The Kayapo Tribe



Some of the younger members of the Kayapo tribe pose for the camera.

Some of the younger members of the Kayapo tribe pose for the camera.


The Kayapo are a powerful and well-known Brazilian tribe who inhabit a vast area of the Amazon across the Central Brazilian Plateau. In 2003 the Kayapo population stood at an estimated 7,096. Within their vast area, there are many subgroups and some of these smaller communities are known to exist in virtual isolation, having little direct contact with other Kayapo. They do not refer to themselves as Kayapo preferring the term Mebengokre, meaning 'the men from the water place', but because it is their public name they are happy for it to be used.



The Kayapo have a long history of contact with others. Since the initial arrival of Europeans around 500 years ago, the Kayapo have experienced forced migration further west into the rainforests as a result of invasions, they have lost land and habitat and they have also suffered from the introduction of diseases that accompanied the arrival of outsiders.

Yet the Kayapo have prospered through contacts with media and commerce. The tribe became rich in the 1980s when they employed white outsiders to log species on their lands but this practice ceased when logging was outlawed on indigenous lands.

Then the Kayapo decided that their future lay in the preservation of the forest and in 1989 worked with Sting and the late Anita Roddick of The Body Shop to raise awareness about the destruction of the Amazon.

They were an important and vocal part of a global media campaign that brought the Amazon to the forefront of environmental debates.

One of the Kayapo families. The women have shaved a distinctive V shape into their scalp.

One of the Kayapo families. The women have shaved a distinctive V shape into their scalp.

Kayapo culture is characteristically rich and complex. Their appearance is highly decorative and colourful, using face and body paint, beads and feathers. The Kayapo believe their ancestors learnt how to live communally from social insects such as bees, which is why mothers and children paint each other's bodies with patterns that look like animal or insect markings, including those of bees. Women shave the distinctive V shape into the scalp and men ceremonially wear the flamboyant Kayapo headdress with outwardly radiating feathers, which represents the universe. The rope of the headdress is a symbol for the cotton rope by which the first Kayapo is believed to have descended from the sky. Traditional ceremonies may last many months and mark the beginning and end of seasons as well as rites of passage. Their beliefs are linked to their environment, which they rely on for sustenance and material resources.

The Kararao Dam Project

In 1989 the Kayapo gained global attention. A proposal to create a series of six hydroelectric dams within their territory threatened to devastate their way of life. The proposal would have flooded around 8,300 square miles. It would have seen the displacement of entire communities and destroyed much of the land on which they depend. Fish stocks, deprived of migratory routes, would have been decimated and huge areas of untouched rainforest would have been lost forever.

However, through mass protest the Kayapo were able to draw support from international figureheads, celebrities and the global media. The protests culminated in a mass rally in Altamira in February of 1989 that drew the eyes of the world to the threat they faced and, eventually, the World Bank was pressured into denying the loan that would have funded the creation of the dams.

The Belo Monte Dam

In May 2008, almost 20 years after their successful protest, the Kayapo are facing the prospect of damming once again. The proposal of a huge hydroelectric dam spanning the Xingu River (a southern tributary of the Amazon) threatens their homes and environment once more. It would see the world's third largest hydroelectric dam affect an estimated 10,000 indigenous peoples as well as the many ribeirinhos, small farmers and rural settlers in the proposed area.

The Altamira Protest

Feelings against the dam run high, and there was a large gathering of indigenous people in the town of Altamira at a protest rally held on and around 20 May 2008. Representatives from some of the electrical companies were present and Bruce and the crew met tribespeople and others to hear the debate, during which they filmed the discussions below.


During the protest the Kayapo wore their warrior dress, which includes carrying knives, bow and arrows. A Kayapo woman cut a representative from one of the electrical companies on the top of the arm after a scuffle following a speech that had caused offence to many of the indigenous people present. The Kayapo have said they will fight to death to defend their land.

The Dam Debate

The Brazilian Government has been accused of abandoning much of their previous commitment to Environmental and Human Rights legislature by supporting the dam's creation. They have been described as bowing under increasing pressure from international mining and metallurgy companies but companies involved in the dam claim that the dam will create jobs and provide an essential energy infrastructure to meet the demands of South America's most prosperous nation.

Some of the Kayapo men in warrior dress during the Altamira protest.

Some of the Kayapo men in warrior dress during the Altamira protest.


Yet independent experts have claimed that the Belo Monte Dam will be one of the least efficient in the world. During the dry season that lasts around three to four months, the dam's turbines will cease to operate, as water levels will be too low. This, many point out, will require the creation of at least four other dams further upstream to store water and generate power for the mining and metallurgical industries growing in the area.

Proponents of the dam have argued that hydroelectricity is a 'green' source of energy at a time when fossil fuels are diminishing but many recent studies have revealed an alarming series of statistics. Measurements taken from dams in Canada and French Guiana show huge quantities of greenhouse gas emissions, the worst examples being dams with shallow reservoirs in tropical areas; areas such as those found along the Xingu River. Not only is the construction of massive dam projects highly energy intensive, the areas filled by the dam produce massive amounts of methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide as submerged vegetation decomposes.

Equally importantly, dams will lead to population displacement, disruption of migratory fish routes, sedimentary pollution and the altering of the waterway's chemistry. The creation of dams may also lead to the spread of diseases. It is argued Kayapo and other inhabitants of the areas near the stagnant waterways would face increased cases of malaria and dengue, something already seen near the Tucurui Dam 250km to the southwest.


Source: BBC.Bruce Perry's Amazon

Bruce stayed with the Kayapo village of Krinu for the last phase of his Amazon trip.

Tree rings reveal Amazon's rainfall history By Mark Kinver BBCnews environment reporter

The samples offer an insight to past meteorological conditions in the Amzon, say researchers
The samples offer an insight to past meteorological conditions in the Amzon, say researchers

Samples from eight cedar trees in Bolivia have helped shed light on the seasonal rainfall in the Amazon basin over the past century, say researchers.

A study led by UK-based scientists said the data from the trees provided a key tool to assess the natural variation in the region's climate system.

It suggested that tree-rings from lowland tropical cedar provided a natural archive of rainfall data.

The findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Climate models vary widely in their predictions for the Amazon, and we still do not know whether the Amazon will become wetter or dryer in a warmer world," said co-author Manuel Gloor from the University of Leeds.

"We discovered a very powerful tool to look back into the past, which allowed us to better understand the magnitude of natural variability of the system."

The researchers explained that the region's vast size and position on the equator, the response of the forested area's hydrological cycle "may significantly affect the magnitude and speed of climate change for the entire globe".

Dr Gloor added: "In a similar way that annual layers in polar ice sheets have been used to study past temperatures, we are now able to use tree rings of these species as a natural archive for precipitation over the Amazon basin."


Seasonal conditions in tropical locations mean many species do not form clear growth rings
Seasonal conditions in tropical locations mean many species do not form clear growth rings

"What surprised us, however, is that just eight trees from one single site actually told us how much it rained not just at that site but over the entire Amazon catchment," Dr Brienen added.

"The isotopic values recorded in the tree rings were very closely related to annual variation in the river levels of the Amazon, and thus the amount of rainfall that flowed into the oceans."

The researchers added that about 17% of the annual discharge from rivers into the world's oceans comes from the Amazon.

Also, they said, the basin's hydrological cycle is closely tied to the carbon cycle of the rainforest, which is one of the planet's largest terrestrial biomass carbon pools.

The cedar species used in the study has shallow roots, therefore they are more dependent on water they are able to gather from rainfall that gathers in topsoil.

Dr Brienen observed: "The record is so sensitive, we can say what year we are looking at.

"For example, the extreme El Nino year of 1925-26, which caused very low river levels, clearly stands out in the record."

Until now, reliable meteorological data in the region was scarce and only stretched back over the past 50-60 years.

Saving the rainforest: Why human rights is the key

The annual destruction of 13 million hectares of tropical forest is widely recognized as a global disaster. A new report from Rainforest Foundation Norway shows how the rainforest can be saved.


Recognizing the rights of forest people to manage their land is critical to reducing deforestation rates and safeguarding global forests, argues a new report published by Rainforest Foundation Norway.


Irreversible loss of species, destruction of valuable ecosystem services and escalation of dramatic climate changes; these are all obvious, and internationally recognized, reasons for halting the destruction of the world’s rainforests. Nonetheless, deforestation continues at an inacceptable rate.


So how can the international community reverse this devastating trend? Which methods are most effective in terms of protecting the rainforest? In the report Rights-based rainforest protection Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN) argues that recognizing the rights of forest peoples is the key.


“It is the local communities in the world’s rainforests who can show us how the forest can be saved, and this new reports shows us how. In Brazil, the 16 indigenous groups in Xingu Indigenous Park have managed to keep their 2.8 million ha territory as a green oasis right in the frontline of Brazil’s deforestation hotspot. In Indonesia, some of the last remaining lowland rainforest of Sumatra is protected in Bukit Duabelas National Park, where the Orang Rimba indigenous peoples live.

The report provides examples from all rainforest regions, and makes us understand why the rights of forest peoples really are the key to saving the forest”, says Lars Løvold, director of Rainforest Foundation Norway.


Requirements for success

RFN identifies two vital conditions for the basis from which deforestation can be reduced: Political will to shape and implement the right forest management policies at the national level in rainforest nations, and an obligation from the international community to support these measures.

However, RFN argues that efforts of forest protection will never be successful if they ignore the rights and interests of people living in the world’s forests. Thus, rights-based rainforest protection takes as its starting point the customary rights of local forest communities to their traditional lands, resources and culture.


“In the part, the mainstream approach to forest conservation has been to exclude people living in the forest from decision making, and in many cases expel them from the forest.


 The economic perspective on forest management has been to maximize the short term exploitation of its resources - again at the expense of the rainforest communities. By making human rights the cornerstone of forest management strategies, we can achieve both long term protection of forest and secure the livelihood and development needs of some of the worlds’ most vulnerable peoples”, says Løvold.


The cases that verify the theory

Through various case studies, the report Rights-based rainforest protection shows how forest people in rainforest countries are protecting the forest today. The report describes which key elements need to be in place for a human-rights based approach to be successful as well as what role states play in national policies and international support mechanisms, such as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+).


Combining these ingredients, RFN argues that Rights-based rainforest protection is a recipe for how the world’s rainforest can be saved. It might sound very simple. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.


“We all know that as a global community it’s more costly to destroy the rainforest than paying the prize to protect it. Still, today, the real money is made by those who exploit the rainforest for its resources, timber, palm oil, minerals and such, with large scale destruction as a result.

While a change of policy in rainforest countries is necessary, all countries have to take the responsibility of preventing their companies from investing in rainforest destruction, and by sharing the bill for the global ecosystem services the rainforest provide”, says Løvold.


Download the report Rights-based rainforest protection for screen here

Download the report Rights-based rainforest protection for print here



Lars Løvold, Director, Rainforest Foundation Norway

Mobile: +47 48 18 81 48

Rights-based rainforest protection RainforestFoundationNorway







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