The Kayapo Indians’ Struggle in Brazil
The Kayapó get settled at a rally against a dam on the Xingu River, Brazil. Photo: International Rivers.
Summer 2003 with the Kayapo Indians of Brazil, a personal account: I was decorated, head to toe, in paint. The city dust tried to fade the colors but I still remembered. I remembered spending hours in the shade of Baycocaco’s house in a frozen stance as she moved her fingers steadily, constantly, down my back. The coolness of the paint traced my body, exaggerated the whiteness of my skin. I practiced a few Kayapo words in between strokes: ‘Mex Kumrex’ (beautiful/ good/ thank you), ‘Akatemae’ (good morning), ‘Wea-wea’ (butterfly). She smiled, revealing her aged set of teeth. We laughed at my attempts but she encouraged me with a hand on my upper chest, a common Kayapo gesture of appreciation. She painted vertical stripes with dots on my legs, turned my arms into the scaled pattern of a fish, and highlighted my cheekbones with crosshatchings. She painted me Kayapo. Painted Kayapo on my belly. Painted Kayapo on my heart. The paint dried. My skin pulled it down, fastened it, let it seep to the place where I hold it now — deep in my chest.
Who are the Kayapo Indians?
The Kayapo Indians are an indigenous tribe inhabiting land on both sides of the Xingu River in the state of Pará, Brazil on the Central Brazilian Plateau. Nine Kayapo villages are scattered throughout the territory, creating a 28.4 million acre home for more than 5,000 people.1 The dominant ecosystems are tropical rainforest and grassland in which the Kayapo hunt, fish, and practice swidden agriculture (slash and burn). The Kayapo wear intricate beadwork and headdresses in ceremonies and decorate their bodies with dye coming from the plants genipapo and urucu. The Kayapo refer to themselves as Mebêngokrê, which means ‘the men from the water place.’
How is Kayapo culture at risk?
- Pollution: Outside the boundaries of the territory, acres of soybean and cattle characterize Brazil’s landscape. The ecological stress from these practices is negatively affecting life for the Kayapo and others. Pollution is traveling from the headwaters of the Xingu downriver to the reserve, contaminating water supplies and food resources.
- Land Invasion: Parts of the east bank of the Middle Xingu called Kapôtnhinore are being illegally invaded and sold. Over the last two years ranchers and others have sought out the land. Hostile relationships have formed, creating a dangerous and volatile environment and also blocking river travel.
- Hydroelectric Dams: The Brazilian government has revived a set of plans that will establish dams along the Xingu River. The proposed project would displace Kayapo from their homes, cause a loss of sustenance for those living downstream, disturb fish populations, and damage terrestrial ecosystems.
In 1989 these issues reached a climax. The original plans for damming were exposed, revealing the damages that would occur if such a project were to ensue. The proposals would
- harm about 3,000 people who live along the Xingu
- flood more than 1,600 square kilometers, 85% of which would be indigenous land
- create the world’s largest manmade lake2
The Kayapo did not passively watch the scene unfold. They took action that would reverberate globally. In the town of Altamira an intertribal, international, and integrated coalition, called The Peoples of the Xingu, was formed to demonstrate against the dams. For five days the town was transformed into a traditional Kayapo village — homes filled with men, women, and children, adorned in ceremonial dress for the New Corn Ceremony, performing their daily tasks. Over 600 Kayapo, 40 other indigenous Amazonian tribes, world media members, and non-government organizations (NGOs) representatives shook the streets until the government pledged to listen. In addition to the demonstration, the Kayapo met with government officials and sent chiefs to tour North America, Europe, and Japan.3
Through effective leadership and organization the Kayapo presented their culture to the world, showing their vigor and vitality. The global community returned with a voice of support and respect, loud enough to urge the termination of the project. The unprecedented victory gave hope and empowerment to the region and world.
14 years later the government has reopened the book on the Xingu. A second round of proposals are being reviewed and the Kayapo plan a second round of defense.
- Electronorte, an electrical utilities company owned by the state, is spearheading this initiative to create the world’s third largest dam.4 The first dam, the Belo Monte, will not be able to operate during the four-month long dry season, making the system inefficient and dependent on the construction of additional dams.
- A canal system has also been proposed that would be the largest canal project since the Panama Canal.
- Funding for the proposal comes from Electronorte and private vendors like the Brazilian National Developmental Bank.
- There will be no compensation to the people who would be displaced or harmed.5
November 2003 in Piaraçu, Brazil, 100 delegates from some 28 tribes met to reorganize a plan to halt the abuse of their land.6 The purpose of this meeting was to form a united front of opposition to the harmful developments that will affect all the people who depend on the Xingu. This meeting was the precursor to a meeting that is planned for summer 2004 in Altamira, where again the Kayapo and their friends will raise their voices.
As I walked through the streets of Redençao, the out-post city six hours outside the village, I considered my role in the Kayapo’s struggle. Some of my paint was covered with Kayapo style cloths and jewelry. Some Brazilians in this area hate the Kayapo and admire Americans. Every corner I turned, another confused look settled upon me. My superficially bronzed skin and touring eyes revealed my home. I was a young American woman stitched in Kayapo. Every patch of my body sent a clear message I was proud to post wide.
I now continue with this message: Kayapo Indian culture holds beauty that our world cannot afford to live without. Just as in Redençao, I recognize the privileges I have and with that comes the responsibility to know where and how to apply that energy.
The Kayapo need help. The Brazilian government wants to dam the Xingu River that they depend on. Pollution and ranchers encroach; logging and mining chip away. These are some of the challenges faced by the Kayapo Indians as modernity slowly tries to sew itself into their fabric. The Kayapo are strong in leadership, creativity, spirit, and love but without global support they may be overcome by the development’s impetus. Before we left the village, the Chief and his son came up to us and asked for our help. Please hear their words.
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