanent and exclusive usufruct rights to their lands under the category of “indigenous territory’ by the Brazilian constitution. They fight to defend their land and forest because it is the basis of their livelihood and society. Their legally ratified territories comprise the largest block of intact tropical forest under some form of protection in the world.

The warrior ancestors of today’s Kayapo who inhabit the block of five contiguous Kayapo territories in the south of Para and north of Mato Grosso states were contacted in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Government officials and missionaries managed to approach them during the 1960’s by introducing prized items from the outside such as metal tools and pots. Soon the Kayapo’s desire for such items and many others including guns, fishing gear, radios and boats overcame their tendency to make war on all outsiders and among themselves. They also needed medical care to treat introduced diseases that were decimating them. The Kayapo, therefore, became “pacified”.

However, they continued to defend their lands from invasions by ranchers, loggers and colonists. During the 1980s and early 1990’s, Kayapo leaders pressured the government to officially recognize and demarcate considerable sized tracts of their traditional lands. In 1989, the Kayapo became internationally renowned when their resistance stopped World Bank funding of a mega-dam project on the Xingu River near Altamira. Today, the Kayapo live in more than 30 mostly small communities located on rivers throughout their territories. Outside pressure to access Kayapo land and natural resources continues to build. Kayapo territories are located in the midst of one of the world’s most intense deforestation zones; the southeastern Amazon region known as the “arc of deforestation.”  Cattle ranching, soybean plantations, logging, mining, road-building and urban development have resulted in clearing of millions of hectares of natural forest in the region. Furthermore, this region of Brazil suffers from weak governance, corruption, lack of law enforcement and violent land conflict.

Alliances with environmental NGO’s in association with establishment of their own local NGO’s are helping the Kayapo to organize, understand and build capacity to meet escalating threats of the 21st century.  Objectives of the Kayapo NGO alliance are to: i) strengthen capacity for territorial management and control, and ii) develop sustainable non-timber product enterprises for generating the income they need to access the outside goods they have come to depend on.

The forest area protected by the Kayapo holds immense conservation value. Their lands comprise the last large block of forest that survives in the southeastern Amazon.  Kayapo territories are large enough to sustain ecological processes and healthy populations of endangered and threatened Amazonian species such as white-lipped peccary, jaguar, blue-winged macaw, lowland tapir, neotropical otter, chestnut-throated spinetail, Trees species especially require large intact landscapes to maintain their populations. In addition, over 1,500 species of fish can be found within the Xingu River running through the Kayapo territories.

Kayapo indigenous territories sequester one billion or more tons of carbon. Without Kayapo presence this carbon would long ago have been released to the atmosphere by ranchers. In a world where global warming is becoming increasingly alarming, the conservation of large tracts of undisturbed forests is ever more important.

Among the most serious issues facing the Kayapo is construction of the Belo Monte Hydro-electric dam on the Xingu river near Altamira: the modern re-incarnation of the dam project the Kayapo beat more than twenty years ago. The Belo Monte Dam will be the world’s third largest hydroelectric dam, and will divert the flow one of the Amazon’s main tributaries, the Xingu River. The construction of the Belo Monte Dam will catalyze more deforestation, displace over 20,000 traditional riverine people, and end traditional livelihoods of several indigenous groups. The Kayapo are threatened directly by the Belo Monte project because of the need to build upriver holding dams in Kayapo territory in order to ensure adequate water flow through the turbines of the main Altamira energy generating station during the dry season. They are, therefore, aligned firmly against the Belo Monte Dam project.

The Kayapo provide a striking model of the potential played by indigenous people in the protection of wild nature.  There have of course been challenges, disagreements, and ill-considered actions within the Kayapo communities regarding resource use…as in every human community!   In general, though, the Kayapo have set a very high standard in their commitment to, and achievement of, protecting and sustaining wild nature and its values on their lands.

Special thanks to Barbara Zimmerman for offering her expertise on the Kayapo and providing excellent guidance in preparation of this case study. Dr. Zimmerman is the Brazil program director for the International Conservation Fund of Canada; Director of The Kayapo Project with the Environmental Defense Fund (the two principal funders of the Kayapo Project);  and an Associate of The WILD Foundation.


  1. the most moving and meaningful feature i have seen in a while

  2. Leave the indians alone to manage their own lands!

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