Foto: Gustaaf Verswijver, 1991

Mebêngôkre (Kayapó)

  • Autodenominação
  • Where they are How many

    MT, PA11.675 (Siasi/Sesai, 2014)
  • Linguistic family

Contemporary relations with whites


During the 1980s and 1990s, the Kayapó became famous in the national and international media as a result of their activism in pursuit of political rights and the demarcation of their lands, as well as the intense form in which they interacted with local markets in search of industrialized products. During the course of this activism, faces such as those of the leaders Ropni (better known as Raoni) and Bepkoroti (Paulinho Payakã), became famous world-wide, snapped by the press next to artists, personalities and renowned heads of state. Their spectacular appearances in Brasília during the process of the Consitutional Assembly and the intense activities of these leaders in events and protests within Brazil and abroad were a pronounced feature of the period.

The culminating point appears to have been the celebrated pan-indigenous assembly in Altamira in February 1989, which had a pronounced impact in the press. This involved leaders from Kayapó communities, along with representatives of 24 other indigenous peoples and environmentalist groups from various countries, gathered in order to stop the construction of an hydroelectric complex on the Xingu river, in particular the Kararaô plant. During the previous year, Payakã had been in the United States at the invitation of the American anthropologists Darell Posey and Janet Chernela, whereat he had denounced the same project and had questioned representatives of the World Bank who were due to finance it. Conjointly, Raoni had gained international help from the singer Sting, which resulted in the creation of non-governmental organizations for protecting the rainforest and the Kayapó, such as the Rainforest Foundation and its Brazilian affiliate, the Fundação Mata Virgem (Rabben, 1998). In November 1989, Payakã was awarded with a medal of honour from the Better World Society, a philanthropic body for the defence of the environment and the welfare of humanity, in the category for Protection of the Environment.In the 1990s, then, the association of the Kayapó with the international environmentalist discourse was at its peak. It is possible that under the circumstances the Kayapó leaders had exploited this representation in order to call the attention of international public opinion to the problems afflicting them, above all the situation of their lands. But the idealized image which part of the environmentalist movement had of the Kayapó prevented them from seeing that the defence made by the Indians of the forest and nature did not possess an end itself, nor was it based on their supposed natural affinity with the forest. The impression remains that many sources of international help were only interested in the Indians in so far as they acted as defenders of nature. As the anthropologist William Fisher observed (1994:229), it was as though the indigenous way of life was only worth preserving to the extent that it benefited the environment, and not due to their rights to self-determination as a people. And while it is true that a simple glance at satellite images of Amazonia reveals that indigenous areas – including those of the Kayapó – are islands of forest cover surrounded by deforestation, this is certainly not due to the fact that the Indians think like the ecologists.

In this context, while at a global level they were seen defending the forest, locally the Kayapó entered into negotiations with those economic forces who most provoke environmental damage in Amazonia: timber and mining exploration. This characteristic cost the image of the Kayapó dear, above all after the incident involving the leader Payakã in an accusation of sexual violence. The news of the Indians’ commercial relations, added to the ideologized exploitation of the episode, resulted in the Kayapó shifting from being ecological heroes to the real villains of Amazonia. The accusation of Payakã fell as a present into the hands of enemies of the indigenous cause, in the middle of Rio-92, a large United Nations conference on the environment and development. Freire (2001) shows how the Brazilian press sought to demolish the ecological version of the Kayapó, in order to replace it with another in which they appeared as rich capitalists, privileged landowners, ‘half-Whites,’ indulging in all the worst vices of civilization and involved in highly predatory activities such as mining and timber exploration.

However, from the Indians’ viewpoint, allying themselves with the environmentalists and negotiating with the local economy alongside which they had lived over many years are equal elements in their strategies for dealing with the white world, part of their way of confronting the new historical conditions faced by them. In the absence of government policies on indigenous issues, the Kayapó have turned to relying on their own means in order to obtain fundamental resources (symbolic, political and economic) for their social reproduction. Not only consumer goods, services and medical assistance, but also potential partners and collaborators. This explains their need to draw international attention to the problem of demarcating their lands from whoever was willing to listen. So too the negotiation of part of the natural resources of their lands in exchange for money.

In addition, the idealizations (positive or negative) of whites prevents them from perceiving that these strategies were never consensual: in fact, they very often provoked internal conflicts and even splits within the communities between those supporting one type of action or another. The Kayapó are not a monolithic block of thinking and attitudes. It is necessary to understand their actions and strategies both in the context of their ‘external politics’ (their fight for autonomy and ethnic affirmation) and in that of their ‘internal politics’, which also involves disputes for prestige between intra and inter-village leaders and age sets.

On the other hand, experience accumulated over time has taught the Kayapó that they cannot always trust the kuben (‘white’), and that the partnerships are intrinsically unstable and conflictual. From their viewpoint, whites do not behave in adequate fashion, since they lie too much (kuben ênhire), or as the Xikrin like to say jokingly, they have ‘two mouths’ (japê kré amé). The Kayapó know that the negotiations with timber and mining interests – despite being important at the time – were ultimately prejudicial and almost always dishonest. Today, they show themselves to be open to alternatives to the predatory economic model that took such strong root in Amazonia, especially during the military regime. The Xikrin, for example, broke all their contracts with logging firms at the start of the 1990s and committed themselves to the development of a model of sustainable and renewable forest exploration, within the standards of international guidelines. They were the first indigenous group in Brazil to have a Forest Management Plan approved by Funai and Ibama, and today are emerging as an example not only for the other Kayapó, but for the entire state of Pará, in terms of the timber issue. Currently, many Kayapó communities are developing alternative sustainable economic projects, in partnership with NGOs and multilateral funding agencies.

So, despite our traps, the Kayapó continue in their efforts to move on the interface between our world and their own. They have learnt a fair amount about us. And ourselves, what have we learnt from them? Perhaps it is time for us to abandon our idealized visions, whether romantic or cynical, in order to try to comprehend who they really are.