Remembering Paulinho Bepkororoti Paiakan (6-19-20)

Paulinho Paiakan WashingtonRemembering Paulinho Bepkororoti Paiakan

By Janet Chernela

19 June 2020

One of the best-known defenders of Indigenous rights and the Amazon forest succumbed to COVID-19 on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, at the municipal hospital in Redenção, Pará, Brazil. Dr. Janet Chernela (University of Maryland), who has known Paulinho Paiakan for over 30 years, shares this remembrance.

(See Portuguese translation here:

Paulinho Paiakan Rio Vermelho

When I last spoke to Paiakan it was at his Rio Vermelho home where he lived in refuge from a menacing storm of opponents, including media, the Brazilian legal system, and even family members.  Rio Vermelho, in the Kayapó territory, was a beautiful but isolated spot; I recall two thatch longhouses used as a living and sleeping quarters and an open-air kitchen covered in a bright blue plastic tarp.    Despite the distance from friends and family, he appeared to be resolutely calm.

Paiakan greeted me with the customary keening greeting one uses when recalling a deceased loved one.  With his hand on my shoulder, and his head alongside mine, he wept-and-spoke his recollections of our common friend Darrell Posey who died some years before.  Then, he gestured to the kitchen space and invited me to eat.

Paulinho Paiakan in Miami and Washington D.C.

Paiakan and I met years earlier when I invited him, together with Darrell Posey and Paiakan’s cousin, Kube-I, to Miami, Florida, to participate in a symposium on ‘Wise Management of Tropical Forests,’ organized at Florida International University by the university and the Florida Rainforest Alliance.   The three had been acting as a trio of itinerant ambassadors on subjects of indigenous environmental knowledge and ownership, speaking in schools, museums, conferences, and other public venues near Belém-do-Pará in eastern Brazil.  These were multi-vocalic presentations, combining the diverse voices and perspectives of the Kayapó owners of the knowledge and the outsider-anthropologist attempting to understand it.  By this time, January of 1988, the project was several years old, and undergoing a certain degree of institutionalization at the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi in Belém, where Posey held a research position.

Paiakan was fluent in several languages and discourses.  The village in which he spent his youth, Gorotire, was accessible by road and served as the site of a number of anthropological field teams.  Terry Turner and Joan Bamberger worked there in the 1960s and Darrell Posey, Anthony Anderson, and others worked there in the 1980s.  Paiakan also spent many years away from the village in the company of road crews and government officials.  In all of these roles, he was carrying out a skill in which he excelled: participant-observation.  Paiakan developed an impressive understanding of Westerners and the workings of Western societies.  As a result, he was a compelling speaker, adept at code-switching from one argot to another, and able to reach a wide variety of audiences.

Paiakan departed from the plane at Miami International Airport on a cold January day, and we immediately made a visit to one of Miami’s many malls to purchase warm clothing. Paiakan appears in that clothing in his photos.  His choices in suits and ties demonstrate his acumen in the indexical, performative, role of body ornamentation.

I don’t think that Paiakan and Kube’I expected this conference to differ very much from other scientific meetings they had experienced.  Their presentations were centered around topics they had discussed before, such as ethnobotanical classifications and biotic processes.  During the questioning period, however, they discovered that some in the listening audience possessed detailed information about a hydroelectric project planned for the Xingu River that would affect Kayapó villages.  Despite attempts to obtain information about this major project in their territories, they knew little about it. They had never, they emphasized, been consulted, and were certainly not asked for consent.

The conference was well attended. Among those present were members of Washington-based environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including the National Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Bank Information Center, who were part of an international effort to stop World Bank funding for environmentally destructive mega-projects.  Just a few years earlier, for example, the World Bank had funded a disastrous project bringing hundreds of thousands of people from southern Brazil into western Amazonia, causing vast amounts of deforestation.  The environmentalists were aware of a petition by Brazil to secure a World Bank loan to Brazil’s energy sector for a series of dams on the Xingu River.  If the proposed loan to the state-owned power company Electrobras were approved, the project would inundate approximately 7.6 million ha (15 million acres), impacting thousands of indigenous villagers (Chernela 1988).  The project, which exemplified the destructive practices of large-sector loans with inadequate social and environmental safeguards, would affect Kayapó communities.

Although Paiakan had made repeated inquiries about the dams in Brasilia, he hadn’t been able to verify rumors or to learn specificities.  As he stated at the conference, and later to the press, Paiaikan felt that his words and inquiries were “not heard.”  Lack of consultation with the communities to be affected by the project constituted a breach of the World Bank’s own regulations, and provided a strategic opening for criticism––not just from NGOs, but from the Bank’s donor nations. Principal among these is the United States.

Recognizing the importance of first-hand testimony by local “stakeholders” (members of the community to be affected by a project), the Washingtonians invited Paiakan and Kube-I to return with them to Washington to meet with World Bank personnel and with U.S. representatives.  In February 1988 I accompanied the Washington delegation as a guest and translator for that visit, which launched the chain of events that culminated in federal charges against  Paiakan and Kube-I and court proceedings in Brazil later that year.

In Washington the Kayapó delegation met with members of the U.S. Congressional Appropriations Committees, the Treasury Department, American Indian Movement, North American Indian Congress, Survival International, and four Executive Directors of the World Bank.   Ken Taylor, who was then head of the Washington-based branch of Survival International, demonstrated the projected dam sites on a map.  This was the first time any Kayapó witnessed the specific areas to be inundated, and by inference, the indigenous villages to be affected.  Paiakan immediately made a copy.  This was the map he would bring, and use, to illustrate his presentations with officials.

Paiakan established a busy agenda of meetings.  He held public press conferences in which he presented the case against the dams in compelling terms.   With extraordinary poise and presence of mind, he was an eloquent and persuasive speaker.  The media accompanied his arguments closely and reproduced them in print.  For the NGOs and others, this was precisely the kind of testimony needed to bring home the point that the World Bank was in violation of its own guidelines.

In February 1988, when Paiakan arrived in Washington DC, both international and domestic disapproval of the Bank was on the rise. In late 1986 Germany, Sweden, Australia, and the Netherlands advised their World Bank Executive Directors “to press for environmental reforms” (Rich 1994:137).   Greenpeace, Earth First, and Rainforest Action Network unfurled an immense banner along the face of a Bank building that read, “The World Bank Destroys Tropical Forests” (1994:138).

The U.S. Senators who met with Paiakan had grievances of their own against the Bank.  In 1987 there were over 20 U.S. Congressional hearings on the subject and a special Senate hearing on the Bank was held in May 1987 (1994:138).

Paiakan addressed the Senate Appropriations Committee and the U.S. Treasury Department, testifying before each that no Kayapó had ever been consulted or informed about the dam or its potential consequences for residents.  He impressed all those with whom he met, and a growing cadre of supporters accompanied his meetings.

Meetings with the Executive Directors of the Bank were especially surprising. Project proposals arriving at this final stage ordinarily would be approved with little scrutiny.  In conversation with Paiakan and Kube-I, however, the Executive Directors expressed concerns with the flawed process. Only Brazil’s technical team remained unconvinced. The Executive Directors for the Bank’s largest donor nations––the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, and West Germany made commitments to the leaders that they would vote against the proposal. The project was put on hold indefinitely.

Paulinho Paiakan, Rio Vermelho

The visit by the Kayapó to Washington was an unprecedented success.  Never before had representatives of a marginalized population succeeded in intervening in as large a process that was expected to proceed smoothly to completion.  It was being talked about in terms of ‘David and Goliath.’  Paiakan’s meetings with the World Bank executives, the press, and key government figures, changed forever the way in which the Bank approached consultation, and set new benchmarks for indigenous resistance strategies at the highest levels of international negotiation.

Paiakan went on to other feats and many disappointments after these victories but this portion of his life stands unblemished.  It is but one part of a large, complex life.  Let us not diminish it.

Janet Chernela (


Chernela, Janet (1988) “Potential Impacts of a Proposed Amazon Hydroelectric Project,” Cultural Survival Quarterly, 12(2)20-24.

Posey, Darrell Addison (2002) Kayapó Ethnoecology and Culture (Studies in Environmental Anthropology, ed. Kristina Plenderleith). London: Routledge.

Rich, Bruce (1994) Mortgaging the Earth: The World Bank, Environmental Impoverishment, and the Crisis of Development. Washington D.C.: Island Press.