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Native Amazon Peoples Helping to Make Forest-Friendly Growth More than “Just Another Wish”

The Kayapo sing and dance as they arrive in Sao Felix. Credit: Rane Cortez.

Editor’s Note: Rane Cortez works for The Nature Conservancy and is based in Belem, Brazil. She has just moved for two months to the highly-deforested frontier town of São Felix do Xingu in northern Brazil to work with local farmers, ranchers, landowners, indigenous groups and city officials to together promote forest-friendly sustainable growth for the area.

This post is the fifth in a series over the next eight weeks that will share her perspective from the frontlines of Amazon deforestation.

By Rane Cortez

I watched in awe as boats carrying over 3,000 indigenous people from Kayapo villages descended on São Felix do Xingu. As the boats began to round the bend to the dock, I could hear their forceful chanting accompanied by the beating of staffs on floorboards. As they came closer, I could see that their bodies were painted from head to toe in black tribal designs. Many wore immense feathered headdresses and ornate beaded jewelry. Others carried bows and arrows.

The Kayapo are famous warriors and they adeptly defend their territory, with force if needed. But this week they were not here to fight, they were here to dance and share their culture and perspectives with the people of São Felix. They began by dancing right off the boats and onto shore, the women singing unearthly high-pitched notes and the men chanting deeply while they all stomped their feet in time. It was one of the most incredible scenes I have ever witnessed.

The dances and fashion of the Kayapo intrigued me and I eagerly participated in the festivities, getting painted in Kayapo style and learning some of the dance steps. But I wanted to know more, so I sat down with Paulinho Paiakan, a Kayapo leader, to discuss village life and the challenges the Kayapo face.

Kayapo women demonstrate traditional dances during the festival. Credit: Rane Cortez.

“The Kayapo are under threat,” Paulinho informed me. He described the increasing influence of “white” culture, which threatens traditional ways of life, as well as the invasions of loggers, miners, and settlers, which still occur despite the legal demarcation of their lands. He also talks about climatic changes and how they are affecting the villages.

“When the climate was normal and there wasn’t so much deforestation close to our lands, we understood everything – everything was clear in the science of the Kayapo. For example, when the moon was at this height,” he explained, holding his hand at a 45 degree angle in front of him, “That’s when we knew the rains were about to begin. But that doesn’t happen anymore. Now it starts raining well before the moon reaches that height. And the dry season starts earlier as well. We are feeling these changes.”

Paulinho continued to explain that they are witnessing nature starting to adapt to these changes. “This type of açai would only give fruit after July,” he says, pointing to a nearby palm. “Now, we have açai in May because the climate changed and the forest and the vegetation are changing as well. If the açai waited to produce until July, it would run out of time and would stop producing and would die.”

I asked Paulinho what he thought we could do about these changes.

“The whole world knows the cause of this,” he says. “Burning, pollution, contamination, ranching, mining, dams, large industries, all of this is contributing. So instead of you asking me what we should do, I have to ask you what you can do to help us avoid more of these changes in climate.”

A good question.

One proposal for helping the indigenous people of Brazil manage their natural resources in the face of increasing threats is the National Policy for Environmental Management of Indigenous Territories. This Policy aims to support indigenous people in mapping out their lands and resources, developing life plans for managing those areas over the long-term, and implementing sustainable income activities (like selling tree seedlings for reforestation efforts or eco-tourism). I asked Paulinho what he thought about the Policy.

“I think it’s good,” he says, “But there have been so many promises, so many people who say they want to conserve nature. It’s like this: if I say I want to travel up this river to its source, but I don’t have a boat and I don’t have a motor and I don’t have any gas, then all it is is a wish. That’s what we don’t need – more wishes. That’s why we want this Policy – to work in partnership with us to help us protect the environment of the Kayapo, which is so beautiful and so valuable. This is very important for us.”

Rane Cortez and Paulinho Paiakan, a Kayapo leader. Credit: Rane Cortez.

The Nature Conservancy is working to ensure that the Policy becomes more than just a wish. Together with the national government and other partners, we are helping pilot this Policy in key indigenous territories throughout the Amazon. In these those select places, indigenous people will develop and implement their own plans for a sustainable future and their efforts will serve as a catalyst for implementing the Policy at a larger scale.

We hope that these pilots, combined with substantial reductions in deforestation (the cause of the majority of carbon pollution in Brazil), will help ensure a sustainable future for the Kayapo, for other indigenous groups, and for us all.