The heart of the rainforest might be the last place you’d expect to find a bunch of high tech solar energy geeks tromping about. But you wouldn’t have met the adventurous folks from PURE Energies. For 10 days, a team from this San Francisco-based company traded in cell phones for body paint and lattes for potential encounters with pirahnas to learn about sustainability from the Kayapo, one of the most remote communities in the world. Here’s their story.

PURE Energies helps homeowners in the U.S. and Canada figure out what solar power and energy conservation options make the most sense for their home. They don’t build solar collectors or install insulation. Instead, they help folks determine what solar and conservation technologies will best meet their needs, then how to choose a provider and finance a system or service once it’s chosen.

PURE Energies CEO Zbigniew Barwicz with Kayapo tribesmen.
PURE Energies CEO Zbigniew Barwicz with Kayapo tribesmen.

Though he’s focused on city and suburban roofs in North America, PURE Energies’ CEO, Zbigniew Barwicz, found himself thinking about the Kayapo. These indigenous people have not only existed in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest for eons; they’ve also helped manage it sustainably. This is not a small task; Kayapo lands are larger than 45% of the world’s countries. They consist of dense jungle teeming with wild animals and rivers full of man-eating fish. And yet, the Kayapo use no power tools or automatic weapons. They have no internet. They live today pretty much the way they’ve always lived: simply, connected to each other, and in tune with the rainforest that is their home. How did they do it? What could he and his company learn from them? And was there any help he could offer them in return?

Barwicz decided to go and find out.

He knew the Amazon rainforest was critical to our health and that of the planet. More than 20% of all oxygen in our atmosphere is produced there. The region helps stabilize the world’s climate by storing carbon in its vast network of trees, bushes, flowers and vines. The area also supports an amazing variety of animals and plants: a single hectare in the Amazon rainforest contains up to 450 species, more than twice what is found in the entire country of Canada, and there are more species of fish in the Amazon river than are found in the entire Atlantic Ocean. Twenty-five percent of Western medicines comes from tropical forest ingredients, yet only 1% of tropical trees and plants in the rainforest have been tested by scientists for their medicinal value.

You’d think this place would be valued, and protected. Instead, it’s under siege, from ranching, mining, logging and hydro-electric dam development. Since 2000, an area equal to 50 football fields has been destroyed every minute, the Guardian reported last year. The total loss is 10 times the area of the United Kingdom. Only a third of that is being replaced by natural and planted reforestation.

In the face of this onslaught, the Kayapo are becoming more savvy about forming non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to fight back, They’re developing non-timber forest products to generate modest income. And they’re trying to get the word out. That’s where PURE Energies came in. Working with the International Conservation Fund of Canada, PURE Energies’ Barwicz and some of his staff immersed themselves in Kayapo culture and traditions, not as observers, but as actual participants who could relate their experiences to the outside world.

Those experiences far surpassed the team’s expectations. Elianne Mureddu was part of the PURE Energies expedition.

“When I first embarked on the journey, I wasn’t sure what to expect,” she noted, “Living without electricity, showers, beds and any other commodity of our daily life seemed exciting – but was it actually, if that’s how you live permanently?”

“I don’t want to sound like a treehugger or hippie, because I’m not – BUT: After spending a week with the Kayapo, I can truthfully say my outlook on life has changed.”

One thing that impressed Mureddu is how the Kayapo build their sense of belonging and togetherness. They live in large family groups in villages, in roomy, undivided huts whose thatched roofs are made of palm leaves. Their communities are built in a circle to reflect their belief in a round universe.

“What captivated me most is their family life,” she said. “The Kayapo don’t have jobs, money or economies. Their purpose is to serve their families and communities. Because of this there is an incredible energy of love, respect and peace that spreads across their villages and their society.”

Kayapo grilling fish Their day-to-day life certainly is arduous by San Francisco standards. No Whole Foods for them! They fish, grow vegetables, and hunt animals like monkey and turtle. They often trek by foot for days or weeks at a time, machete in hand to clear a path or find food. Otherwise, they travel on the river in traditional dug-out canoes or, increasingly, in motorized aluminum canoes.

Traditionally, the Kayapo wore nothing but body paint. Today, they dress in Western-style garments, adorned with brightly-colored beaded necklaces, bracelets and earrings made from shells or stones, and headdresses shimmering with the colored feathers of Amazonian birds. Kids go barefoot, but adults wear flip-flops. That said, painting their bodies still plays an important role, as an art form, a tradition, and societal glue. Body paint designs are usually linked to a ritual or ceremony. Kayapo girls learn how to prepare the paint; the women are skilled in applying it in complex, delicate designs that Barwicz, Mureddu and others on the trip experienced first hand when their arms and faces were turned into canvases for the fascinating geometric patterns the Kayapo inked onto their skin.

Before concluding their odyssey, the PURE Energies team distributed Goal Zero solar-powered lanterns to their Kayapo hosts. The lanterns will be used to help build and strengthen their social enterprises so they can increase their effectiveness and resilience in the face of looming development. The lanterns will also be used to help deliver babies at night and for nighttime social gatherings.

For its part, PURE Energies is continuing to spread the word about the importance of saving the rainforest and protecting the Kayapo. They’ve started with this 5-part video series. Take a look.

Images provided by PURE Energies. Feature image courtesy of Pedro Biondi

By Diane MacEachern

Diane MacEachern is a best-selling author, award-winning entrepreneur and mother of two with a Master of Science degree in Natural Resources and the Environment. Glamour magazine calls her an “eco hero” and she recently won the “Image of the Future Prize” from the World Communications Forum, but she’d rather tell you about the passive solar house she helped design and build way back when most people thought “green” was the color a building was painted, not how it was built. She founded because she’s passionate about inspiring consumers to shift their spending to greener products and services to protect themselves and their families while using their marketplace clout to get companies to clean up their act.