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Kayapó Defend Amazon Homeland and Earth's Unspoiled Nature
CI President Recalls Sixth Kayapó Leaders' Summit

Russell A. Mittermeier, President of Conservation International

Aug. 9, 2006: A few weeks ago, I flew over the Amazon in a single engine Cessna to a reunion with the leaders of the Kayapó nation, one of South America's proudest and most famous indigenous groups. For decades, some 7,000 Kayapó have defended their 28-million acre, Ohio-sized homeland in the Brazilian states of Pará and Mato Grosso, from incursions by speculators, ranchers, gold miners, loggers, and squatters.

Today, the Kayapó face a far greater and more dangerous foe: five huge hydroelectric dams planned on their lifeline Xingu River, and completion of the second half of a 1,100-mile paved highway called BR-163 that slices through Pará. The road will open up the remote frontier region to the kind of untrammeled exploitation and development that has so far deforested close to 20 percent of the Brazilian Amazon. Some of the richest biological diversity on the planet has been eliminated, mainly to grow more beef and soybeans for export.

In the late 1980s, when the destruction began in earnest and skies were black from burning forests, the Kayapó rose to international prominence. Together with the musician and social-activist Sting, the fabled tribal chief Raoni, with his spectacular headdresses of brilliant-plumage, became a charismatic presence on Sting's international concert tours. Their joint aim was to enlighten the public to the burgeoning ecological disaster in the Amazon while raising awareness of human rights – and they succeeded brilliantly.

Today, Raoni's successor, Megaron, is leading the fight to preserve the Kayapó lands that form the largest tropical rain forest reserve in the world.

The new chief and other indigenous leaders recently wrote to World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, imploring him to ensure that the environmental impacts of BR-163 and the dams are carefully considered before the bank funds them. Wrote Megaron: "If you lend money to the government of Brazil to pave roads and build other projects [such as] the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, you will be contributing to the destruction of our forests, and conflicts with, possibly even deaths of our people."

Each year, 10,000 square miles of the Amazon are leveled – an area the size of Massachusetts. The results of this rapacious destruction stunned me as I flew to the Kayapó summit. The forested wilderness I saw in northern Mato Grosso and southern Pará 15 years ago was now scrubland pasture holding thousands of stringy cattle, and endless soybean plantations like the wheat fields that carpet western Kansas. When we crossed over – as it were – into Kayapó airspace, the scene changed dramatically to magnificent, unbroken rain forest stretching to the horizon. Eden was still safe!

As International Indigenous Peoples Day is celebrated on August 9, the Kayapó's tenacious ability to protect their vast homeland and use their forest assets in a sustainable way, is an exemplar for safeguarding natural resources everywhere. For centuries, indigenous groups the world over have been victimized by those eager to steal or profit from their lands and resources. Today, the worst abuses have been curbed, but the pressures continue, particularly in the Amazon.

With modest help from non-governmental groups like Conservation International to strengthen their territorial surveillance capacity through guard posts, training, acquisition of boats, motors and communications equipment, performance of over-flights, and remote sensing analysis, the Kayapó have defended their 1,200-mile border from intruders. But how do you repel paved highways and huge dams that enrich farming corporations and fortune-hunters, and destroy a far more valuable resource: unspoiled natural ecosystems vital to human survival.

The purpose of our visit was to participate in the sixth Kayapó leaders' summit and strengthen our 15-year alliance. We landed in Piaraçu, the only village accessible by road in the entire 44,000-square-mile territory. In a large community meeting house, some 200 chiefs and warriors had gathered. They wore black body paint, were dressed in their finest yellow, green, red, and blue feather headdresses with shell and bead necklaces, and carried their traditional weapons – clubs, bows, and arrows. The scene evoked a Frederic Remington canvass depicting Indians of the Old West, a jarring but wonderfully romantic vision in this contemporary age.

In 1989, the Kayapó successfully blocked the same Belo Monte project and intensive talks now focused on renewing their opposition, arguing dams that would have catastrophic effects on regional ecosystems and flood large areas of their territory. There is also increasing pesticide and animal waste pollution of the Xingu River from surrounding farming and ranching. Memories of that initial victory 17 years ago were rekindled at the summit, spurring a mood of growing militancy as several warriors sang their personal war songs before speaking, and threatened again to go to battle.

There was a time warp quality to this jungle summit. Raoni, Megaron, and other Kayapó elders lead a warrior people, maintain their ancient culture, revere their lands, and defend them from covetous outsiders. They reminded me of Native Americans led by other great chiefs, fighting the intrusion of the white man during the Western expansion two centuries ago. But there is a major difference. They are defending their Amazon homeland, not only for themselves, but for all of us working to protect the last vestiges of the planet's unspoiled nature.

An edited version of this story appeared in several newspapers including the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the International Herald Tribune.

Related Links:
> Feature Story: Kayapó Indigenous Territories: Preserving Ancestral Lands
> Feature Story: Indigenous reserves a force for conservation
> CI: Conservation Strategies: CI and Indigenous People
> Hotspots: Cerrado
> Web: U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII)
> Web: UNPFII: International Day of the World’s Indigenous People


© CI, Haroldo Castro
The Kayapó grand chief, Megaron, is leading the fight to preserve their lands that form the largest tropical rain forest reserve in the world.

Click here for a photo gallery of Kayapó images and scenes from the Brazilian Amazon.

© CI, Haroldo Castro
At the sixth Kayapó leaders' summit, some 200 chiefs and warriors gathered and renewed their opposition to the Belo Monte project.

© Cristina G. Mittermeier
Within the Kayapó's 28-million-acre homeland, Kendjan village sits next to the Iriri River in Pará State, Brazil.

© Cristina G. Mittermeier
With modest help from NGOs like CI, the Kayapó have defended their 1,200-mile border for future generations.

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