Every year, 10,000 square miles of rain forest are destroyed in the Amazon. But at the heart of this imperiled rain forest, an indigenous tribe is maintaining its vast and untouched traditional lands.
The 7,000-strong Kayapó nation controls, legally and physically, a continuous block of the Amazonian forest totaling 28.4 million acres – roughly the size of Ohio and by far the planet's largest block of tropical forest protected by a single indigenous group. They live much as their ancestors did, practicing sustainable use of wildlife, with an egalitarian social structure and decision-making by consensus.
For decades the Kayapó have protected their 1,200-mile border from incursions by speculators, ranchers, gold miners, loggers and squatters. Today, they 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 state. In 1989, the Kayapó successfully blocked the same Belo Monte project and intensive talks now focus on renewing their opposition, arguing that dams would have catastrophic effects on regional ecosystems and flood large areas of their territory.
"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," wrote Megaron, the new Kayapó chief and a distinguished member of CI’s board of directors, in a letter to the president of the World Bank.
In the early days of CI’s Kayapó initiative – a relationship stretching back more than 15 years – the goal of setting up a research station and small mahogany reserve in a single community seemed ambitious.
Today all fourteen communities of the Kayapó nation are working with us to ensure that their land and people flourish, and they are demonstrating environmental leadership even outside their traditional boundaries. In 2006, the Kayapó leadership gathered with support from CI to renew their commitment to patrol and protect their land.