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‘Always fight’ for indigenous rights, Amazon tribe’s chief says in Toronto

Megaron, a Kayapo grand chief from Brazil is pictured in Toronto's Brookfield Place on Jan. 19, 2014.

CHRIS YOUNG/The Globe and Mail

Grand Chief Megaron has faced down politicians and multi-billion-dollar corporations, but the cold of a Toronto winter is quite another thing. Even within the confines of a modern downtown office complex, he rubs his hands and covers himself with a Woolrich blanket.

"Frio. Muito frio," he begins telling his translator, Barbara Zimmerman, in Portuguese, the language many of his Kayapo people have mastered to make the concerns of their Amazon rainforest tribe known to the outside world. "We do not have cold like this where I am from."

He is willing to take on this new climatic enemy for the greater cause ingrained in every Kayapo person from an early age, a cause he encourages First Nations in Canada to follow as well: "We must fight, always fight, to protect our forest, our animals, our culture."

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On Monday night, that fight will place him on a Toronto stage to raise money for the International Conservation Fund of Canada (ICFC), a group that has spent more than $1.6-million protecting Kayapo territory – a patch of rainforest covering twice the area of Nova Scotia – from loggers, miners, ranchers and dam builders. In all, the Kayapo reserve includes 9,000 people in 34 villages. Spread across 11-million hectares, it's the largest tropical reserve in the world and much of the ICFC assistance focuses on monitoring the huge expanse looking for trespassers.

While Megaron and his people are considered world-wide indigenous role models for their successful defence of land and culture from modern encroachments, powerful new developments threaten to overturn life as they know it: a massive dam development on the Xingu River, the water body that forms the hub of their existence, and a proposal to overhaul sections of Brazil's 25-year-old constitution that grant indigenous people exclusive possession of traditional territories and enshrine their right to pursue traditional ways of life.

"It's a proposed constitutional amendment being pushed by big industry and big mining interests which, as in so many countries, control our government," Megaron said, wearing red face paint and a borrowed Nautica jacket. "It's really dangerous for us. These politicians weaken indigenous rights so they exploit resources on our land."

Sixty years ago, around the time a four-year-old Megaron met his first Brazilian outsider, the warrior culture of the Kayapo fostered a single approach to foreign incursions. Tribal war parties would give ranchers and gold miners a stark ultimatum: Leave or die. "We fought people invading our land and we fought among one another," said Megaron. "We were tough. We fought with violence."

But by the late 1980s, the intruders took on a corporate form that proved too big for spears or arrows. They needed a united front. By working with NGOs and banding together with neighbouring indigenous groups, the Kayapo developed the political savvy to antagonize and embarrass politicians and multi-national corporations on a mass scale.

On two occasions last year, Kayapo leaders wearing headdresses and carrying spears stormed Congress in Brazil's capital. Despite those protests, dam development and the proposed constitutional amendment continue unabated. Hence, this chilly globe-trotting.

"We have evolved from physical confrontation to trying to work with the government," Megaron said. "But often the government is absent here. More and more we need outside help."

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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More


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