The Secret to Saving the Rainforest

Oct 12, 2017Indigenous Culture, Nature Needs Half, Talking WILD

Photo by Neil Palmer/CIAT

The Field Guide to Nature Needs Half, Part 3: The secret to saving the rainforest? Hint: It’s smaller than you think.


Click here to find the previous installment of the Nature Needs Half Field Guide to the Kayapo Project.


This is the third installment of a five-part series featuring a partner project in the Nature Needs Half Network. Each installment will run weekly, and every month we will spotlight a different member of the Network to reveal how their work is connecting nature across the planet for the benefit of all life on Earth and to ensure that we achieve our goal of 50% protected by 2050.


For more information about this project, please contact


Summary: Where do you find your power and independence? The Kayapo find theirs beneath the rainforest canopy. In this installment of the Nature Needs Half Field Guide to the Kayapo Project, discover how the gifts of nature can revive the autonomy of an entire culture. 

Learn more about Nature Needs Half


In Kayapo lands, everyone knows the shape of the universe. It’s a wasp’s nest.

No one has actually seen it of course. Nothing like that has happened since the time of the ancestors. In those days, before men descended to Earth on a rope cast through an opening in the bottom of the heavens, they gazed across the cosmos and noticed that it was a circle comprised of many delicate layers.

Since then their children and their children’s children have guarded the memory of the ancestors’ knowledge in the shapes they fashion from day-to-day. See the sun-like corona of the men’s feathered headdresses? Notice the fields, round as a woman’s pregnant belly? And what about the villages themselves, with buildings carefully arranged in rings of wood and grass?

Facsimiles, every one. Tiny glimpses of the eternal; imperfect and invaluable reminders of the shape of things.

In Kayapo lands, the shape of a thing can tell you a lot about it.

In Kayapo lands, the shape of self-determination is a nut.


The global demand for edible nuts is expanding, driven by new research highlighting the health benefits of nuts and economic development in China and India. The Brazil nut comprises only a fraction of the international nut trade (around 2% or $50 million USD annually), but its impact for the individuals and communities who produce the nut is significant, and perhaps for the Kayapo more than others.

(Clockwise from top-left): Whole fruit, Fruit cut in half revealing encased Brazil nuts, Brazil nuts with skin, Brazil nut ready for consumption, Brazil nut Tree. View image credits >

In fact, the Brazil nut may be the Kayapo’s most important strategic resource. Humble in size and shape, but astonishingly effective in its ability to deliver stability and security. So how does such a small nut result in such out-sized benefits?

Encouraged by partnerships with outside NGOs, who have helped negotiate one-of-a-kind access to global markets, Kayapo leadership promote the Brazil nut trade to enhance economic incentives for continuing traditional stewardship of the rainforest.

The extra income also strengthens community resistance to illegal mining and logging operations.

In many cases, Brazil nuts can be the deciding factor determining a Kayapo family’s well-being.

Life in villages connected to the Brazil nut trade continues in much the same way it has for centuries. Women venture out into the forest, machetes in hand, and swiftly ascend the trunks of trees, sometimes as high as 100 feet into the canopy. Sometimes, even higher. With swift strokes, they cleave the fruit from the branches, and the five pound spheres fall to the earth, landing with a soft thud in the mud below. After several hours, the women leave the treetops, shinning down bark and branch, to the forest floor. If you catch yourself thinking about the ancestors, wondering if this isn’t how they did it when they descended the heavens on ropes, you aren’t the first, and I’m sure you won’t be the last. For the Kayapo, life has more meaning when the past ties into the present. Then, they gain assurances that the present might also tie into the future.

(Left) A Kayapo woman cuts in to the Brazil nut tree seeds. Photo by Cristina Mittermeier (Right) Kayapo woman hammers off the exterior skin coating the Brazil nut. Photo by Martin Schoeller

Gathering their harvest, they return to the village and prepare the nut for global trade.

The village that is their home is tranquil and healthy. The nearby forest is plentiful with food and even entertainment. The spectacle of monkeys scampering between branches to the attendant calls of parrots and macaws is a frequent and pleasant reminder of the rich web of life all around. Opportunities to live with dignity abound.

Contrast this to the places that have been unable to resist the encroachment of illegal industrial operations. In those devastated places, Kayapo are outnumbered four to one, and village life is replaced by a seedy service industry. Prostitution, alcoholism, and drug use skyrocket. Families become dislocated from tradition and each other, material acquisition replaces true physical and emotional well-being.

Few projects better exemplify the Nature Needs Half principles in action. For the Kayapo Project protects a large and essential landscape by working with people, both Indigenous and Western, to improve and maintain a healthy and respectful relationship with nature.

In the next installment, we will cover the new threats emerging for the Kayapo and their partner NGOs, and the steps you can take to help.


The Kayapo Project remains effective because of the generous support of its partners and sponsors including:


Your help bringing greater awareness to the efforts of the Indigenous peoples who are defending the rainforests for the benefit of all life on Earth is essential. Please consider sharing the image below with your networks on social media. Thank you!

by Jackie Batrus

Community Architect for Nature Needs Half

by Amy Lewis

Vice President, Communications & Development

Read Next

Mentors Making a Difference: Phoebe and David’s Journey with CoalitionWILD

Mentors Making a Difference: Phoebe and David’s Journey with CoalitionWILD

At CoalitionWILD, we believe in the power of mentorship and the transformative impact it can have on the lives of young conservationists. Here, we shine a spotlight on two exceptional repeat mentors, Phoebe Barnard and David Manski, who have been actively involved in our Global Mentorship Program. Their dedication, wisdom, and passion for conservation have inspired and guided numerous young professionals on their journey to become future leaders in the field.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Join the WILD tribe today!


Support WILD's international conservation efforts.


Visit our publications & gear store.

Share This