WASHINGTON -- A few weeks ago, I flew over the Amazon in a single-engine Cessna to a reunion with the leaders of the Kayap? nation, one of South America's proudest and most famous indigenous groups. For decades, about 7,000 Kayap? have defended their 28 million-acre, Ohio-sized homeland in the Brazilian states of Par? and Mato Grosso from incursions by speculators, ranchers, gold miners, loggers and squatters.
Today, the Kayap? face a greater and more dangerous foe: five huge hydroelectric dams planned on their lifeline, the Xingu River, and completion of the second half of a 1,100-mile paved highway called BR-163 that slices through Par?. The road will open up the remote frontier region to the kind of exploitation and development that have deforested close to 20 percent of the Brazilian Amazon. Some of the richest biological diversity on the planet has been eliminated, mainly to grow more beef and soybeans for export.
The Kayap? grand chief, Megaron, is leading the fight to preserve their lands, which form the largest tropical rain forest reserve in the world. He and other indigenous leaders recently wrote to World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, imploring him to ensure that the environmental impact of BR-163 and the dams are carefully considered before the bank funds them. Wrote Megaron: "If you lend money to the government of Brazil to pave roads and build other projects [such as] the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam, you will be contributing to the destruction of our forests, and conflicts with, possibly even deaths of, our people."
Each year, 10,000 square miles of the Amazon are leveled - an area the size of Massachusetts. The results of this rapacious destruction stunned me as I flew to the Kayap? summit. The forested wilderness I saw 15 years ago was now scrubland pasture holding thousands of stringy cattle and endless soybean plantations like wheat fields carpeting western Kansas. When we flew over Kayap? land, the scene changed dramatically to magnificent, unbroken rain forest stretching to the horizon. Eden, it seemed, was still safe!
The Kayap?'s tenacious ability to protect their vast homeland and use their forest assets in a sustainable way is an exemplar for safeguarding natural resources everywhere. For centuries, indigenous groups the world over have been victimized by those eager to steal or profit from their lands and resources.
Today, many of the worst abuses have been curbed, but the pressures continue, particularly in the Amazon. To help the Kayap? defend their pristine wilderness, nongovernmental groups such as Conservation International have provided modest assistance in the form of guard posts, training, boats, motors, communications equipment, over-flights and remote sensing analysis to strengthen their territorial surveillance capacity.
With an iron will and aggressive determination, the Kayap? have defended their 1,100-mile border from intruders. But increasing hordes of settlers and fortune hunters are flocking into the Amazon's lawless frontier regions, threatening to occupy Kayap? lands and provoking violent confrontations.
The purpose of our visit was to participate in the sixth Kayap? leaders' summit and strengthen our 15-year alliance. We landed in Piara?u, the only village accessible by road in the 44,000-square-mile territory. About 200 chiefs and warriors had gathered in a large community meeting house. They wore black body paint, were dressed in their finest yellow, green, red and blue feather headdresses with shell and bead necklaces, and carried their traditional weapons - clubs, bows and arrows. The scene evoked a Frederic Remington canvas depicting Indians of the Old West, a jarring but wonderfully stirring vision in this age.
In 1989, the Kayap? successfully halted the same Belo Monte project, and intensive talks at the summit now focused on renewing their opposition. The dams, they argue, would have catastrophic effects on regional ecosystems and flood large areas of their territory. Memories of that initial victory 17 years ago were rekindled with several warriors singing personal war songs before speaking, and threatening again to go to battle.
There was a time warp quality to this powwow in the jungle. Megaron and other Kayap? elders lead a warrior people, maintain an ancient culture, revere their lands and defend them against covetous outsiders. They reminded me of Native Americans fighting the intrusion of the white man during the Western expansion two centuries ago. But there is a major difference. The Kayap? are defending their Amazon homeland not only for themselves but for all of us working to protect the last vestiges of the planet's unspoiled nature.
Russell A. Mittermeier is the president of Conservation International. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.