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Updated April 2016
Program: Kayapó Project: Protecting the Brazilian Amazon
Background | Purpose | Actions and Results | Video

  In Brief  

Location: Brazil, southeastern Amazon
Timeframe: Started 2007; expect continued involvement over the medium term
Goal: Our overarching goal is to empower the Kayapo indigenous people to protect almost 11 million hectares of their legally ratified territories and the ecological integrity of the primary forests upon which their culture and livelihoods are based.
Threats: Kayapo territories are immersed in one of the world's most intense deforestation zones: the south-eastern Amazon of Brazil. Principal deforestation drivers are: ranching, soya agriculture, logging, artisanal gold-mining, industrial mining, and infrastructure (roads, highways, towns, hydro-dams). Governance throughout the region is weak to non-existent. Protected areas such as indigenous territories are not enforced.
Actions & Achievements:
  • Provisioning, organizing and other assistance has enabled greatly increased territorial surveillance by Kayapo expeditions. While the surveillance program needs further strengthening given the extraordinary size of Kayapo lands and scale of threat, a strong correlation has emerged between intactness of Kayapo lands and NGO support
  • In just a few years, Kayapó NGOs have developed the capacity for managing complex programs. Local capacity for long-term management and protection has developed well and will continue to evolve.
  • Sustainable and culturally compatible economic activities have been developed and these reduce the temptation to accept cash for unsustainable activities. Brazil nut operations have been especially successful; cumaru nut, handicrafts, sport-fishing and other enterprises are also under successful developed.
Cost: 2016 budget (ICFC portion): $482,000)
Cumulative cost to ICFC (past years): $3,481,737
Size of area
11 million hectares
(110,000 km2)
Compare with:
— twice the size of Nova Scotia
— 30% larger than Ireland

This project was supported, in part, this year by:

(formerly PURE Energies). See a video of a journey made by PURE Energies' Zbigniew Barwicz to a remote Kayapo community.

Surveillance revealed this illegal goldmining operation.

Kayapó have defended their lands for generations.

In more depth...


Figure 1. The Xingu River Basin is shown as the lime green area (Brazil turquoise).

The Xingu River, a major tributary of the Amazon in Brazil, begins in the semi-deciduous forests and woodland- savannas of Mato Grosso state and flows north for 2,700 km across varying topography before ending in the wet forests of the Amazon near Belem. The Xingu spans major tropical biomes from savanna (cerrado) in the headwaters of the south to semi-deciduous and evergreen wet canopy forests of the southern, mid- and northern regions. More than 20 linguistically differentiated indigenous cultures that hold millennia's worth of ecological knowledge are found in the forests of the Xingu.

During the last four decades, the Xingu has been subject to increasingly intense deforestation as the agricultural frontier inexorably expands north and west. An "arc of fire" constituting the highest rate of deforestation in Brazil and indeed, one of the highest in the world, sweeps across the region. This process of colonization and agricultural expansion, often accompanied by violent land conflict in the lawless frontier, follows road construction, especially the perimetral framework of national highways.

With adequate roads and suitable soils, the Xingu has become an important centre for cattle production (occupying the greatest tracts of land and by far the greatest driver of deforestation), logging (almost all illegal) and production of soy bean for export. Dozens of towns have sprung up along roads to support frontier activities and hundreds of thousands of people depend on the frontier economy.

While this tsunami of forest destruction threatens to engulf the region, an enormous 28.8-million-ha network of protected areas (including both ratified indigenous territories and conservation areas) secures protection in law of 56% of the Xingu basin. This protected areas corridor is the great hope for conservation of multi-landscape scale tracts of southeastern Amazonian forest with all its magnificent richness of biodiversity, indigenous cultures and ecosystem services. Indigenous lands of the Xingu are of particular importance because they occupy two thirds of the protected areas corridor and possess de facto protection services - their indigenous inhabitants. Over the past three decades, indigenous territories have proved formidable barriers to forest destruction (Figure 2; see also Nepstad et al., 2006. Inhibition of Amazon deforestation and fire by parks and Indigenous lands. Conservation Biology, 20: 65-73; view as pdf).

Figure 2. Satellite image of Kayapó lands and most of the Xingu Indigenous Park (to the south) showing plumes of smoke rising from burning of primary forest remnants outside of the Indigenous Territories. Dark green areas are indigenous lands and light brown areas are ranch and agricultural land.

However, outside pressure on Kayapó lands continues to increase. If borders are not well monitored in this lawless region of weak governance: ranching, fraudulent land speculation, commercial fishing, logging and gold-mining inevitably invade and encroach into protected areas. If they cannot gain clandestine entry, loggers and goldminers will attempt to buy off individual Kayapó to obtain access to the rich timber stocks and gold on their lands. Sometimes they are successful. Once a door is opened, it is hard for even the Kayapó to control an influx. When they lack information and sustainable economic alternatives, indigenous peoples are vulnerable to outside pressure to liquidate their resources.

Large infrastructure projects are an increasing threat to the region's remaining forest: i.e., Kayapó land. The mining company Vale S/A operates a nickel mine near Tucuma. The mine has catalyzed immigration to the region, increasing outside pressure on neighbouring Kayapó lands. At the same time, the third largest hydro dam in the world, "Belo Monte" is under construction on the Xingu river some 600km upriver from Kayapó lands in Para. To operate efficiently during the dry season, the turbines at Belo Monte will need water released from upriver holding dams -projected for building in Kayapó lands. In the west, the newly paved BR 163 highway from Cuiaba in the south to Santarem in the north has dramatically increased immigration into the region with associated pressure for illegal predatory resource extraction (logging, goldmining) and ranching on western Kayapó lands. Strengthening the capacity of Kayapó institutions to protect their boundaries, and develop sustainable income alternatives becomes even more crucial in the face of approaching large-scale industry.

Conservation significance of Kayapó lands

Kayapó lands conserve the last remaining large, intact block of native forest in the southeastern Amazon, and maintain the connectivity of this ecoregion with the western Amazon. They confer incalculable benefits to protection of biodiversity, mitigation of climate change and preservation of the crucial role of Amazonian forests in producing rainfall over a much larger geographic scale.

Kayapó territories are large enough to protect large scale ecological processes. For example, very large areas are required to maintain tropical tree species because individuals of species are usually very sparsely distributed. Most tropical tree species depend on co-evolved animal vectors for pollination and seed dispersal across large inter-individual distances - small areas do not contain enough individuals or viable animal vector populations for regeneration over the long term. The intricate web of interdependence among Amazonian species requires large areas for these ecosystems to function and persist.

Kayapó lands remain reasonably undisturbed. Large-bodied game species (including large cracids, lowland tapir, and white-lipped peccary), which are preferred by local peoples throughout the Amazon, are abundant within the hunting range of Kayapó communities. Protected lands in the region safeguard a full complement of disturbance-sensitive wildlife and an entire vegetation transition from open savanna.(cerrado) to close-canopy forests, along with endangered and threatened species (Table 1).

Table 1: Threatened vertebrate species found in the Xingu protected areas corridor, with IUCN Red List designation.
Endangered species:
bearded saki monkey (Chiropotes satanas utahicki)  Critically Endangered
giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis)  Endangered
hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus)  Endangered
white-whiskered spider monkey (Ateles marginatus)  Endangered

Near Threatened or Vulnerable species:
white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari)  Near Threatened
jaguar (Panthera onca)  Near Threatened
bush dog (Speothos venaticus)  Near Threatened
blue-winged macaw (Ara maracana)  Near Threatened
chestnut-throated spinetail (Synallaxis cherriei)  Near Threatened
giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus)  Vulnerable
red-handed howler monkey (Alouatta belzebul epiphenotype discolor)  Vulnerable
neotropical otter (Lutra longicaudis)  (decreasing; status to be determined)

Kayapó lands and the contiguous Xingu Indigenous Park to the south protect more than four hundred kilometers of the Xingu river from degradation by deforestation, pollution and over-fishing. Preliminary surveys indicate that as many as 1,500 fish species inhabit the Xingu River. Fish are the most important source of protein for local people of the Xingu. Sixteen species of fish are considered endemic to (i.e. only found in) the Xingu.

[>] See also the WILD Foundation's page on Kayapó Culture and History.

Program Partners and Personnel

Our local partners are three Brazilian non-governmental organizations: the Associação Floresta Protegida (AFP), Instituto Kabu (IK), and Instituto Raoni (IR) that together represent almost all of 50 Kayapó communities with a total population of about 8,000 people. AFP, IK and IR are pillars of organization for the Kayapó, enabling them to implement programs of conservation and development that strengthen their capacity for territorial control and protection. AFP is based in Tucuma, Para state, and represents communities located east of the Xingu River. IK is based in Novo Progresso, Para, and represents communities located to the north and west of Xingu River. IR, based in Colider, Mato Grosso state, represents communities of the southeast (map of Kayapó territories with names of communities). The Kayapó organizations also collaborate with the Brazilian government Indian agency (FUNAI) responsible for upholding indigenous rights.

Within Brazil, Conservation International and the Brazilian Amazon Fund (Fundo Amazonia) have established a US$6 million trust fund, the Fundo Kayapó. This fund makes annual grants to the three Kayapó NGO's in support of their conservation and development goals. Internationally, we partner on certain sub-programs of the Kayapó project with US-based Environmental Defense Fund. Finally, the Kayapó NGO's themselves raise significant program funding from domestic sources; especially from government mandated environmental compensation packages associated with road building, mining and the hydro-electric industries. Therefore, ICFC support of high level functioning of Kayapó NGO administrations leverages significant program support from other sources.

The protected lands of the Kayapó Indigenous Territories, outlined in black.

Goals explained

Government support for protected areas including indigenous lands in the southeast Amazon is tenuous to absent. Over the past fifteen years NGOs have played a crucial role in helping the Kayapó to continue to protect their lands by enabling them to (i) monitor and control their boundaries, (ii) build local institutions that function in outside society for accessing, administering and implementing conservation and development funding, and (iii) develop sustainable business enterprises for communities. Our Kayapó program builds on these three pillars of land protection by an indigenous people.

The goal of our Kayapó program is to preserve biodiversity in the southeastern Amazon Basin by helping the Kayapó continue to control and protect their legally ratified lands. Key objectives of the program are:

  1. Develop a system of regular monitoring of border integrity and threats to Kayapó territories; and provide equipment, fuel, supplies and training for surveillance;
  2. Build administrative and managerial capacity of the Kayapó's NGOs in order that they may access and implement outside support for conservation and development and defend indigenous rights in Brazilian society;
  3. Build economic autonomy of all Kayapó communities by helping them to establish culturally adapted and ecologically sustainable enterprises based on non-timber forest products.

The Kayapó village of Metuktire, seen from the air.

Actions and Results

Territorial surveillance and boundary demarcation

Territorial surveillance: ICFC and our US based partner EDF provide surveillance infrastructure to Kayapó NGOs including boats, outboard engines, radios, 4X4 vehicles, expedition supplies, fuel, equipment maintenance and also capacity building workshops. We enable Kayapó NGOs to perform overflight surveillance and ground patrols with the result that several foci of illegal activity have been identified over the years: goldmining, logging and encroachment by ranchers. Once identified, Kayapó NGOs collaborate with federal government authorities to remove the invaders.

Pressure on Kayapó lands continues to intensify as immigration to the region builds along expanding road networks. Surveillance was scaled up in recent years in response to a higher incidence of invasion by goldminers and loggers are never far behind. Illegal logging is driven by high prices for export grade timber. Helicopter supported action by government authorities (FUNAI, Ministry of the Environment and Federal Police) have become necessary over the past three years to neutralize the expanding destruction of goldmining, with Kayapó NGOs contributing expertise to these operations.

Burning chainsaws. Confiscation and destruction of equipment used in illegal logging and mining is a strong deterrent.

Institution building

Instituto Kabu negotiation with FUNAI for highway impact compensation package.
No longer are the traditional warrior tactics of their Kayapó forefathers sufficient for protecting indigenous rights in the 21st century. The Kayapó must learn to protect their interests and rights in the legal context of outside society. Their three NGOs play a central role in their future, hence the value of ICFC's support for management and administration of Kayapó organizations. High functioning administrations have become adept at program development, program implementation and financial accounting, so much so that Kayapó NGOs have been able to obtain the lion's share of program funding on their own.

An important source of program funding accessed by Kayapó NGOs is government mandated environmental compensation packages for infrastructure and industrial development. The AFP Kayapó of the northeast completed their first year of a multi-year deal with the Vale Mining company to compensate for impacts of the nearby "Onša-Puma" nickel mine. Vale funding will mitigate mine impacts by supporting the AFP's surveillance and sustainable economic development programs, as well as initiatives to strengthen Kayapó cultural identity. After successful completion of the first five year contract, the northwestern IK Kayapó were able to renew their compensation from the Department of Transportation for impacts of paving the Cuiaba to Santarem BR-163 federal highway. Paving of this highway opened the floodgates to colonization and deforestation along the western border protected by IK and this compensation is playing a crucial role in helping the Kayapó to continue to defend their lands in the west. The IR representing the southwestern Kayapo is working to obtain a compensation package for paving of a highway in Mato Grosso that will increase pressure on their lands. Negotiation of these significant grants for conservation and development counts on professional level administration performed by the Kayapó NGOs.

Every year, ICFC supports meetings of Kayapó leaders in the Annual General Assemblies of their organizations. At the AGMs, Kayapó leaders review the past year's work and accounts and approve work-plans and budgets for the upcoming year. Notably, in 2014 we supported all Kayapó leaders from across Kayapó lands to meet in Kokraimoro village on the Xingu river. At Kokraimoro, in a traditional forum Kayapó leaders had the opportunity to renew old bonds and develop a united position on the very serious threats looming on the horizon: proposed changes to the Brazilian constitution that would allow industry on indigenous lands and the Belo Monte dam complex.

Conclusion of the Kokraimoro leaders meeting on banks of the Xingu river June 5, 2014

Sustainable economic development

The Kayapó seek income generation in their communities in order to buy the manufactured items they have come to need. To help the Kayapó gain economic autonomy while conserving the forest ecosystem on which their culture is based, ICFC and other NGO partners support the development of non-timber forest product enterprises. To be successful, these enterprises must fit with normative Amerindian values of equity, cooperation, and reciprocity achieved through consensus and common-property access. All members of a community must have the opportunity to participate in and earn money from the venture.

Tree Seed Workshop

The Kayapó NGOs and their partners are successfully developing small sustainable businesses in Kayapó communities:

  • Brazil nut: the best developed as far as sales and number of communities involved. With the help of their NGOs, Kayapó from over 20 communities harvested and sold over $200,000 worth of Brazil nut to domestic buyers in 2015. The Kayapo participate with other indigenous groups of the Xingu river basin in a "Xingu" seal/logo for their products: certification that guarantees the sustainable and organic sourcing of the product and its origin from indigenous communities
  • Cumaru seeds: as with Brazil nut, the cumaru seed is produced by a primary forest tree species and is harvested after it falls to the ground. Cumaru seeds are used by the cosmetics industry and enjoy a growing market. About 20 communities are involved and this enterprise is expanding
  • Art and bead jewelry: growing markets for traditional Kayapó designs in beadwork; especially bracelets and necklaces but also other items such as t-shirts and baskets. There are sales outlets in Rio de Janeiro (Tucum), Canada (Kayapó project), internet (IK) and the local frontier towns of Novo Progresso and Tucuma, where Kayapó NGO offices are based. Many communities are involved.
  • Field station and international field course: the pioneer conservation and development project with the Kayapó founded in 1992 by Dr. Barbara Zimmerman and the community of A'Ukre. The success of this venture led to expanded NGO support for the Kayapó and impact across all Kayapó lands beginning in 2000. Today, the A'Ukre field station hosts two annual international field courses (University of Maryland with U of Brasilia; Purdue University with U of Uberlandia) that are an important source of equitable income for the community.
  • Sportfishing: the pristine Iriri river protected within Kayapó lands teems with game fish and is ideal for sport fishing. During the summer of 2015, the community of Kendjam hosted the first four groups of fishermen whom were brought in and managed by the sport-fishing company "Untamed Angling". Both the community and the fisherman gave high marks to the program which will run again this summer with eight groups each staying for one week. Payments by the fishermen are divided among three Kayapo communities on the Iriri river with 60% of the funds going to the host community of Kendjam.
  • Several other non-timber product options hold promise and are in earlier stages of development including: copaiba oil, native tree species seeds, manioc flour (farinha) and birdwatching ecotourism
Several other non-timber product options also hold promise and are in earlier stages of development including: jamborandi leaves, copaiba oil, babacu oil, cocoa, native tree species seeds and manioc flour (farinha).

Further info

[>>] See our companion website: Kayapó.org

>> The January 2014 issue of National Geographic has a cover story on the Kayapó titled "Defenders of the Amazon"Read the article.

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