By Lisa Garrigues -- Today correspondent
LA PAZ, Bolivia - The Kayapo people of the Brazilian Amazon, facing increased threats to their territory from encroaching development and hydroelectric dams, are turning to sustainable agriculture as one way to protect and preserve their land.
In 2006, the Bau Indigenous Territory of the Kayapo Nation was granted forest certification from the Forest Stewardship Council for the Brazil nut harvesting program on their 3.7 million acres of territory, the largest area of tropical forest in the world to receive FSC certification.
Kayapo representative Luis Carlos da Silva said other communities were also seeking certification as a way to preserve their land and develop better markets for their products.
The Kayapo, which includes 5,000 people in 14 communities, own and manage 28.4 million acres of rain forest, a territory the size of Ohio and the world's largest area of tropical forest protected by a single indigenous group.
The community met a rigorous series of environmental and social requirements to qualify for the FSC certification, received from Rainforest Alliance in collaboration with the Institute for Agricultural and Forestry Management and Certification.
Richard Donovan, chief of forestry at the Rainforest Alliance, called the certification ''an important global benchmark, as indigenous groups in many countries are increasing their influence over the quality of forest management.''
Luis Carlos Sampaio said his community decided to focus on their traditional methods of Brazil nut harvesting after logging and mining activities in the 1980s and '90s divided community members.
With the certification, he said, ''We have more control over our forest, and our harvesting of natural resources.''
Because Kayapo territory is considered ''semi-autonomous'' by the Brazilian government, the Kayapo were able to gain control of mining and logging concessions when outside companies tried to move onto their land, using the money to invest in their communities as well as hire guards and buy equipment to protect their borders. But more traditional Kayapo rejected the activities, and while some Kayapo grew rich, many remained in poverty.
''It was damaging our reputation in the world and causing fights about money and power,'' Sampaio said.
The community turned to Brazil nut harvesting as a more sustainable and collective way to generate income.
Some communities have installed Brazil nut oil-making machines on their territory and entered into contracts with cosmetics companies.
At a meeting last year, Kayapo leaders spoke of the importance of developing sustainable agriculture not only as a way to replace mining and logging as sources of income, but to defend their territory against the current encroachment of cattle ranches, soy farms and other activities that damage and pollute Kayapo lands.
More and more communities are ''occupying'' and utilizing their own territories by developing agricultural projects for regional and international markets, which include copal, tree resin, cacao, rice, beans, manioc and banana. Each community commits to installing guard posts along the borders of its part of the territory.
FSC certification will help the Kayapo protect their land against development that would result from a proposed 1,800-kilometer paved highway that would cut into the Amazon, representatives from Rainforest Alliance said.
This highway, and five hydroelectric dams proposed on the Xingu River, is currently of serious concern to the Kayapo.
In 1989, they successfully defeated the proposed Belo Monte hydroelectric dam on the river by organizing a public hearing at the dam site. The meeting was attended by hundreds of representatives from other Amazon communities, nongovernmental organizations and the Brazilian government. Other attendees included media from around the world, as well as the rock star, Sting.
Now it seems they have to fight the same battle again.
In August 2006, a summit of 200 Kayapo leaders and warriors gathered in the village of Piaracu. Wearing traditional body paint and feather headdresses, holding clubs, bows and arrows and singing war songs, they vowed to oppose the Belo Monte dam again, as well as the completion of the highway, which could bring more forest destruction and pollution to Kayapo territory.
''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,'' said Kayapo Grand Chief Megaron Txukarramae in a letter he and other leaders sent to Paul Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank.
One U.S. observer who flew to the summit wrote that he was ''stunned'' by the difference between the barren lands of the deforested parts of the Amazon and the still-lush
The Kayapo have traditionally practiced a highly sophisticated form of ecological management based on plant and animal observation, cultivation of natural barriers to agricultural pests using a variety of plants and insects and productive use of both ''old'' and ''new'' agricultural fields.
Their complex knowledge of plant management has drawn the attention of international scientists.
''A Kayapo garden is created by carefully combining different 'plant energies' just as an artist blends colors to produce a work of art,'' wrote ethnobiologist Darrell Posey.
In addition to agricultural projects, Kayapo communities have also been working with Conservation International to develop research stations on their territory to investigate the effects of logging on Amazon flora and fauna.
The ecological knowledge of the Kayapo and other indigenous peoples can offer ''alternatives to the destruction of Amazonia,'' Posey wrote.
Conservationists estimate that 10,000 square miles of the Amazon are destroyed annually.