National Geographic News
Photo of Kayapo people walking through the thick jungle.

Kayapo warriors move through the forest with shotguns and axes in search of fresh game.

Photograph by Martin Schoeller, National Geographic

Barbara Zimmerman

for National Geographic

Published December 22, 2013

Editor's note: The author is director of the Kayapo Project of the International Conservation Fund of Canada.

The destruction of the Amazon in Brazil can be seen by satellite: Where logging roads have spread their tentacles and ranchers have expanded their grazing, all is brown.

Beginning in the early 1980s, these photos from space lost more and more green, so that by 2004 the destruction seemed unstoppable. Brazil's deforestation rate had reached an alarming 27,000 square kilometers (nearly 17,000 square miles) per year.

But stop it did—not everywhere, but at the borders of what appears from space to be a green island the size of a small country. The brown spreads around this protected zone in the southern Xingu river basin of Brazil, but doesn't penetrate.

These are the borders of the lands of indigenous tribes.

A Lesson for Environmentalists

The massive green island is comprised of ten legally ratified indigenous territories totaling 35 million acres (14 million hectares). The forest is home to roughly 7,000 Kayapo Indians and, to the south, another 5,500 Indians from 14 different groups.

(Read "Kayapo Courage" in National Geographic magazine.)

For those who want to protect the Amazon, there's a lesson here. How do relatively few indigenous people manage to keep the chainsaws and bulldozers at bay over a vast area of pristine forest?

Legal protections are part of the answer: Threatened by ranchers, loggers, and gold miners on their borders, the Kayapo fought for and won official recognition of their lands in the 1980s and 1990s. (Their southern neighbors were already living in a smaller protected area, the Xingu Indigenous Park, established in the 1960s.)

But this region of the southeastern Amazon is like the Wild West, a territory lacking proper governance. Violent conflict over land, illegal logging and gold mining, fraudulent land deals, and other corruption are rampant. Laws are not protection enough.

Understanding the Enemy

Some native tribes have staged protests, pressured the government, and fought on the ground to secure their rights. Some have also formed alliances with environmental and indigenous-rights organizations, which have helped them to form their own nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), enabling them to enlist further outside backing.

One example: Overflights of Kayapo territory in recent years, funded by outside NGOs, spotted gold miners in a remote area. After government inaction, the outside partners equipped a Kayapo expedition with boats, motors, fuel, GPS, and radio.

In July, several dozen Kayapo warriors traveled more than 200 kilometers (124 miles) by boat and on foot to strike at the illegal mining camps. They destroyed the mining equipment and pressured the government to send helicopters to take the captured miners away.

NGOs have also supported initiatives to help the Kayapo become economically more self-sufficient. These include a program to harvest and sell hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of Brazil nuts, giving families needed income and reducing pressure to allow in loggers and miners in return for cash.

New Threats

The Amazon rain forest is the greatest expression of life on Earth. It is home to about a third of our planet's terrestrial life forms, cycles about one-quarter of the Earth's freshwater, and plays a key role in absorbing carbon and moderating climate.

The need to remain vigilant and engaged is constant. Destruction of rain forest continues, and the powerful agriculture, mining, and logging lobbies in Brazil are proposing amendments to the 1988 constitution that would, in effect, remove legal protections from indigenous lands.

More outside assistance and deeper alliances with the indigenous tribes of the Amazon are urgently needed.

Click on the links below to learn more about what you can do to help save Amazon rain forest and indigenous cultures.

NGOs that are dedicated to protecting the Amazon and indigenous rights in Brazil:

International NGOs that are working to save Amazon rain forest in various countries:

21 comments
Esther Ngoda
Esther Ngoda

Aww..the amazon!!! Humans..we destroy things!

Gloria A.
Gloria A.

If the tribes are already preventing the deforestation why aren't we doing anything?

Samuel Brown
Samuel Brown

The picture of the cute girls on the front cover juxtaposed with the car advertisement on the next page gave me culture shock! Excellent job with this article on how an indigenous tribe deals with the overly developed industrial world while keeping their cultural traditions and identity intact. It is a good education for people that don't have any contact with indigenous peoples. I send a word of caution to anyone who spends a lot of time with an indigenous community: take care when you return to the over-consuming world. Find friends who are good listeners and avoid large department stores to make your reentry less overwhelming.

Tigre Pickett
Tigre Pickett

Great exposure of the work The Kayapo Project and the rest of the NGOs supporting indigenous rights.

We'd like to add our name to the list of NGOs working directly with tribes. We are Acaté Amazon Conservation (http://acateamazon.org) and we are collaborating with the Matsés, one of Peru's largest remaining indigenous peoples.

Our projects include a Traditional Medical Encyclopedia, written in the Matsés own language, to help protect their heritage of natural healing; creating sustainable economic alternatives to logging and petroleum work by sustainably harvesting medicinal tree resins; and establishing a permaculture farm to share with other tribes the potential for regenerative agriculture.

All of our work is intended to provide viable alternatives for the indigenous of the Amazon because we know that they are the true guardians of the Amazon. Like the article states, the reason we have any Amazon left is mostly due to the tenacity, and spirit of the indigenous peoples fighting to maintain their way of life.


Thomas Scott jr.
Thomas Scott jr.

It is refreshing to read and see the struggles of the peoples of the rainforest. Greed must have restraint. We have to share and protect the land. It is a universal responcibility. 

Ryan Peters
Ryan Peters

The harvesting of high value rainforest products like medicinal herbs, nuts, and fruits provides an opportunity for locals to make money, preserve their land, and may just educate consumers around the world on the value of the South American rainforest, and the urgency of preserving it. This article hits the nail on the head. I work with Tambor Acai (based out of HI and CA) and we are committed to sourcing our product in a way that benefits everyone and every place involved.

Ryan Peters
Ryan Peters

An economical way to patrol the land could be through the use of drones.

Mirelle Dogenski
Mirelle Dogenski

A International Conservation Fund of Canada preocupando-se e cuidando da Amazônia brasileira, que nem mesmo as autoridades brasileiras se preocupam...espero que esta realidade mude um dia. E parabéns aos envolvidos no projeto e pelo artigo!

Merrell Gerber
Merrell Gerber

it took everyone working together. this is what we all must do to save our mother planet and her peoples. thank you for this positively focused article.


Manuel Lukingan
Manuel Lukingan

Long live Kayapo and all the indigenous people. They are the real environmentalist and savior of the planet earth.  Genuine not like the religious ignorant and hypocrite people.

Jack McCabe
Jack McCabe

Thank you for bringing attention to the important conservation work being done in this beautiful and bio-diverse part of the world.  The model of empowering the local tribes to protect their land and preserve the Amazon is a promising one, and hopefully one that will continue to expand in the region.  The narrative of the Kayapo successfully standing up to the illegal miners and getting them removed from their land is an underdog story we can all get behind. 

bijit das
bijit das

Why the simple education about ' We need tree to absorb Carbon-DI-oxide exhaled by animal including us and release oxygen needed to stay alive' is not understood by human being ? Rate of rise in population is leading to depletion of tree. It is alarming that unless human growth is restrained and present greenery is maintained ( whatever is left), we are creating our own death chamber. 

Bradley Davis
Bradley Davis

Great article, thanks Nat. Geo. for helping raise awareness

Srinivas Srivasthav Bontula
Srinivas Srivasthav Bontula

Great work being done by the NGO's along with the locals, more support is needed for keeping their livelihood safe.

Cary R Burke
Cary R Burke

A stand has been taken & must continue to stay in place.....

Roiikka-Ta P Globetrotter
Roiikka-Ta P Globetrotter

id have BEEN defending it if i were one of them. it should be illegal to destroy these things as it is illegal to destroy an endangered species. we may as well be becoming an endangered species. and then the loggers and such go and say "but i have kids to feed!" well your "kids" wont be around long if you do things like THIS . . .

Barry Keaveney
Barry Keaveney

Yea, we will all suffer if we just keep consuming the world. Restoration and balance necessary. 

Julio Borges Borges
Julio Borges Borges

The people need understand that all forest there are  many form of  live, there is a great balance of energy there and because this these places should be protected, and amazon forest is a big example. 

Wing  Kong
Wing Kong

A good way to protect the flora and fauna. Our globe is sufficiently being developed, stop developing, keep appreciating the floara and fauna.

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