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The Kayapo

Some of the younger members of the Kayapo tribe pose for the camera.

Some of the younger members of the Kayapo tribe pose for the camera.

Bruce stayed with the Kayapo village of Krinu for the last phase of his Amazon trip. The Kayapo are a powerful and well-known Brazilian tribe who inhabit a vast area of the Amazon across the Central Brazilian Plateau. In 2003 the Kayapo population stood at an estimated 7,096. Within their vast area, there are many subgroups and some of these smaller communities are known to exist in virtual isolation, having little direct contact with other Kayapo. They do not refer to themselves as Kayapo preferring the term Mebengokre, meaning 'the men from the water place', but because it is their public name they are happy for it to be used.


The Kayapo have a long history of contact with others. Since the initial arrival of Europeans around 500 years ago, the Kayapo have experienced forced migration further west into the rainforests as a result of invasions, they have lost land and habitat and they have also suffered from the introduction of diseases that accompanied the arrival of outsiders.

Yet the Kayapo have prospered through contacts with media and commerce. The tribe became rich in the 1980s when they employed white outsiders to log species on their lands but this practice ceased when logging was outlawed on indigenous lands. Then the Kayapo decided that their future lay in the preservation of the forest and in 1989 worked with Sting and the late Anita Roddick of The Body Shop to raise awareness about the destruction of the Amazon. They were an important and vocal part of a global media campaign that brought the Amazon to the forefront of environmental debates.

One of the Kayapo families. The women have shaved a distinctive V shape into their scalp.

One of the Kayapo families. The women have shaved a distinctive V shape into their scalp.

Kayapo culture is characteristically rich and complex. Their appearance is highly decorative and colourful, using face and body paint, beads and feathers. The Kayapo believe their ancestors learnt how to live communally from social insects such as bees, which is why mothers and children paint each other's bodies with patterns that look like animal or insect markings, including those of bees. Women shave the distinctive V shape into the scalp and men ceremonially wear the flamboyant Kayapo headdress with outwardly radiating feathers, which represents the universe. The rope of the headdress is a symbol for the cotton rope by which the first Kayapo is believed to have descended from the sky. Traditional ceremonies may last many months and mark the beginning and end of seasons as well as rites of passage. Their beliefs are linked to their environment, which they rely on for sustenance and material resources.

The Kararao Dam Project

In 1989 the Kayapo gained global attention. A proposal to create a series of six hydroelectric dams within their territory threatened to devastate their way of life. The proposal would have flooded around 8,300 square miles. It would have seen the displacement of entire communities and destroyed much of the land on which they depend. Fish stocks, deprived of migratory routes, would have been decimated and huge areas of untouched rainforest would have been lost forever.

However, through mass protest the Kayapo were able to draw support from international figureheads, celebrities and the global media. The protests culminated in a mass rally in Altamira in February of 1989 that drew the eyes of the world to the threat they faced and, eventually, the World Bank was pressured into denying the loan that would have funded the creation of the dams.

The Belo Monte Dam

In May 2008, almost 20 years after their successful protest, the Kayapo are facing the prospect of damming once again. The proposal of a huge hydroelectric dam spanning the Xingu River (a southern tributary of the Amazon) threatens their homes and environment once more. It would see the world's third largest hydroelectric dam affect an estimated 10,000 indigenous peoples as well as the many ribeirinhos, small farmers and rural settlers in the proposed area.

The Altamira Protest

Feelings against the dam run high, and there was a large gathering of indigenous people in the town of Altamira at a protest rally held on and around 20 May 2008. Representatives from some of the electrical companies were present and Bruce and the crew met tribespeople and others to hear the debate, during which they filmed the discussions below.

During the protest the Kayapo wore their warrior dress, which includes carrying knives, bow and arrows. A Kayapo woman cut a representative from one of the electrical companies on the top of the arm after a scuffle following a speech that had caused offence to many of the indigenous people present. The Kayapo have said they will fight to death to defend their land.

The Dam Debate

The Brazilian Government has been accused of abandoning much of their previous commitment to Environmental and Human Rights legislature by supporting the dam's creation. They have been described as bowing under increasing pressure from international mining and metallurgy companies but companies involved in the dam claim that the dam will create jobs and provide an essential energy infrastructure to meet the demands of South America's most prosperous nation.

Some of the Kayapo men in warrior dress during the Altamira protest.

Some of the Kayapo men in warrior dress during the Altamira protest.

Yet independent experts have claimed that the Belo Monte Dam will be one of the least efficient in the world. During the dry season that lasts around three to four months, the dam's turbines will cease to operate, as water levels will be too low. This, many point out, will require the creation of at least four other dams further upstream to store water and generate power for the mining and metallurgical industries growing in the area.

Proponents of the dam have argued that hydroelectricity is a 'green' source of energy at a time when fossil fuels are diminishing but many recent studies have revealed an alarming series of statistics. Measurements taken from dams in Canada and French Guiana show huge quantities of greenhouse gas emissions, the worst examples being dams with shallow reservoirs in tropical areas; areas such as those found along the Xingu River. Not only is the construction of massive dam projects highly energy intensive, the areas filled by the dam produce massive amounts of methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide as submerged vegetation decomposes.

Equally importantly, dams will lead to population displacement, disruption of migratory fish routes, sedimentary pollution and the altering of the waterway's chemistry. The creation of dams may also lead to the spread of diseases. It is argued Kayapo and other inhabitants of the areas near the stagnant waterways would face increased cases of malaria and dengue, something already seen near the Tucurui Dam 250km to the southwest.

Elsewhere on the web:

International Rivers
Summary of the plans for hydroelectric dams on the Xingu River

Heart of Brazil Expedition
Exhibition of images


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