Death in Your Living Room

The only people who can prevent the invasion of Indian reserves in Brazil and British and American consumers

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, sometime in 1992

“There’s almost nothing we can do to stop the supply: the only hope is to stop the demand. That’s up to you.”

Sydney Possuelo, the President of the Brazilian government’s Indian Foundation, is a man close to despair. Throughout the southern Amazon, where Brazilian mahogany grows, the Indian reserves for which he is responsible have been invaded by timber cutters. This year promises to be critical. There is, in the words of an anthropologist in the region, “a huge offensive planned for the dry season.”

The Indian Foundation – FUNAI – has run out of money. It can no longer provide even the medicines and food required to keep sick Indians alive in its hospitals, let alone the costs of monitoring reserve invasions and prosecuting the timber cutters. The problem is compounded by corrupt officials in the Foundation’s middle ranks, signing contracts purporting to allow the exploitation of the reserves, which is forbidden by the Brazilian Constitution. Some are known to be receiving monthly salaries from timber cutters in return for their services.

While FUNAI shrivels for want of funds, the timber cutters run some of the richest and most powerful organisations in Brazil. Their cartels in the Amazon are said to swing more weight there than any government department. This was the theme of a conversation in February with Brazil’s Environment Secretary, Jose Lutzenberger. In March, having attempted to restrict the illegal logging, he was sacked. The timber companies had applied so much pressure to the Brazilian President that, for this and other reasons, he was forced to dismiss his favourite minister.

By the beginning of this year over forty Indian and biological reserves in the Brazilian Amazon had been invaded by loggers felling mahogany and other timbers for export. Some had been entered after the Indians had been lured into signing contracts with the timber cutters: contracts which pay as little as one half of one percent of the export value of the timber cut, sometimes in money, sometimes in the form of cheap merchandise, sugar, rum and prostitutes.

Others were invaded without consultation with the Indians, the timber cutters either attempting to avoid them or – in places in which the Indians are considered a threat to the logging operations – sending gunmen into the forest to murder them. Timber cutters have killed people of the Korubo, Awa-Guaja, Guapore, Uru Eu Wau Wau, Zoro, Flecheiros and Mura-Piraha tribes.

In all cases the entry of timber cutters is accompanied by deforestation, disease and social breakdown. The cutters are characteristically followed by small farmers, making use of the roads they build, who complete the deforestation the loggers begin. Cutting in some reserves has led to the drastic depletion of game and forest products, rendering the Indians dependent on the overstretched FUNAI.

Disease is the Indians’ greatest threat. In 1991 almost the entire population of the Surui’, whose lands have been extensively invaded by timber cutters, was suffering from venereal disease. Others are dying of illnesses – such as flu and measles – which are non-fatal to white people but to which the Indians have no resistence.

The deforestation and – more poignantly – the deals members of some groups have struck with timber cutters, have dissolved much of the social cohesion for which many Indian societies were well known. Having lost their means of subsistence, some groups have turned to the cities in a largely futile attempt to make a living, losing contact with their lands and traditional economies. The Indians who have signed contracts tend to waste the money or merchandise they acquire on dissipated living, while the remainder of their people – often including elders whose traditional authority has been usurped – can do little more than watch the forests disappear around them.

The Indians’ reserves are being invaded because, according to government officials, mahogany is almost commercially extinct nearly everywhere else. Once widely distributed in the southern Amazon, its overharvesting has led the species to be classified as Vulnerable in Brazil. In most of the major cutting areas, the only places in which mahogany can be logged are the reserves.

Britain imports fifty-two per cent of the mahogany sold by Brazil. “Mahogany” is a word which, like “champagne” and “ivory”, appears to signify luxury in this country, even though most of its modern uses have strayed far from the traditions with which it is associated. Today the forests of the Indians are cut to produce fitted kitchens and bedrooms, coffins, cabinets and bathroom accessories: other people’s livelihoods transformed into our fripperies.

After three years of research in and about the Amazon, I have managed to bring some of these findings onto film. On Monday, for the first time on television, mahogany is followed from an Indian reserve (in which, despite the ruling of the Brazilian Constitution, the company was granted permission to stay by a federal judge) to ships bound for Britain.

As the film shows, timber cutting has become one of the greatest threats to the Indians of the southern Amazon. For many of these peoples the best hopes of survival are vested in us. If they are to survive, we have to stop buying mahogany.