A fierce battle is being waged in the Brazilian Amazon. The native Kayapó people must defend their lush forests, rivers and savannahs from those lured by the precious trees, fish, gold and fertile land within their 10.6 million hectares (26 million acres) of legally demarcated territory.
So far, these Brazilian warriors have victoriously kept their lands mostly intact despite the deforestation around them.
"If you look at the Kayapó areas on Google maps, they stick out like a green thumb," said Michael McGreevey, senior grant manager for Conservation International's (CI) Global Conservation Fund.
"It's obvious that the way the Kayapó are managing their land is much more sustainable and in tune with conservation values than what’s going on with their neighbors."
But patrolling an area larger than Iceland while facing financial temptations to sell off trees and other integral parts of their homeland can become overwhelming.
"We have people invading our lands, and we need help," said Cacique Raoni, a Kayapó leader.
"We have people living around us, but they don't respect us. We share a deep relationship with nature and rely on it for food, fishing and hunting. The Kayapó preserve nature. It's our tradition. If we harm our plants and animals, we harm ourselves."
In 1992, Conservation International joined forces with the Kayapó to help them protect their lands and cultivate ways to earn an income without cutting down trees or contaminating rivers.
“The Kayapó preserve nature. It’s our tradition. If we harm our plants and animals, we harm ourselves.”
To assist the Kayapó in monitoring their vast border, CI supplied boats, radios, overflights, fuel, border patrol training and aerial survey data. CI also offered field courses in tropical biology and conservation to university students so they could benefit from interaction with community members who were hired as guides, plant collectors and research assistants.
Recognizing the Kayapó's need for economic independence, CI has focused on helping them create small businesses to sell such non-timber products as nuts, oil, fruit, honey and crafts.
Seven thousand Kayapó in 28 communities are not the only ones benefiting from the alliance with CI and its partner organizations. With an estimated 4.4 billion tons of carbon stored in the vegetation on Kayapó lands, these guardians of the forest have been playing a crucial role in preventing the acceleration of global climate change.
In April 2012, an important step was taken to ensure that the Kayapó could continue to thrive economically while acting as a barrier to the deforestation that threatens the world's largest tract of tropical forest protected by an indigenous group.
The Global Conservation Fund and the Amazon Fund, which is managed by the Brazilian Development Bank, each committed US$4 million to create the Kayapó Fund. Annual investment returns of about 5% will support projects that protect Kayapó lands and promote economic activities.
The Kayapó Fund is managed by the nonprofit organization Funbio (the Brazilian Fund for Biodiversity) and will channel financial support through a proposal request process via nongovernmental organizations that represent Kayapó interests.
"It took us almost two years to create this fund, but it was worth struggling for it as it will bring climate and biodiversity benefits, in addition to contributing to the well-being of the Kayapó," said Fabio Scarano, CI's senior vice president of the Americas field division.
"This is a great victory for the Kayapó and for Brazil, which is setting an example to the world when it comes to conservation of indigenous lands."
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