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‘Spirit of the Amazon’ – By Sue and Patrick Cunningham: A Great Christmas Present!

‘Spirit of the Amazon’ – Available Now

Our book ‘Spirit of the Amazon’ can be purchased online from major booksellers, including Blackwells, Waterstones and More information on the publisher’s website Papadakis

The glorious photography beautifully illustrates the varied lives and cultures of the indigenous peoples of the Xingu River basin, and the text explores their fascinating complexity. The book covers the history and present-day experiences of the tribes.

This book charts the changes in the lives and fortunes of these incredible people. It focuses on their humanity and on their individuality. It shows that they are people, just as we are people, and not simply exotic objects. It tells us that they have a fundamental right to our respect, and that we have an obligation to protect their land, their environment and their chosen way of life.

– Sting

As someone who has travelled extensively in the Amazon forest and amongst its native peoples this book brings back so many memories for me. The Cunningham’s journey down the Xingu River was no easy task, but they achieved and recount here an epic journey that so vividly describes their adventures, the Amazon rainforest and particularly the inhabitants with whom they have such a special relationship.

– Professor Sir Ghillean Prance, Ex-Director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

‘Spirit of the Amazon’ is an opportunity to travel deep into the Amazon forest, to be uplifted by the resilience of the tribes we work with and enraptured by the beauty of the wild rainforest environment.

Victory Against The Absurd

Indigenous leaders in Times Square, New York during Climate Week; Chief Raoni Metuktire, with banner: ‘Marco Termporal Não’.

On Friday Brazil’s Supreme Court voted on a case which has been a Sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of Brazil’s indigenous peoples. The result was a 9 to 2 ruling against the concept of a ‘Marco Temporal’ – a date-based limit on indigenous claims to territories they occupied.

It has taken more than two tortuous years for the Supreme Court to throw out this patently absurd case, which had been rumbling through the lower courts for over ten years.

The case rested on the idea that only those lands which were physically occupied by indigenous communities on the date that the 1988 Constitution came into force would qualify for demarcation as Indigenous Territories (ITs). Even a superficial reading of the Constitution makes it quite clear that this was not the intention of the Constitution, nor was it feasible within the wording of the clauses relating to the rights of indigenous peoples. If this were to be upheld by the Supreme Court it would have prevented the demarcation of any further ITs and would have put many existing ITs at risk.

In Brazil justice flows very slowly, and sometimes throws up confusing results. But this time reason prevailed, bringing huge relief – and a lot of partying – in indigenous territories throughout the country.

Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples owe much of this victory of reason over greed to actions taken 35 years ago, when Brazil’s post-dictatorship 1988 Constitution was drafted. The political climate at the time was sympathetic to the recognition of indigenous rights, and indigenous activists of the time were invited to input their ideas to the Constitutional Commission. Foremost among the indigenous negotiators was Bep’kororoti Payakan, known as Paulinho by the non-indigenous. Sadly, he was a victim of Covid. He was highly intelligent and spoke good Portuguese – very rare at the time. He was very actively involved, with the powerful support of Chief Raoni Metuktire, in negotiating the exact terms of the 1988 Constitution, as part of a coherent indigenous effort to have their rights enshrined in the Constitution. Their success in that process established the essential foundations on which this case was decided, so we owe them a huge debt of gratitude for their work. They must not be forgotten.


Our good friends Sinem and Damien have been working with the indigenous people of Australia for many years. Their latest, award winning film premieres in London at the Fulham Picturehouse next Wednesday, on the 6th September, at 7:30pm. It is brilliant, so be there!

“Luku Ngarra – The Law of the Land – is a confronting and intimate journey into the world of the Yolngu First Nations of Australia.”

Film Website:
To Book for the premiere followed by Q&A:

Tribes Alive at COP26

Tribes Alive will be at COP26 in Glasgow.

Founder Emily Burridge will be giving a live performance of her stunning compositions ‘Into the Amazon’ and ‘Sisters of the Forest’, with a backdrop of indigenous women photographed by Sue Cunningham, on Monday 8th November at 2 pm, Tower Gallery South, Glasgow Science Centre. It will be streamed live on the COP26 YouTube Channel. More information can be found here: Into the Amazon COP26 Presentation.

Into The Amazon Album Cover

During the event we will be promoting our short video ‘TOGETHER Against Climate Change’ which brings the voices of the Indigenous Peoples of the Xingu River basin to COP26. They make a powerful case for why they must be involved; they demand that international leaders at the UNFCCC event finally listen to the message they have been relaying from their ancestors and shamans for decades; that the planet is in danger from the greed of our corporate economies.

Indigenous people occupy just 25% of the land, yet they protect 80% of the Earth’s precious biodiversity. They are incontrovertibly the guardians of our planet’s natural riches, of its future. But for them, the natural world is not theirs; instead they see themselves as an integral part of nature itself.

Today, some Indigenous People have university degrees and responsible positions. They have been forced to engage with mainstream education systems in order to be taken seriously. They are teachers, nurses, lawyers, senators in the National Congress, councillors in local government, film makers, musicians, sportsmen and government advisers. But they are still Indigenous People; they retain the values, the cultures and the relationship with the wild environment handed down from their forefathers. And that makes them different – and it means they have a different viewpoint, equally valid – actually far more valid – than the greedy, wasteful, divisive and uncaring world that most of us inhabit.

We should abandon our arrogance and listen. Our capitalist system is broken. It must be strengthened to embrace the radical changes which are now essential to avoid the chaos and destruction which even 1.5 degrees of warming will bring. Business law must put annual reporting of environmental and social performance on an equal footing with financial reporting. Voluntary, tagged-on environmental and social statements cannot and will not deliver the essential change in corporate culture which is necessary if we are to head off the looming disaster. The same rigour must be applied to the analysis and reporting of environmental, climate and social performance as are at present reserved for finance.

Update on Coronavirus in the Xingu

Indigenous people are dying at an alarming rate throughout the Xingu, though the picture is far from uniform and not all is doom and gloom.

Kayapó Warriors blocking access to their Village

Many communities have locked themselves down very effectively, not allowing any opportunity for the virus to penetrate their isolation. But that has come at great cost. Unable to access the small government payments many have become accustomed to – pensions and the bolsa familia paid to them while their children are in school – families and entire communities have suddenly been left without many of the daily necessities they have grown to depend on, including some basic food provisions.

At the same time, many indigenous people who live mainly in the towns outside the reserves while attending secondary schools and universities, or because they are employed in positions which require them to live in the town, have returned to the villages, increasing the population and putting pressure on the ability of the community to feed itself.

Roiti Metuktire delivering supplies

We have been providing support by financing the purchase of essential supplies – food, medicines, tools and equipment – to help them increase their capacity to grow food and catch fish, and so that everyone can be fed properly. Working with their own associations we have established safe lines of supply which can sanitise the supplies and transport them to the communities in a safe way which minimises the risk of infection being introduced.

In other parts of the country, government medical professionals have unintentionally become virus superspreaders as they visit remote communities to dispense medical services, so the communities in the Xingu are limiting access even to nurses and doctors, leaving them with reduced access to medical treatment and medication.

But still the infection takes hold in some cases.

Young men in particular are sometimes exposed to the kind of false information which is widespread in Brazil, telling them that the threat from the virus is small and people should not take it seriously. A few have returned to their villages carrying the infection, where it spreads rapidly because of the physical closeness of their way of life. As a result people are dying, often elders and chiefs. They take with them a store of knowledge and spiritual sensitivity which has been carried down through the generations, leaving the culture scarred and their resilience undermined.

Information Posters in the Kayapó language

When it gets into a village the infection can be devastating. The Yawalapití, one of the tribes of the Upper Xingu’s convergent culture, have been badly affected; most of the community have contracted Covid-19, and Chief Aritana is in intensive care in a hospital in Goiânia, over nine hours away. His brother Mataryua died of the disease, along with four other chiefs from the Xingu Indigenous Territory (TIX), which occupies the southern part of the Xingu basin. To date, nearly eighty cases have been confirmed in the TIX alone, and seven people have died.

Throughout the Xingu there are cases in indigenous communities; as of the 23rd July 1,322 cases have been confirmed and at least fifteen people have died, though this does not include those who died in hospitals or towns outside of the indigenous territories. The eastern area – the indigenous territories of Kayapó, Badjonkore, Las Casas and Menkragnotí – is the worst affected with 831 confirmed cases and at least eight deaths. Latest reports from there are that the number of serious infections is less than was initiailly feared, though it is still relatively early in the progress of the infection. Nearby, the Xicrin of the Cateté indigenous territory, which adjoins the Xingu river basin, have seen 90 confirmed infections and four deaths.

Oxygen Concentrator Machines

Medical equipment and supplies which we have helped to provide for the worst-affected villages, including oxygen concentrator machines for respiratory support, are proving effective in preventing the disease becoming life-threatening. This should dramatically reduce the number of deaths in the future and reduce the suffering of those who catch the disease. Isolation measures are increasingly effective as they become better organised and the dangers are better understood by all the members of the communities, which should minimise the number of people falling victim to Covid-19. But the disease is still widespread in Brazil and shows no sign of being under control in rural areas, so we expect that the communities will need our support for many months.

We are a small organisation and we cannot provide for all of the many needs which the Coronavirus pandemic is driving, but we know that the grants we are providing are filling urgent needs. Our longstanding personal experience means that we are confident in our indigenous partner organisations, and we have been able to provide vital information to facilitate some of the larger international organisations we work with, including Amazon Watch and the Amazon Emergency Fund, in placing their support where it will be most effective.

This time has been harrowing for us. When people we work with and have known, sometimes for decades, die suddenly, it is hard to accept. When people who we respect for the work they do with their communities break down as they speak to us, under the stress of having many family members falling ill, lying in intensive care and even dying, it can feel that we are not doing enough. But they tell us that the support we provide is effective, and we know that by enabling the communities to isolate themselves, and by providing medical support, we are saving lives.

Supplies and medical equipment loaded into a trailer with children wearing masks

The support of the amazing people who contribute financially to help the indigenous people of the Xingu is vital; there are no words which can adequately express our gratitude, so – inadequately – Thank You All.

We are especially grateful for the incredible effort by Rainforest Concern who are so effectively running a fundraising campaign on our behalf.

The survival of indigenous communities has been shown time and time again to be the best means of protecting the remaining Amazon rainforest and we are priviledged to be part of a worlwide effort to protect them and to help them through this most difficult time.

Please click the button below to make a donation:

Our Mission

Tribes Alive collaborates with Indian tribal communities to help them to be self-sustaining and independent, and to promote indigenous people’s traditional way of life as an equal, valuable and valid alternative to other cultures.

Tribute to Bepkororoti ‘Paulinho’ Payakan

Bepkororoti ‘Paulinho’ Payakan outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster in 1989

We are deeeply saddened by the death from COVID-19 of the great leader and warrior Bepkororoti, better known as Paulinho Payakan.
Born in the village Kubẽkrãkêj in the 1950s, the son of chief Tchikirí, he went on to found the village A’Ukre. He dedicated his life tirelessly to protecting the forests and guaranteeing the territories and rights of Brazil’s indigenous peoples. He was one of the first of his people to learn Portuguese and like his uncle Raoni he was one of the Kayapó’s most accomplished diplomats. He was famous as a Mẽkabẽndjwỳj, a master of words – everyone was impressed to hear him speak. He had a wealth of knowledge about Mẽbêngôkre (Kayapó) culture and tradition, but he also understood better than any other Kayapó how the non-indigenous world worked. Although he was softly spoken he was astute and incisive in fighting for the rights of his people.

Bepkororoti ‘Paulinho’ Payakan speaking out against the construction of the Belo Monte dam in Altamira, Brazil, 1989

He made good use of his extraordinary communication skills to promote the cause of indigenous rights. He was a cornerstone of the indigenous movement in Brazil and became involved with the growing global environmental movement in the 1980s, building long-standing international partnerships for his people. He was fundamental in creating the main institutions of the Mẽbêngôkre-Kayapó people, including Associação Floresta Protegida (the Protected Forest Association). He was core to the struggle to ensure that indigenous rights were specifically included in the post-dictatorship 1988 Brazilian Constitution and he worked tirelessly to achieve the demarcation of the Kayapó Indigenous Territory. He was also at the forefront of the fight against the Belo Monte dam (then known as Kararaó) in the 1980s, preventing its construction until 2016, when a smaller scheme was built. He was the first elected president of the Federation of Indigenous Peoples of Pará State.
Payakan, your journey ends today in Ngômeiti village, where your relatives will mourn your departure. The indigenous movement has lost a great warrior and veteran of countless conquests. We honor you legacy and continue your struggle, alongside Oê and Maial, your daughters, who follow in your footsteps.

Bepkororoti ‘Paulinho’ Payakan with Sting and Chief Raoni in Altamira, Brazil, 1989

Tribes Alive Coronavirus Fund

Distributing hygiene products provided by a Tribes Alive grant in a Kaiabi village

The Tribes Alive Coronavirus Fund

Tribes Alive is supporting essential practical steps that indigenous communities need to take as a result of the pandemic. But the need for emergency resources is great, so we have launched an appeal:

Tribes Alive Coronavirus Appeal


We have a source of funding which will match what we raise from this appeal. This doubles the value of your donation so please give, however much you can afford. No sum is too small, and every penny will be doubled.

You can contribute even more by passing on our appeal to your friends, collegues and family. Everything we raise will be distributed directly to the communities we work with in the Xingu to address their urgent needs.

Please help keep these vulnerable people safe.

Covid-19 Pandemic and Indigenous People

Covid-19 brings the danger of mass deaths to indigenous communities. It could result in the genocide of entire tribes.

Indigenous people have lower immunity to introduced viral and bacterial infections, so they suffer worse outcomes, often dying from diseases which are introduced from outside their Amazon forest environment. Right up until the 1970s diseases like measles and ‘flu devastated communities in the Xingu region, resulting in the deaths of over 80% of people of all ages in some villages.

Indigenous leaders know that if Covid-19 gets into an indigenous village it will spread very quickly, so they are taking drastic steps to isolate themselves. Their way of life makes our style of household-by-household lockdown impossible, they can only protect whole communities. But that means that a single failure, a once-only infection would be disastrous. They need to keep their villages isolated now, before there is any chance of an infection being introduced.

Isolation and Self-sufficiency, Hygiene and Medicines

In recent years many communities have become more dependent on purchased goods, which means that there is increasing contact with the outside world. This must now stop, but to make up for for the provisions they normally get from towns outside of their reserves they need to increase the crops they grow and ramp up their fishing and hunting. They need tools and equipment. They also need supplies of hygiene products and medicines, and emergency funds ready to respond in case anyone does fall ill.

By purchasing supplies communally they can arrange for them to be transported and distibuted to the villages safely to minimise any possibility of taking the disease into the communities and avoid the necessity for each village to send a representative to town.

In a word, it makes them safer.

Invasions, Fires and Illegal Miners

Outsiders invading indigenous lands can carry the Coronavirus with them. Despite the pandemic criminal activity in the Amzon is increasing. This year the fires have started early, and forest destruction in April was more than 64% worse than last year – 2020 promises to be a record for deforestation in Brazil. Illegal loggers, miners and land grabbers are taking advantage of the paralysis of enforcement activity and encouragement by President Bolsonaro to intensify their invasions of indigenous territories to steal trees and open illegal gold mines; they are even destroying the forest to establish cattle pastures.

In the face of these attacks on their security and health, indigenous communities are protecting themselves, by organising firefighting teams and by monitoring and patrolling the borders of their lands. They maintain vigilance posts at the most threatened points along their boundaries.

But these activities require resources. Faced with invaders who are armed and well-equipped with vehicles and boats, they can only respond effectively if they have the right equipment, including vehicles, boats with outboard motors and the fuel to keep them moving. They have thousands of kilometres of boundaries to monitor, so travelling on foot or in paddled canoes is not viable.

These activities will also make use of resources from the Tribes Alive Coronavirus Fund.

Tribes Alive Coronavirus Appeal

A Word About News Updates

What is happening in Brazil at the moment is deeply shocking and should concern every inhabitant of our shared planet.

For regular updates and links to relevant articles and stories please go to our Facebook page

On this website we only give information about our projects and programmes. On the Facebook page we try to keep abreast of developments concerning indigenous people, climate and the environment throughout Brazil, and the rest of the world.

The Spirit of the Amazon vs The Spirit of Capitalism

>> Em português: SpiritAmVsCapitalist_pt.pdf

Chief Raoni talked about the greed which is the basis of our culture

Why do we talk about the Spirit of the Amazon?
Because, today, the Spirit of the Amazon is at war with the Spirit of Capitalism.

Felled trees in the rainforest

This is not primarily a war of weapons and armies, though too many of the Amazon’s defenders have suffered, and continue to suffer, violence and death, and the Amazon is under attack from the ground forces of invasion on all of the fronts that have been discussed at length; agriculture, mineral extraction, logging, infrastructure projects – all at their core examples of predatory extractivism and the pillaging of natural resources.

This is a cultural war, a philosophical war, a war between two contradictory and irreconcilable systems, each with its own social structures, intellectual structures and – for want of a better term – economic structures.

These two systems are so fundamentally different that it is hard for us, rooted and formed in our moneyed capitalist system, to imagine how it could be to grow up and function in the other, alien system, built on community and sharing rather than on individualism and ownership.

Western Culture

The basic building blocks of our ‘western’ culture are so ingrained in us that to appreciate what the world we inhabit looks like from an indigenous perspective is a huge intellectual challenge. And to even begin to consider changing our lives to be more like theirs is, unfortunately, unimaginable.

The day we are born we start absorbing our cultural environment. We are individuals; our selfish needs are our immediate priority. Very early, in our baby cribs, we begin to accumulate wealth; a toy, a blanket, a feeding bottle – the crib itself. We soon enter the world of money; our grandparents give us a few coins to spend in the sweet shop, and soon our mothers or fathers send us on errands to the shops, as their agents in the world of commerce.

Shop window with expensive goods

And so our accumulation of social and cultural values continues, imperceptibly building the foundations on which our understanding of the world is constructed, until we can no longer even perceive those foundations, our cultural underpinning. We are captives of our own experiences of life. We cannot even recognise, let alone remove, the prejudices behind the things we take so much for granted: education is good, everyone should be able to read and write, all human beings deserve and require a basic level of income, our health is reliant on outside agents, in the form of doctors and the makers of pharmaceutical medicines, everything and every piece of land is owned by somebody.

To succeed in our world we must compete with others, because our success is predicated on our ability to gain advantage over other members of society, in financial terms, in status, in authority or in power, and our success is measured by what we accumulate and by how much power we have, both in terms of financial and material resources and in terms of social and employment structures. We value material things far more than we value social goods; we would rather have a nice comfortable house than be part of a mutually supportive community. We distrust our neighbours, we fall out with our families over inheritance and disparity in wealth. Increasingly we live in isolation, connected only tenuously to our friends and family, whose physical distance from us often facilitates, perhaps even drives, our social divergence from them. We share little and we hoard much. The rich accumulate more than they could ever make any use of yet they are driven by some perverse lack of reason to accumulate yet more in a vicious spiral that leads to waste and destruction, and brings precious little happiness or satisfaction.

The Indigenous Tradition

Xicrin Boys

How different the indigenous baby? Cocooned in love, cared for by all the members of her community, she grows in understanding without the need for a blanket, getting all the warmth and comfort she needs from the proximity of her mother. Toys – at least, things she can play with to develop her understanding of the world – are all around her, in such diversity and richness that she has no need to ‘own’ them. He quickly learns how he should interact with the spirits, because the spirits are present everywhere and at all times, in the earth, in the sky, in the rocks, in the plants and animals and in the water and air. A successful day is one where the spirits have been in balance, because then there will be no hunger, no disquiet, no disagreement with other humans, nor with the animals or any other components of the world. The day will finish with contentment and without need, as it began.

Yawalapiti boy playing with sticks

And that is enough. To be is enough. To be part of the community, to contribute and to receive, to participate and to be valued in equal measure, is enough.

Built on a lie

Your reaction to my words is probably ‘how nice that must be, but it is not the real world, we could never achieve that, because we need things; we need houses, and cars, and buses and trains; we need learning, universities, hospitals and theatres’.

We don’t need those things. We are accustomed to them, to the point where we will never willingly give them up, because they represent our cultural values, they are our world.

But our world is built on a lie.

It is built on the false assumption that it can continue.

It is built on the basis of a pyramid scheme. Inevitably it will eventually collapse, because our consumption cannot, by any reason of logic, continue to grow indefinitely, our economies cannot continue to grow indefinitely, though they have perversely been created as a mechanism which depends on continual growth for its proper functioning.


Chief Raoni Metuktire

In January, in the Kayapó village of Piaraçu on the Xingu River, my teacher and friend Chief Raoni talked about the greed which is the basis of our culture. Greed is anathema to indigenous values, the antithesis of the communitarian foundation of indigenous culture. But it is beginning to infect the indigenous peoples of the Xingu, who have for five hundred years managed to avoid subjugation and who have developed their contact with the mainstream of Brazilian society to a large extent on their own terms, retaining traditional values and social structures. Only now, in the 21st century, is increasing reliance on money in danger of undermining cultural norms which have stood the test of time from long before the arrival of Orellana and Cabral. And that threatens the integrity of indigenous communities.

Chief Raoni is only too aware of that danger of infection, and he is clear that it must be resisted. Although it may be impossible for us to shuck off our cultural baggage, we must at least ensure that indigenous communities are able to maintain the integrity of theirs, which demonstrably weighs much more gently on the resources of this world than ours, and which may, in due course, be immensely valuable in re-directing our flawed model towards greater sustainability in the way we live, and which may even prove crucial in allowing mankind to survive in the long term.

Re-engineering to Eliminate Waste

Illegal garimpeiro gold miners

If industrial man continues with business as usual – wasteful over-consumption, gross financial and resource inequality, rampant greed, continuing profligate use of the Earth’s natural resources – including, of course, fossil fuels – and the careless disposal of waste, we are headed for disaster. But if we can recognise in time that the path we are on leads inevitably to a cliff edge of resource depletion, then we can at least delay the time we will reach that cliff edge, and perhaps even arrive at the point of sustainability, which could ensure a fair and comfortable future for six, ten and twenty generations into the future.

That would require what today is an unimaginable re-engineering of the social, financial and commercial structures of the mainstream world. The global population would have to level off and fall, ostentatious wealth must become offensive and unacceptable rather than aspirational, inequality must reduce and we would have to begin to take better care of the Earth’s resources, recognising that they are finite. We have to recycle and re-use everything we make, and completely eliminate waste, transforming our consumption patterns into a closed cycle of use, re-use, and recycling, where recyclability is designed and built into every product and every structure, and where each item is designed to use the minimum amount of resources and to last as long as possible, by being durable and repairable – the exact antithesis of corporate priorities of today.

The first and most pressing step must be to pursue rapid decarbonisation of our energy production, and it seems increasingly that we have at least reached the point of realisation about that.

The final objective – the closed loop – is today still unthinkable, an impossible dream.

Minimising the Pain

But one day, inevitably, it will become the norm. And the sooner we reach that point the less will be the pain. Future generations will look back on our time as the Age of Waste and question why we took so long to change our wasteful ways.

Chief Raoni Metuktire

Indigenous people like Chief Raoni can, and must be our teachers in this process. We must recognise and value the wisdom of the indigenous way of life, and find ways to adapt ours, to adopt many of the values inherent in theirs. We must hope that we can do so in a way which retains the many irrefutable benefits mankind has developed in the last few millennia, but set them in a framework which recognises the damage we have done to our world and the finite nature of natural resources. We must become guardians of this world instead of parasites. We must learn to share its bountiful resources with others, and especially with future generations, instead of being so selfish, greedy and avaricious.

People will not change overnight, but we need to begin moving in the right direction. Greed is not an inherent human trait, it is a learned behaviour. We need to begin to un-learn it in order to make this world a better place. And indigenous people, like those who are leaving their homes to try to enlighten us, can be our guides and mentors in that process.

© Patrick Cunningham