May 152020

‘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

During this period of lockdown Spirit of the Amazon is an opportunity to travel across the world 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.

Feb 292020

>> 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


Feb 102016

Maori delegate Earl greets a Pataxo delegate in the traditional Maori way at the International Indigenous Games in Brazil. 27th October 2015 (Sue Cunningham/SCP)Sue Cunningham’s exhibition ‘In The Heart of Brazil’ runs from the 4th to the 24th March at the Brazilian Embassy, just off Trafalgar Square. Full address 14-16 Cockspur Street, London SW1Y 5BL, open Monday to Friday 11am to 6pm. Admission is free.

The exhibition centres on the first ever International Indigenous Games, which took place in Brazil during October last year – more information here. There will also be workshops for school students, ‘A Journey Through the Brazilian Amazon’, but these must be arranged in advace through the Brazilian Embassy.

The photographs are of Indigenous People from Brazil and over twenty other countries. They came from all over the world to participate; not just compete, but to celebrate their traditions and to exchange information about their common experiences and the threats that they all share.

Feb 032016

Komomoyea Kovoero Indigenous Secondary School

We have a target: just £3,500 will provide a comfortable and secure place to stay for students.

Here’s the Just Giving Link:

Kayapo School: Donate with JustGiving

As we walked down the path three pairs of squawking macaws flew over us. Bright blue giant morpho butterflies took to the air, disturbed by our approach. To the side the forest sighed with a gentle breeze.

Pará State, Brazil. Komomoyea Kovoero Secondary School, in Aldeia Indigena Kuxonety Pokee, a Terena village in the Gleba Iriri Indigenous Territory. (Sue Cunningham/SCP)We were on our way to visit a unique secondary school, located within the indigenous reserve, in response to a request for help from the community.

Our counterpart organisation Instituto Raoni, which represents the Kayapó of Mato Grosso and southern Pará, have approached us for funding for the school.

Until recently, any Kayapó teenagers who wanted to progress beyond the basic level of education had to leave their village and move to a town to attend a mainstream secondary school.

Pará State, Brazil. Kayapó students of the Komomoyea Kovoero Indigenous Secondary School in the Aldeia Indigena Kuxonety Pokee, a Terena village in the Gleba Iriri Indigenous Territory. (Sue Cunningham/SCP)This put them under immense stress. Torn away from their traditional villages, they were cast adrift in an unfamiliar environment where they faced vicious discrimination. They became victims of bullying and targets for drug dealers and people encouraging them to drink alcohol. They suffered badly, and many of them dropped out.

Now there is an alternative. Cirenio and Cisera Terena are teachers. They have established the Komomoyea Kovoero Secondary School in the indigenous territory, where Kayapo students can go for more advanced education, away from the pressures and distractions of the school in town.Pará State, Brazil. Students learning horticulture at the Komomoyea Kovoero Secondary School, in Aldeia Indigena Kuxonety Pokee, a Terena village in the Gleba Iriri Indigenous Territory. (Sue Cunningham/SCP)

There are now over twenty Kayapó pupils at the school. They come from villages spread out across the Kayapó territory, which is the size of England. But they live in a dilapidated and very basic building, which desperately needs to be replaced. It is overcrowded and does not provide adequate facilities for the students to study.

And that is where we come in. The money we raise will provide showers, lavatories, bedrooms and study areas. The students will have kitchen and dining facilities to help them to learn additional life skills.

Beside the school is a vegetable garden, where the students help to grow most of the food for the school. They also tend banana plantations which help to raise the money to pay for daily expenses.

Pará State, Brazil. Kayapó students of the Komomoyea Kovoero Indigenous Secondary School with their teachers Cirenio and Cicera Terena in the Aldeia Indigena Kuxonety Pokee, a Terena village in the Gleba Iriri Indigenous Territory. (Sue Cunningham/SCP)The school strives to be financially independent, but the new accommodation block will enhance the opportunities for study and help the students to acquire the training and skills so vital if they are to help their people to maintain their traditions and cultures in future years.

These are the future tribal leaders. They work hard at their studies. They merit our help.

Donating is easy – please help us. Simply click this button to donate by credit/debit card or PayPal:

Kayapo School: Donate with JustGiving

or text KYAP55 £10 to 70070 from your mobile phone – you can substitute a different amount.

You are also welcome to email us to ask about making a direct transfer.

May 082014

The programme of visits to schools by Sue and Patrick Cunningham continues to grow. They are now being invited back to some schools for the third time to present their illustrated talk, which is continuously updated to reflect the changing situation.

The talks are lively and generate sustained question and answer sessions, cramming a huge amount of information into a short time in an exciting and accessible format. Audiences value the personal connection to the rain forest which they get from the talks. You can follow on Facebook the growing list of schools, colleges and universities across Britain which they have visited.

Sue and Patrick would very much like to extend their visits to reach more schools, especially in the public sector. They work as volunteers for Tribes Alive, so they need to be paid for the talks. They are looking for sponsorship to fill the gap in resources which makes it difficult for public sector schools to take advantage of the talks.

Dec 152012

It is good news that the English AQA examination board is focusing on Belo Monte in the Geography 4B GCSE unit.

On this website we have a section specifically for schools (More Information>For Schools) which includes general information about the Amazon, highlighting the position of and threats to indigenous people. Under More Information>Threats there is original material about hydroelectric dams, focusing heavily on Belo Monte: Hydroelectric Dams. Don’t stop at the end of the section, there is relevant material under the next heading – Mineral Extraction – and there are some links related to Belo Monte at the bottom of the page.

There is a film about Belo Monte (with English subtitles) and other video resources on our Videos page and on our YouTube Channel

Please let us know if you find this interesting. If there is more information you would like to know or if you have questions, either go on our Facebook page and post your enquiry there, or send us an email. You will be in direct contact with people who have long personal experience of the Xingu River and a profound understanding of the issues involved. You should of course also explore the views of other people who hold different views!

There is plenty of additional information on the Heart of Brazil Expedition blog. The following posts are relevant to your studies about Belo Monte:

Belo Monte Environmental Impact Assessment
Hydroelectric Dams: The Indians Unite
Hydroelectricity in the Heart of Brazil
Altamira to Porto De Moz; Hydroelectric Potential

The No Belo Monte Dam blog also has plenty of information about the scheme

Indigenous People’s Cultural Support Trust, the registered charity behind Tribes Alive, put out this press release at the time of the huge demonstration in Altamira in 2008. It includes useful historic, scientific, legal and social background, but remember that it was written four years ago!

Finally, you can see galleries of our photos from the Xingu in our photos page. Although you can’t download them from the galleries, if you have a specific request we will grant you a restricted license and send you a download link.

Belo Monte is a very complex issue, It can be covered  in a quite superficial way, but if you mine the resources presented or linked to here you will gain a profound understanding. Good luck!