Course:CONS370/2019/A review and assessment of the sustainable forest management practices in the Kayapo Indigenous Territory in the Brazilian Amazon

From UBC Wiki

This wiki page provides the legal context surrounding the Kayapó and their land, a description of forest management practices and initiatives of the Kayapó, and a power analysis of the various stakeholders with interest in their land.


The Kayapó people are indigenous to the Rio Xingu valley in the central Brazilian Amazon. Their traditional territory spreads across the modern states of Para and Mato Grosso.[1] They currently live in a number of villages scattered throughout the 11.3 million hectares that has been officially protected as Kayapó Indigenous Territory, one of the largest protected indigenous territories in the world.[2] Their territory is made up of tropical forest and savanna shrubland (cerrado) though the Kayapó have their own ecological classification system consisting of categories like “open campo (field) with many forest patches” and “seasonally inundated campo”.[3]

A Kayapo boy in Traditional Regalia

It should be noted that in this wiki page the Kayapó will be referred to as Indigenous expect when referencing sources, primarily legal government documents, which use the terminology 'Indians'.   

Portuguese settlers first made direct contact with the Kayapó in the 1500s, however, indirect contact had already occurred and impacted Kayapó society through the Kayapó’s trade with other Aboriginal groups who had already made direct contact. Pre-contact Aboriginal populations have been consistently underestimated by scholars who have not properly accounted for the impact of disease. What is clear however, is that this disease was the primary factor responsible for decimating both the number of Kayapó and their traditional societal structure.[4] Present population estimates vary widely, likely due to the dispersed and remote nature of Kayapó villages, but range from 4,000 to 10,000 individuals living in a number of autonomous villages.[5][6]

The Kayapó have survived centuries of colonial rule, assimilationist policy, and destruction of Amazonian forest to become one of the most recognizable symbols of indigenous resistance in the past three decades since Brazil has transitioned from authoritarian to democratic rule. This is largely due to their strategic use of media and the way in which they have managed their image through the media. Today many Kayapó continue to engage in their self-sustaining traditional livelihoods, including fishing, hunting, gathering, and agroforestry, while many also engage in market activities. They have worked with Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) to both increase their market integration and to protect the integrity of their territory, primarily against deforestation.[7] 

Many challenges face the indigenous people of the tropics, including the Kayapó. While monitoring and technical capacity are fairly good in the Brazilian Amazon and despite receiving significant outside support for controlling illegal deforestation and degradation, widespread illegal logging for high-value timber still persists.[8][9] Emboldened by the election of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro at the start of 2019, armed bands of land-grabbers, known as “grileiros,” have also been staging attacks on Indigenous communities across Brazil with increasing frequency. A report by the Indigenous Missionary Council in January found that within the first few weeks of Bolsonaro taking office, eight indigenous communities across five Brazilian states have either been attacked, or experienced serious threats of invasion, and by February, at least 14 fully protected Indigenous territories across Brazil were under attack.[10]

Tenure arrangements

The Brazilian Constitution is the primary legal grounding for the management of what today is considered to be Kayapó land. Indigenous Reserves have been established as per Chapter VIII Article 231 of the 1988 Brazilian Constitution. Paragraph 2 of this article states that “lands traditionally occupied by Indians are intended for their permanent possession and they shall have the exclusive usufruct [rights] of the riches of the soil, the rivers and the lakes existing therein”.[11] The constitution recognizes the rights of indigenous people' to pursue their traditional ways of life, as well as the permanent and exclusive possession of their "traditional lands" and establishes the process of demarcation for these lands to be legally recognized as Indigenous Territories.[12]

The Kayapó Indigenous Territory was declared in 1985 and homologated in 1991. Within this 11,346,326 ha area, the Kayapó have the exclusive right to live, rights to sell timber and mining rights, the right to use any and all resources themselves at whatever scale they so choose, and the right to restrict others from operating on the land. They do not, however, have the right to sell the land outright as the land is still the property of the Union (ie. the country) as per Chapter II Article 20 of the Constitution.[13]

Therefore, they do not hold this land as private, or freehold, property. Rather, Indigenous Territories (Portuguese: Terra Indígena) are held collectively by the people living there. There is no set duration to this ownership nor is it conditional on the Kayapó managing in a specific manner (ie. they do not have to extract resources to create revenue for the state). These Indigenous Territories are also not reserves in the sense of a park, where people are prohibited from living or actively using. Instead, Indigenous Territories in Brazil are areas of land to which Indians have exclusive, constitutionally recognized rights based on the recognition that this is first and foremost their land as the original occupants.[14]

Map of Kayapo Territory in the state of Para, Brazil

However, there is a lengthy bureaucratic process required for full legal recognition and protection of an individual territory. The registration of indigenous territories is comprised of three steps: Firstly indigenous territories are identified and declared, following which they were demarcated (boundaries defined) and finally, lands are Presidentially approved (homologated), after which they are able to be registered at a government title registry office.[15]

While Article 67 of the Constitution ordered that all traditional lands be demarcated within the five year period following its ratification in 1988, by 1993, less than half the territories had established boundaries.[16] This process received more red tape in 1996 when Presidential Decree 1775 was enacted, essentially creating greater opportunity for commercial interests to get involved in the registration process by allowing anyone who claims a stake to put forth a challenge on any lands that are demarcated but still unregistered. Approximately 800 challenges were made after the decree, and while only half were heard, at least eight territory demarcations were rescinded.[17]

Administrative arrangements

Prior to the election of Jair Bolsonaro, the role of establishing and carrying out policies relating to Indigenous Peoples, including demarcation of territory, was carried out by the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), under the Ministry of Justice. On January 2nd 2019, however, the new president issued an executive order to dismantle FUNAI’s current authority, withdrawing it from the Ministry of Justice, and thus removing the involvement of the Brazilian Federal Police in indigenous matters; the role of demarcation of indigenous territory has been appointed to the Ministry of Agriculture while the remaining authority of FUNAI was devolved to the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights.[18] Former FUNAI president Sydney Possuelo has described the move as “the death of FUNAI"[19]

Kayapó governance institutions have not remained static over the years but have been forced to adapt to changing situations, for better and for worse. Posey explains that many traditional systems have collapsed due to dispersion of the Kayapó into smaller villages following disease and population declines. Church and state priorities have also caused changes in social organization. For instance, FUNAI’s preference for Portuguese speaking male chiefs has ended the practice of female chiefs and given significant sway to those individuals who can speak Portuguese.[20]

Today the Kayapó live in a number of villages throughout their territory, each one politically and economically autonomous from the rest. Each village is governed by at least two male chiefs.[21] Beneath these chiefs is a hierarchical social structure dominated by male political societies and age grade groups. Top level decision making is carried out within the men’s house, a men’s only space located in the centre of Kayapo villages, the spatial configuration of Kayapó villages reflecting their social structure[22] Technology has also allowed multivillage coordination, as well as alliances to develop with NGO's over the past few decades, which in turn have strengthened the Kayapó’s ability to mobilize around common goals and to negotiate with other stakeholders.[23] Kayapó NGOs are administered by Brazilian professionals under the direction of Kayapo boards of directors (the Kayapo Project).

Affected Stakeholders

The Kayapó

As the only people with a ancestral connection to the land, as well as being the only ones legally allowed to live within their territory, the Kayapó are also the only stakeholders who can be considered to be affected. Identifying the objectives of an entire group of people living in different villages, each one politically and economically autonomous, is a challenging request. They are not a homogeneous group and so do not necessarily hold a perfectly common set of objectives. In fact, it is probable that there are those among the Kayapó who are interested rather than affected stakeholders given their own objectives. This division is perhaps best understood in terms of different villages which are all politically and economically autonomous, though there are likely multiple perspectives in each village as well.[24]

With respect to those Kayapó who are affected stakeholders, their main objectives include the defense of their territory and the conservation of the land, water, and forests necessary for them to ensure the survival of their culture. Many Kayapó also desire greater access to markets, particularly sustainable markets from which they can benefit monetarily while also maintaining the ecological integrity of their territory.[25] This desire for market integration does not negate their status as affected stakeholders because they remain forest-dependent for other aspects of their livelihoods and culture and would be the only ones impacted by activities in this area.[26] It is therefore in their interest to only participate in activities which are sustainable and will not impact their other forest activities and needs whereas interested stakeholders would not be worried about maintaining such a balance. 

The relative power of the Kayapó has changed over time, however, they have always been excluded from the main circles of power and policy, even after the 1988 Constitution established their rights to the land. Therefore, their power is most often generated from their ability to politicize issues, at both the domestic and international levels, while being shut out from engaging directly in decision making processes.[27] This kind of power was first exercised at a large scale in response to the proposed Kararao Dam in 1989. The Kayapó (along with other Amazonian indigenous groups) were able to politicize their opposition to the project and, with the support of NGOs and global personalities, gather enough international attention to their cause that the project was halted. Through this experience the Kayapó learned how to use their image, technology, and the media to successfully exert power while being excluded from formal channels of power. They have continued to build their capacity to do this and have become very adept at politicizing issues and gathering support, affording them a much stronger position of power than they would have otherwise.[28]

Interested Outside Stakeholders

There are many interested stakeholders with regard to Kayapó traditional territory. These stakeholders are described below along with their main objectives regarding the land and their relative power. However, it should be noted that at the time of writing this there remains some uncertainty given the recent changes enacted by Bolsonaro. The consequences of these changes for the Kayapó, and for all Indigenous Peoples in Brazil have yet to truly take hold and government websites have not been updated to reflect these changes. There is however, plenty of reason to believe that these changes will further tip the power of balance against Indigenous Peoples.

The State

There are a number of different parts of the state that have interest in Kayapó territory as discussed in Section 3, but the primary two are FUNAI and the Ministry of Agriculture. According to their website, FUNAI’s “institutional mission is to protect and promote the rights of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil”. However it makes no mention of recent changes regarding this mandate.[29] As such it is difficult to assess what their objectives are at the moment, though it would appear that at the moment they have very little power concerning the protection and demarcation of indigenous reserves, even though they remain active with other responsibilities.[30]

It is worth noting that FUNAI is not an independent organization and has always been subject to political influence from the legislative and executive branches of government. The recent changes to their mandate are not necessarily a new phenomenon: In 2017, FUNAI’s budget was cut by nearly half, and a law was passed that effectively gave amnesty to land grabbers who had continuously occupied lands since before 2011.[31] It is also worth noting that FUNAI should not be viewed as an impartial champion of indigenous rights when there are in fact many conflicting interests within the government.[32]

The transfer of responsibility from FUNAI to the Ministry of Agriculture, therefore, should not be seen as a change in the respective power held by the state but rather as a clear articulation of Bolsonaro’s perspectives on indigenous rights and land. With this in mind the objectives of the Ministry of Agriculture are to develop and promote agribusiness, food security, and employment within the sector. They are seen to be strongly aligned with the agribusiness lobby in Brazil meaning that this shift in objectives favours farming concessions which are tied to deforestation and encroachment onto indigenous lands.

Furthermore, the appointment of Ricardo Salles as Minister of the Environment has led to the firing of many administrators and key officials. IBAMA, the country's environmental agency has been stripped of it of it's power to police environmental crimes, and thus will likely play a diminished role under the current administration[33]

Overall, the state must be considered to be the most powerful stakeholder. Brazil has a history of authoritarian rule, and the trend appears to be repeating itself. Power under an authoritarian governments is tightly held by a very few with extremely limited opportunities for outside actors to access formal channels of decision making. What opportunities to push for change do exist may be extremely dangerous. Many of these authoritarian characteristics have persisted with democracy in Brazil. This transition process has been very incremental with old interests continuing to hold significant power within the new governance structure. This has resulted in the state maintaining strong centralized power and the discretion to determine which other stakeholders get access to decision making channels.[34]

Business Interests

Kayapó territory is very valuable land for a number of business interests including forestry, mining, and agribusiness; all of which involve deforestation and the potential for infringement of indigenous rights. That being said, the Kayapó do hold the right to sell concession rights for harvesting and mining should they choose.

Bolsonaro has stated that he will use presidential decrees to allow agribusiness and mining development on indigenous lands without the consent of Indigenous Peoples.[35] This direct support from the president, though likely to be challenged in the courts, shows that the state has much stronger ties and allegiances to business than to Indigenous Peoples, which affords the former far more power in decision making processes. The constitution is the only protection the Kayapó and others have against this kind of development and that is only as good as the political will required to uphold its principles. Political will seems to be waning at the moment.  

Non-governmental Organizations (NGO’s)

The list of NGOs that have or are currently working with the Kayapó is extensive. Many are domestic, though there are several foreign organizations as well, whose objectives range from indigenous rights to ecological conservation to poverty reduction. The list of NGO's working in Kayapo territory is too numerous to be treated individually here, so they will be discussed as a group. It is important to remember that power imbalances exist between NGOs as well, particularly where their work involves partnerships between foreign NGOs typically based in the developed world, and domestic NGOs which require foreign funding.[36] Further discussion on the role of NGO's working within Kayapo territory, including a truncated list of organizations, can be found in the discussion section below.

NGOs have played a very important role in bringing the struggles of the Kayapó to a global audience, allowing them to successfully politicize land issues and achieve their objectives as discussed in section 4.[37] NGOs can have the power to bring much needed support to the Kayapó in terms of assisting them in navigating the complexities of Brazilian society and strengthening their capacity to assert their rights at scale as well as through initiatives like territorial monitoring and control.[38] They, like the affected Kayapo, operate outside of the main channels of power and so inherently have less power than xxx.


The Kayapó have attracted outside researchers and anthropologists for decades. It is difficult to assess their objectives and relative power since there is little research on the research. However, based on the literature reviewed, their general objectives appear to be gaining a deeper understanding of the Kayapó for academic and personal knowledge (note that this may not be in line with the priorities of the Kayapo) and developing deeper understandings of the issues affecting the Kayapó to help them meet their objectives.

Their power is mostly expressed through their interactions with the Kayapó and very little when it comes to decision making processes. These interactions may be paternalistic in nature or based on the four Rs identified by Kirkness and Barnhardt: respect, reciprocity, relevance, and responsibility.[39]

The Kayapó

Finally, it must be noted that there are those among the Kayapó themselves who are interested rather than affected stakeholders based on decisions they have made. There have been instances of Kayapó communities engaging in unsustainable illegal logging and mining within their territory.[40] This would seem to indicate that their objectives are no longer in line with traditional forest dependent activities.

However, on balance, from what literature is available, this group of Kayapo involved in illegal activities would seem to represent a minority of Kayapó. This, plus the fact that these activities are illegal, likely mean that this segment of the Kayapó has relatively little power compared to those who would be identified as affected stakeholders.   


Bands of land grabbers, known as “grileiros,” have been staging attacks on, and invasions of land in many Amazonian regions. This activity has become increasingly frequent in the wake of Bolsonaro’s election. While at this time, no attacks have taken place on Kayapo territory, such invaders are growing increasingly confident, feeling emboldened by the changes made by the Bolsonaro administration. According to last year's annual report by the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), Invasions of Indigenous lands rose from 59 in 2016, to 96 in 2017.



The Kayapo have a long history of managing their environment in order to meet their needs. Indeed, many forest environments which were initially thought to be natural are in fact the result of Kayapo “manipulation and management.” [41] As such, the Kayapo hold an enormous store of traditional knowledge about caring for the land, and through whose management biodiversity has actually increased.[42]

There exists a high correlation of forest cover persistence and the presence of Indigenous Peoples, and the Kayapo are no exception[43]. This can be, in part, attributed to their forest based subsistence lifestyle, as well as political organization, including alliances with a host of NGO's.[44] Some of the ways in which NGO's have assisted the Kayapo have included: assisting with capacity to organize and mobilize in defence of land and constitutional rights, providing insight into the diversity of intensifying threats currently faced, and canvasing of outside support for continuing territorial protection and control.

While different villages take different approaches to management within the territory, several NGO’s working to protect and enhance indigenous rights and economic status in Brazil include:

A Kayapo woman gathering Brazil Nuts

The Kayapo Project

Instituto Socioambiental

A capacity building workshop for surveillance of Kayapo territory

Comissão Pró-Índio de São Paulo

Centro de Trabalho Indigenista

Operação Amazônia Nativa

Planéte Amazone

Conselho Indigenista Missionário

These organizations have supported initiatives to integrate the Kayapo into modern markets in an effort to become more economically self-sufficient. Some of the ways they have sought to accomplish this include ecotourism (i.e. catch and release fishing) and the harvesting and sale of non-timber forest products (NTFP’s, such as Brazil Nuts, honey and “pequi,” a popular edible fruit found in central Brazil). Further initiatives include assistance in strengthening capacity for territorial monitoring, and border surveillance in an effort to stem the loss of illegal resource extraction (Conservation International, 2019).


Threats encroaching on Kayapo territory are varied and complex. Some of the greatest sources of forest degradation are from resource extraction activities, such as illegal logging, fishing and gold mining. However one of the largest drivers of Amazonian deforestation comes from conversion of forest land to pasture by the dominant ranching culture.[45]Government infrastructure projects such as the construction of hydroelectric dams, roads and highways are also threatening to reduce the forest land on which the Kayapo subsist.

As noted above, the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro has proven to be one of the greatest threats to the future well being of not just the Kayapo, but all Indigenous Peoples in Brazil. In a television interview shortly prior to his election, Bolsonaro stated that if it were up to him, “there won’t be any more demarcations of Indigenous land”.[46] Soon after his election, Mr. Bolsonaro tweeted a video of one of his ministers suggesting that many existing Indigenous protected areas have been created based on fraudulent documents, and calling the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) “spurious” and “treasonous.”[47]

This changes in organization of FUNAI was emphasized in January 2019, when retired Brazilian Army officer and indigenous descendant General Franklimberg Ribeiro de Freita, who recently advised Canadian mining company Belo Sun about its plans to mine gold in the Amazon, was appointed President.[48] The military has had a highly antagonistic relationship with Indigenous Peoples in Brazil making this appointment quite telling regarding the direction the state plans on taking with Indigenous Peoples.[49] While the cessation of demarcations of Indigenous land is not likely to affect the Kayapo, who have had their territory officially homologated for some time, the transference of FUNAI to a ministry that does not have access to Federal Police resources is likely to reduce the power of the Kayapo to defend their territory from illegal resource extraction. The same can be said of the reduction in authority of the environmental agency, IBAMA. The pace of change under this administration is rapid, and will likely have extended beyond the scope of this article at the time of publication; Christian Poirier, the program director at Amazon Watch has said: “if you’re not following the news in Portuguese on a regular basis, you’re missing [key news] because it’s moving very, very swiftly. The pace of devastating rollbacks is mind-boggling.”[50]


While some have argued that empowering Indigenous People to manage their own lands is actually detrimental to conservation efforts, the recognition and fulfillment of Indigenous rights in Brazil has shown that Indigenous Peoples do indeed have an important and active role to play in forest management and conservation.[51] While unsustainable resource extraction coupled with deforestation has occurred within Indigenous territories, most Indigenous Peoples have strongly defended their land against such activities in order to maintain their forest dependent culture. Consequently, Indigenous territories have become the most important tool for Amazonian conservation.[52]

The Kayapo have been especially strong and successful protectors of their territory and the rich biodiversity that it holds. This has not happened by accident but is the outcome of the balance of power held among all of the involved stakeholders. This balance has shifted over time and appears to be shifting again. The rhetoric and administrative changes made by Bolsonaro show that the executive branch of the government is focused on expanding their scope of power, to support business interests at the expense of all Indigenous Peoples. These business interests have a long and close history with government and appear to be set to benefit; proving that access equals power.[53]

The power of NGOs in this struggle is difficult to assess given that their involvement may have unforeseen consequences and can lack continuity depending on funding and interest.The involvement of NGOs, specifically foreign NGOs, has both aided Kayapo initiatives but has also increased the backlash against indigenous rights throughout the years. Anti-indigenous coalitions framed these organizations as outside agitators seeking to exploit naive Indigenous Peoples and undermine Brazil as an emerging global power.[54] This is an argument that Bolosnaro has incorporated into his language when talking about rolling back Indigenous rights (Branford and Torres, 2019).[55]

Struggle is not new to the Kayapo. Despite having land rights enshrined in the constitution, their real power has been their ability to publicly politicize land issues. Not only did this help them get these rights in the constitution to begin with but it has been vital to ensuring that they are respected and exist in reality rather than simply being words on paper. This tactic has worked where there has been a significant event or focal point that the Kayapó have been able to draw attention to. However, once resolutions have been found and international attention has waned so may their level of power until the next major fight occurs. In between these moments, the state and other interests opposed to indigenous land rights have been able to roll back constitutional rights through legislation meant to slow the demarcation of indigenous reserves and challenge the boundaries of those that already exist.[56] Therefore, despite considerable success in defending their territory, the Kayapó remain on unequal footing with other stakeholders in the overall balance of power, forced to act from outside the system instead of as recognized and respected partners in decisions making that could significantly affect their lives and even their existence.


The Kayapo’s situation is a tenuous one and will require continued struggles; their way of life has been shaken to its core in recent decades. While increased exposure to mainstream culture has created many drastic changes, many of the successes in defending their territory have also come from leveraging alliances with NGO's and amongst villages. Continued partnerships amongst villages and alongside NGO's will be of more importance than ever in the face of reduced assistance from, and greater power imbalances with, the nation state of Brazil. In addition to the programmes that are already underway (see "successes" above), one possible opportunity could come from negotiations within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to garner funding, and in turn secure territory from illegal logging through the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) mechanism.[57] Continued attempts to gain support from the international community, as has proven valuable in the past, could offer some hope to help prevent disastrous encroachments on Kayapo territory. As the Amazon rainforest is the world’s largest terrestrial carbon sink (the forest stores an estimated one-sixth of the world’s plant-based carbon), its protection is of extreme importance for the future stability of the climate. [50]


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  52. Nepstad, D; Schwartzman, S; Bamberger, B; Santilli, M; Ray, D; Schleisinger, P; Lefebvre, P; Alencar, A (2005). "Inhibition of Amazon Deforestation and Fire by Parks and Indigenous Lands". Conservation Biology. 20 (1): 65–73. doi: Check |doi= value (help).
  53. Carvalho, Georgia (2000). "The politics of indigenous land rights in Brazil". Bulletin of Latin American Research. 19 (4): 461–478.
  54. Carvalho, Georgia (2000). "The politics of indigenous land rights in Brazil". Bulletin of Latin American Research. 19 (4): 461–478. doi: Check |doi= value (help).
  55. Branford, Sue; Torres, Mauricio (March 15 2019). "BRAZIL'S BOLSONARO GOVERNMENT WANTS TO CIRCUMVENT THE CONSTITUTION TO ALLOW MINING ON INDIGENOUS LANDS". Pacific Standard. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  56. Carvalho, Georgia (2000). "The politics of indigenous land rights in Brazil". Bulletin of Latin American Research. 19 (4): 461–478.
  57. Zimmerman, B. & C. Cormos. (2012). [file:///C:/Users/chubbyp.stu/Desktop/AF/case%20study/Zimmerman%20Bioscience%202012.pdf "Prospects for Sustainable Logging in the Tropics"] Check |url= value (help) (PDF). BioScience.

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