The Kayapo Conjuncture: An Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance with International Civil Society Against Violence and Rights Abuse by the State and National Security

Terence Turner, Anthropology, University of Chicago

Research Grant, 1997, 1999

The 1990s brought an intensification of efforts to extract the natural resources of the Amazon (mining, especially of gold; logging of tropical hardwoods; the clearing and burning of large tracts of forest by agribusiness and cattle ranching interests; big highway construction projects that brought uncontrolled influxes of settlers and further deforestation; and vast hydroelectric dam schemes that threatened to destroy fisheries and flood huge areas) that were fostered by the Brazilian state, whose developmentalist policies were driven in large part by pressure from global financial institutions and foreign governments to reduce Brazil’s huge debt and trade deficit. Standing in the path of these projects were scattered indigenous peoples and communities of regional Brazilian settlers. These groups were unorganized, poor, and in many cases relatively unacculturated. To most observers, they seemed about to be overwhelmed and pushed off their land, as their forest habitat was burned around them and their rivers dammed and polluted by mining operations.

The performance and achievements of the Kayapo and the conjuncture of forces of which they were able to make themselves the focus during this period was nothing short of spectacular.

As an anthropologist who had been studying one of the most important indigenous Amazonian peoples, the Kayapo, since 1962, it seemed to me that the prophecies of doom were premature. I had observed that beginning in the mid-1970s, the Kayapo had been taking the measure of the threats to their ecosystem and the survival of their communities and culture, and acquiring the resources and contacts to confront and deflect or defeat them. I thought that chronicling and analyzing their struggles in the climactic decade of the mid-90s to mid-2000s might have general implications for the conventional wisdom of developmentalist theory, anthropological and political science treatments of the relation of marginal and ‘weak’ populations and ethnic groups to globalization and state-sponsored development, and might also serve as an example for other indigenous and regional settler groups contending with the same forces. In a number of field trips made possible by the grant, I was able to document, and to a considerable extent theorize, the processes through which the Kayapo were able to transform their own social and political structure to form a united front to regain control of their extensive traditional territory, make a series of interethnic alliances with other indigenous and Brazilian settler groups, attract the support of national and international civil society (in the form of nongovernmental organizations devoted to environmental conservation, human rights, and indigenous support), and important sectors of the Brazilian state itself (such as the judicial system, parts of the federal bureaucracy, and elected members of the national congress) as well as important coverage in the media and the scientific and academic establishment. This was the conjuncture I proposed to study: I was fortunate that so much of it developed and exerted its effects in the period supported by the grant. The performance and achievements of the Kayapo and the conjuncture of forces of which they were able to make themselves the focus during this period was nothing short of spectacular, and has continued to be so down to the time of this writing. I believe that the account of their achievements and the analysis of the factors and processes that have made them possible that I have been able to work out and publish with the support of the grant have had (at least to some extent) the more general effects on developmentalist thinking and anthropological theory for which I hoped.

In all, the research made possible by the grant has directly or indirectly produced twenty published articles and reports, and either directly supported or laid the foundation for nine trips to Kayapo communities, or in a couple of cases to the offices and archives of Brazilian governmental and nongovernmental agencies concerned with the Kayapo, located in Brasilia and Sao Paulo. A selected list of articles follows, including a recently published piece which although it is later than the period covered by the grant does draw together most of the main issues addressed by the research.

  1. Turner, Terence. "Extrativismo mineral por e para comunidades indígenas da Amazônia: a experiência entre os Waiãpi do Amapá e os Kaiapó do sul do Pará" [Mineral extraction by and for indigenous Amazonian Communities: Gold Mining by the Wayampi and Kayapo]. Cadernos do Campo, Sao Paulo, (1998).

  2. Turner, Terence. "Indigenous and culturalist movements in the contemporary global conjuncture." In Francisco F. Del Riego, Marcial G. Portasany, Terence Turner, Josep R. Llobera, Isodoro Moreno, and James W. Fernandez. Las identidades y las tensiones culturales de modernidad,1999.

  3. Turner, Terence. "Indigenous rights, environmental protection and the struggle over forest resources in the Amazon: the case of the Brazilian Kayapo." In Jill Conway, Kenneth Keniston, and Leo Marx, eds., Earth, air, fire and water: the humanities and the environment, 2000.

  4. Turner, Terence and Fajans-Turner, Vanessa. "Political innovation and inter-ethnic alliance: Kayapo resistance to the developmentalist state." Anthropology Today 22(5) (2006):3-10.

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