Raoni Metuktire, also simply known as Chief Raoni or Ropni, born ca. 1930, is an important chief of the Kayapo people, a Brazilian Indigenous group from the plain lands of the Mato Grosso and Pará in Brazil, south of the Amazon Basin and along Rio Xingu and its tributaries. He is a famous international character, a living symbol of the fight for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest and of the indigenous culture.
Cacique (native american word for chieftain) Raoni Metuktire was born in the State of Mato Grosso in or around 1930, in the heart of the Brazilian part of the Amazon rainforest, in a village called Krajmopyjakare (today called Kapôt). Born in the Metuktire family of Kayapo people, he is one of Cacique Umoro’s sons. As the Kayapo tribe is nomadic, his childhood was marked by moving continuously from one place to another and he witnessed many tribal wars. Guided by his brother Motibau, at the age of 15, he chose to have a painted wooden lip plate (called ‘botoque’ by the warriors of his tribe) placed under the lower lip.
Raoni and other members of the Metuktire tribe encountered the Western World for the first time in 1954. Initiated into the portuguese language by Orlando Villas-Bôas, the eldest of the Villas-Bôas brothers and a famous indigenous anthropologist in Brazil, the young Raoni was ready for the Kuben’s invasion (Kuben meaning « the others », « white people »).
In 1964, he met King Leopold III of Belgium, while the latter was on an expedition into indigenous reservations in Mato Grosso.
Deforestation was already giving cause for concern when a documentary film made by Jean-Pierre Dutilleux, narrated by Jacques Perrin and called “Raoni” was shot. Marlon Brando, known for his support of Native American people, had just been paid an unprecedented $3.7 million for his 10-minute part in Superman, but agreed to be filmed for no salary at all for the opening sequence of the movie.
Brazilian media’s sudden interest made him become the banner-bearer of the fight for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest, which had been put in jeopardy by illegal deforestation, the increasing cultivation of soya beans and the choice of hydroelectric dams as an alternative to fulfill the country needs for energy.
1989, an international campaign in 17 countries
Raoni has obtained international public attention thanks to musician Sting, who came to meet him in the Xingu in November 1987. On October 12, 1988, Sting participated with Raoni to a press conference prior to the Sao Paulo show of the ‘Human Rights Now!’ Amnesty International tour. After the impact of this event, Sting, his wife Trudie Styler and Jean-Pierre Dutilleux became the co-founders of the Rainforest Foundation. The initial purpose of this association was to provide support to Raoni’s projects, the first one being at that time the demarcation of Kayapos territory threatened by invasion.
In February 1989, Raoni became one of the fiercest opponents to the Belo Monte dam project. Television broadcasts transmitted his opinions in Altamira during a huge assembly of chiefs.
Results of 1989 campaign
Raoni visited 17 countries with Sting, from April till June 1989. This very successful campaign gave opportunity to spread his words worldwide and to raise awareness about the amazon rainforest deforestation drama. Twelve rainforest foundations were then created in the world to raise funds dedicated to the elaboration of a huge national park in the Rio Xingu River region, located in Para and Mato Grosso Brazilian states. Raoni's dream was to unite five demarcated indigenous territories (Baú, Kaiapó, Panará, Kapôt Jarina, Bàdjumkôre) with then undemarcated Mekragnotire lands. Along with the adjoining Xingu National Park, the united indigenous lands would cover approximately 180000 km² (i.e. close to a third of the size of France).
In 1993, the funds raised worldwide helped to make Raoni's dream a reality : the unification of the Xingu indigenous lands gave birth to one of the most important rainforest reserves in the world.
International Ambassador for the preservation of the forest and Amazonian people's culture
More than an informal Ambassador for the protection of the Amazon rainforest and its indigenous inhabitants, Raoni, as Jacques Chirac once said, is the living symbol of the fight for the protection of the environment. Since 1989, the great kayapo leader did several trips all over the world, for example to the north-eastern portions of the provinces of Quebec to visit Innu people in August 2001 or to Japan in May 2007. However, his message mainly struck a chord with European countries such as France where he came back in 2000, 2001 and 2003.
Various indigenous people from the region of Xingu are fighting to preserve the ways and customs which are transmitted orally since the dawn of time. These tribes were isolated from the world until the twentieth century. Raoni found out means to link with the rest of the world but kept stoicism, distance and dignity. He often meets the great and the good but he lives in simple hut and doesn’t own anything. The gifts he receives are always redistributed.
During his media interventions, he is almost always seen wearing a wreath of yellow feathers and arrayed with Kayapo earrings and necklace. The cacique Raoni is easily recognizable with his lip plate that stretches his lower lip. The following generations didn’t keep this tradition. Raoni is one of the last men to wear a lower lip plate.
In September 2011, Chief Raoni took the status of ‘Honour citizen of Paris’ given by Bertrand Delanoë who was the mayor of Paris at the time and received the medal of the French National Assembly by Nicolas Perruchot.
Chief Raoni's fight against the Belo Monte dam project
In an interview broadcast by French TV channel TF1 on the occasion of a European campaign in 2010 (France, Belgium, Switzerland, Monaco, Luxembourg), Raoni declared war on the Belo Monte dam project which jeopardizes indigenous territories located on the bank of the Xingú river in the state of Pará (Brazil). He also reaffirmed his determination to protect the Amazon rainforest from a major disaster: ‘I asked my warriors to be ready for the war. I told the tribes of the High Xingú the same. We will not be pushed around.’.
During this tour, he visited France where he promoted his memoirs Raoni, mémoires d'un chef indien and was welcomed by former French President Jacques Chirac by means of his Foundation (Fondation Chirac) which support his pilote project of an institute in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. Raoni gave his name to this institute which aim is to preserve the culture of indigenous people and the biodiversity of the forest.
He was also welcomed during this tour by Albert II, Prince of Monaco, who is known to be committed to the protection of nature. The former French President Nicolas Sarkozy didn’t welcome him during this tour even though he had invited Raoni in September 2009, at the time of an official visit to Brazil.
The Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), last defence against the construction of the Belo Monte dam, delivered the licence to the consortium of Brazilian companies Norte Energia on June 1, 2011. This information has been forwarded by the media and social networks all over the world with a picture of Raoni crying. The caption added that his tears were provoked by the announcement of the final validation of the project. Indignant, Chief Raoni denied on his official website: ‘I didn’t cry because of the authorization of the construction of the Belo Monte dam and the beginning of the construction (…). President Dilma will cry but I will not. I want to know who gave this picture and spread this false information (…). President Dilma will have to kill me in front of the Planalto Palace (Palácio do Planalto). Then you will be able to build the Belo Monte dam. » According to Amazon Watch his crying had nothing to do with the dam or any news related to it; it is a custom among the Kayapo to cry when they greet an old acquaintance or relative that they have not seen for a long time, as was happening when this photo was taken.
In September 2011, Chief Raoni went to the United Nations Human Right Council in Geneva and participated to Rio+20 in June 2012. Raoni is not disheartened. He recently received the support of famous people such as James Cameron, Sigourney Weaver, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Edgar Morin, Jan Kounen, Nicolas Hulot, Danielle Mitterrand, Mino Cinelu and launched an international petition in 7 languages against the proposed Belo Monte dam project on his official website.