Tribute For Paulinho Paiakan, Indigenous Defender of Rainforest, Dies at 67

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Paulinho Paiakan was working for the Brazilian government helping surveyors plot the route of the Trans-Amazon Highway through sometimes hostile Indigenous territory. Then the bulldozers and paving machines arrived and he understood the destruction they would bring. He quit his job to become one of the rainforest’s staunchest and best-known defenders.

As an example of an early exploit, Mr. Paiakan in the 1970s organized hundreds of elaborately painted and feathered warriors to face down wildcat miners and loggers intent on invading the lands of his Kayapo people, who live in the Amazon states of Para and Mato Grosso. He was instrumental in establishing his tribe’s 11-million-acre reservation, where some 9,000 Kayapo continue their traditional way of life with only minor concessions to the modern world.

Mr. Paiakan later helped convince the government to shelve plans for a hydroelectric dam in the region. He also took part in a successful effort to introduce protections for Indigenous people into Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, which remain some of the world’s strongest.

Mr. Paiakan died on June 17 in a hospital in Redenção, in Brazil’s Para State. He was 67. The cause was Covid-19, his daughter Maial said.

As Brazil’s Covid-19 case count has exceeded one million and deaths there have surpassed 50,000, the country has also lost another Indigenous Amazon leader to the virus in recent weeks. Messias Kokama, an advocate of Indigenous people in cities, died on May 13.

Mr. Paiakan achieved a large measure of fame in the 1980s. He traveled the world to warn of the dangers facing the Amazon and of their impact on global warming, once appearing alongside the rock star Sting at a gathering of Indigenous peoples. He extolled the rainforest’s biodiversity and organized a deal for the Kayapo to sell nut oils to the Body Shop, making them one of the richest Indigenous groups in Brazil. Ridley Scott was even slated to film a $40 million biopic about him.

But on the eve of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Mr. Paiakan and his wife, Irekran, were accused in connection with the rape of a young woman. Supporters say the charges were trumped up to silence him. He was eventually convicted of (nonsexual) assault and sentenced to prison, which he avoided by fleeing to his native village in the rainforest. His sentence was commuted in 2006, but by then he had been left destitute and had ceased to be an effective leader.

“I knew how to organize the people for the struggle, but after the ’90s, I left the organizing to others,” he said in a television interview in 2018. “I used to ask to meet with officials and be well received, without pepper spray to the face. Today any protest is met with tear-gas bombs and pepper spray.”

According to his people’s practice of using one name, he was born Bepkaroroti, on April 19, 1953, in the village of Kubekrakej. His mother was Ikekrote and his father was Tchikiri, the local chief. Paulinho Paiakan was the name given him by Catholic missionaries who took an interest in him and brought him to Altamira, a city some 500 miles north, to study, leading him to become one of the first Kayapo to speak Portuguese.

He is survived by his wife; four daughters, Maial, O-e, Tania and Iremao, who were raised in Redenção so they could have a formal education; and five grandchildren.

His body was flown back to his ancestral lands and buried to the accompaniment of traditional songs and dancing on June 18, although some aspects of the ceremony were scaled back to prevent the spread of infection.

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