Amazonian insurgencies or how the Kayapó raised hope for indigenous communities around the world

The construction of a series of mega dams, which was initially stopped in 1989 by a tribe called Kayapó, is now threatening thousands of indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon. I investigated to understand how the Kayapó managed to win the fight against the Brazilian government at the time.

While the world has its eyes riveted on Brazil waiting for the Olympics, indigenous Amazonian tribes are seeing their lives threatened by the construction of a series of mega dams.

Mostly unheard of, except in the spheres of indigenous and environmental NGOs, this fight has been going on for years, and thousands of lives could be changed forever if it goes to completion.

The Belo Monte dam, one of the dams being built, is designed to divert 80% of the Xingu River’s flow and would flood the lands of up to 40,000 indigenous people.

But this project is in nothing original. It is actually the successor of a project that was cancelled at the end of the 1980s when a group of Amazonian tribes, known as the Kayapó, stood up against it.

Barbara Zimmerman, from International Conservation Fund of Canada, has been working with the Kayapó for the past 25 years. She explains: “The Kayapó, really on their own initiative took on themselves to stand up to this.” So how did an Amazonian community manage to stand up in front of the Brazilian government at that time?

The historical context faced by the Kayapó is essential to understand better how this success was made possible. In the 1970s and 1980s, following a pacification campaign in the Amazon, Brazilian settlers started to invade the Kayapó’s territories.

Laura Zanotti, anthropologist at Purdue University, says: “During this period of pacification a lots of groups faced disease, and demoralisation.”

Kayapó were considered as one of the most feared tribe in the Amazon and war played an important part in their lives. Young men were raised from boyhood to become warriors and were expected to go on raids and fight. So they took the invasion of their lands by gold miners and loggers as an act of war and reacted accordingly.

“They gained their rights to their territories in the late 1980s”, explains Barbara. “They did that by pressuring the government. Everything from taking hostages to marching to Brasilia, and just going to the government offices and making demands. So the government basically just gave them their land to get rid of them and they ended up with this huge territory which is unparalleled anywhere in the world.”

map Kayapo
Map of the Kayapó territories delimited by the dark line. The total territory represents more than 300,000 ha. Credit: ICF Canada

On May 4 1985, Payakan – a chief representing the Kayapó- signed an agreement with the government which officially delimitated their territories. Interests in the Kayapó started growing as environmental NGOs began seeing them as possible guardians of the rainforest.

Later on, it’s these same NGOs connections, notably Conservation International for whose Barbara was working at the time, who warned the Kayapó that a series of mega dams was meant to be constructed along the Shingu River threatening their lands. Various tribes would see their lands flooded following this construction funded by the World Bank.

Facing this new struggle, the Kayapó stood up again, more united than ever. As Barbara describes: “They are not shy and retiring. They are aggressive, they are arrogant.” But aggression alone was no solution to this conflict as the Xingu Project was supported internationally. So the Kayapó had to find a way to export their concerns and anger abroad and turn it into a more global protest.

Kayapo society
Kayapó society is based on rituals and ceremonies. Photo credit: Wilfred Paulse Copyright © 2012.

“They strategized with a series of different NGOs, as well as celebrities”, says Laura, “to make sure that in addition of their own voice there were other allies and people there that were able to represent them both in Brazil as well as abroad.”

Two chiefs played an important role in that phase of the conflict and one of them was Payakan. David Suzuki, a Canadian broadcaster and environmentalist, came to meet Payakan in 1988. Touched by the struggle of the Kayapó, he launched a fundraising campaign in Canada and took Payakan to tour the country. This allowed the Kayapó to fund the extremely important gathering which happened in Altamira in 1989.

Payakan became a leader based on qualities such as strength, generosity, and oratory skills but one of his key assets was his understanding of Portuguese. Laura says: “He had gained knowledge of Portuguese and so increasingly you saw some young leaders being singled out because of their ability to navigate between these two worlds and so he was important in that way.”

This capacity to communicate with organizations, governmental or not, allowed Payakan “to gather different types of support whether monetary, gas, food or whatever to go different places”, adds Laura.

However, in order to be successful in their plans, the Kayapó needed to be able to coordinate themselves. Knowing that they were divided into dozens of villages, geographically far from each other, they needed a way to communicate quickly and efficiently.

That’s what radio allowed them to do. Not completely sure of how the Kayapó got their hands on radios, Laura hypothesises the possibility of them being provided by missionaries or organisations such as FUNAI (National Indian Foundation) which worked with the Kayapó.

Laura explains: “Really, it was in part when radio started happening, and becoming widespread in the territory, Kayapó communities could then talk between and amongst each other in different ways that they couldn’t before and in a shorter period of time. And at that moment, leaders like Raoni started to emerge. He would record himself speaking and then circulate that around or play that speech on the radio. So it was a way in which communities recognised him as an important leader and as a good speaker.”

Raoni was the second chief who played an important role in the Altamira gathering. While Payakan was connecting with David Suzuki and touring Canada, Raoni entered in contact with British rock star Sting.

Raoni Kayapo leader.png
Raoni was the second important leader playing a role in the Altamira gathering. He is the one who was in contact with Sting and organised his appearance at the protest. Photo credit: Greensefa

Belgium film maker, Jean-Pierre Dutilleux, who filmed various documentary on Raoni’s tribe says: “Raoni entered the international sphere thanks to my involvement and to the documentaries I produced with him. I am the one who convinced Sting to come in Amazonia to meet him in 1987.” Following this meeting, Jean-Pierre Dutilleux organised a tour for Raoni in Europe where he met various presidents and officials, raising awareness of the threat faced by his tribe.

The Altamira gathering called the ‘First Encounter of Native People’ was a six-days long event composed of a series of meetings with the officials of Eletronorte – the company in charge of the dam project- mixed with ceremonies and rituals. These meetings gave the Kayapó a stage to express their anger and concerns to the world in front of national and international media.

“Because they are Kayapó, they are so colourful and they are so photogenic”, says Barbara. “They are so appealing to media that all the international media was there. And Sting became involved around this dam protest which ended up being successful. But it was successful because of international pressure which they gain because the Kayapó put on this great show and great protest.”

The dances and rituals executed by the Kayapó during these six days were also culturally important as they were part of a broader ceremony called the New Corn Ceremony explains Laura. By performing it with all the different tribes together, the Kayapó were showing their unity and the importance of their cultural heritage. This unity was an essential part of their strategy in fighting their common threat.

Another important factor in the success of the Altamira gathering was the involvement of the entire communities and not just part of it. The gathering was not only for young warriors to attend, women and elders were also present and active. Women were especially important, “they are the hidden part of the story”, explains Laura, “in that the visible part of diplomacy is mostly male.”

Tuire Kayapo r
Tuire, a Kayapó female leader gained popularity when she confronted the Eletronorte official, Jose Anonio Muniz, with a machete during the Altamira protest. Photo credit: Lou Gold.

“However, women are very fundamental in a complementary way to make sure that things are successful. This means that they help to prepare food in advance in order to sustain the groups that are travelling, and they are also primarily the body painters in the community. They also participated in the meeting both in ceremonial types of participation to songs and dance. They took care of kids and were just there in general, being part of the supportive group of Kayapó.”


Somehow, despite having won two major victories against the Brazilian government, the Kayapó are threatened again by the very same project that they had managed to stop fifteen years ago. This resurrection is now fully funded by Brazil so international actions are not as powerful as they were in Altamira. Even though the dam will not flood their lands, the Kayapó might be affected as the government passed a new set of laws.

Richard Pace, visual anthropologist working with the Kayapó, says: “What they are most upset about is the new Brazilian laws that allow the government, basically, to take lands that they had given to indigenous people and take them away for large projects. That’s what they protest most about.”

Barbara explains that even though the government doesn’t state it clearly, they plan to build a holding dam in Kayapó territory. “That would be a huge invasion of their territory and they vowed that they won’t let that happen. “

“Right now anyway their view is that over their dead bodies that they will allow that to happen.”


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