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Portrait of a woman in the village of Ayukre. Brazil, Kayapo Indians, Xingu region

Brazil’s Kayapó: Stewards of the Forest

We support the Kayapó indigenous people in their efforts to protect their culture and habitats, and secure economic independence

© Cristina Mittermeier

A glance at the territories of the Kayapó people on Google Maps shows how they stick out like a green barrier against the surrounding deforestation.

The Kayapó maintain legal control over an area of 10.6 million hectares (around 26 million acres) of primary tropical forest and savanna in the southeastern Amazon region of Brazil. They number approximately 7,000 people scattered across 46 villages in five territories.

Their area is rich in biodiversity and their frontier characterized by violent land conflicts and the highest rate of deforestation in Brazil. Despite their place in the center of Brazil’s so-called “arc of deforestation,” the Kayapó people’s deep respect for nature has led to their spirited protection of their lush forests, rivers and savannas.

Our role

In Brazil, Conservation International has been working with the Kayapó since 1992 to help them protect their land and cultural tradition by strengthening surveillance and institutional capacities of indigenous associations as well as providing economic alternatives to logging. To assist the Kayapó in monitoring their vast border, Conservation International has supplied boats, radios, overflights, fuel, border patrol training and aerial survey data. To help them establish small sustainable businesses and generate income, we focus on non-timber forest products — such as nuts, copaiba oil, fruit and honey — that are abundant in the Kayapó forests and easily harvested. We are strongly committed to ensuring long-term support for the conservation of the Kayapó’s natural resources and cultural traditions.

Our plan

Long-term funding

After almost 20 years of partnership with the Kayapó people, Conservation International advanced its engagement with an important and lasting step in 2011 — the creation of the Kayapó Fund, the first trust fund to focus on long-term financing for conservation of the Amazon by indigenous people. This funding ensures that the Kayapó can 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. With fundraising assistance from Conservation International’s Global Conservation Fund and financial backing from the Amazon Fund, managed by the Brazilian Development Bank, the Kayapó Fund started operations with an initial donation of US$ 8 million. The grants target monitoring and protection of Kayapó land, the development of sustainable economic activities and the reinforcement and capacity-building of Kayapó organization. With the initiative’s early success, Conservation International and the GCF believe the Kayapó Fund can serve as a model for financially supporting other indigenous communities — in Brazil and elsewhere — and their efforts to sustainably manage large areas of land.

Guarding the land

Conservation International recognizes the ability of the Kayapó to fight for their rights and to protect the borders of their territory, the biodiversity of its natural habitats and the ecosystem services they comprise. In order to ensure long-term protection of the Kayapó lands, we are helping to strengthen the capacity for territorial monitoring and surveillance, the generation of economic benefits, and participation in the decision-making process. A territorial monitoring and surveillance program has been developed through supply of boats and radios, equipment maintenance, border patrol training and use of aerial survey data. These expeditions have successfully removed gold miners and scouted some vulnerable sectors of illegal fishing, deforestation and illegal logging.

Sustainable economic activities

Conservation International has joined forces with the Kayapó to help them find ways to earn income through sustainable activities and production chains — transforming non-timber forest products into consumer goods. For example, since harvesting Brazil nuts has been a tradition of Kayapó communities, this activity was expanded to provide a source of income for some Kayapó villages that harvest, transport and process the nuts. In an effort to recover traditional activities, we are also facilitating access to the consumer market for artcraft goods. Similarly, with the support of Banco do Brasil (Brazil’s federally controlled bank) Foundation, the Brazilian Development Bank-managed Amazon Fund and the Kayapó Fund, Conservation International is assisting the Kayapó with an initiative that aims to spur the production chains of honey and “pequi,” a popular edible fruit typical of central Brazil.

© Cristina Mittermeier

By the numbers

1.3 billion metric tons

An estimated 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon are stored in the forests on Kayapó lands.