Murder in the Amazon

Nearly all the mahogany leaving Brazil has been taken, illegally, from protected reserves

By George Monbiot. Published in Building for a Future, sometime in 1995

The Guapore Indians of the western Brazilian Amazon have resisted all contact with the outside world. Until recently they have been able to hide from outsiders by retreating further into the forest, but now they have nowhere to go. They are surrounded by timber cutters from nine sawmills, and the tribe could be exterminated by the end of this year.

The cutters, anxious that the Indians do not interfere with the removal of the last stands of mahogany in their territory, are said to be preparing posses to move in and wipe them out. The Indians have done the one thing they can think of to try to stop the cutters without coming into contact with them: in the tracks used by the bulldozers they have planted sharpened wooden pegs. They are testimony to the Indians’ impotence in the face of a murderous industry.

The setting for this story, as for most of the horrors associated with the timber industry in Amazonia, is a strict reserve, set aside in this case for the preservation of biological diversity. The wood being cut is sold largely to British importers, who claim that its extraction, far from harming either Indians or wildlife, is of benefit to the forest. It is a lie their customers are depressingly willing to believe.

According to officials of the Brazilian government’s Indian Foundation, there is now scarcely any mahogany being sold by Brazilian companies which does not come from reserves. Having exhausted stocks in nearly all the places in which they could be legally exploited, the big timber cutters have swept into the protected areas set aside for Indians or wildlife. Most of the reserves in both the eastern and south-western Amazon are being exploited by timber cutters, to devastating effect.

Half of the 1200 Uru Eu Wau Indians of the state of Rondonia have been killed since 1981, either by timber cutters’ posses or by diseases introduced by the invaders. Two sawmills are working inside their reserve, and the mahogany that one of them is extracting moves – through a series of middlemen and a British importer – to the furniture restoration departments in Buckingham Palace and Sandringham.

The Korubu of the Javari Valley in Amazonas state, have, like the Guapore, fled from outsiders, but they too are now being forced into violent contact. Three months ago two members of logging team failed to return to base. Their disappearance was blamed on the Indians, and a posse was sent in, whose express intention was to eliminate all the Korubu they came into contact with.

The Guapore, Uru Eu Wau Wau and Korubu are among the many groups whose only contact with the timber cutters in their lands has been at the end of a gun, but perhaps the story of those who have struck deals with the loggers is even more tragic. A few years ago whitemen began to arrive in the territory of the Kayapo Indians, in the state of Para, in pick-up trucks laden with cheap merchandise: teeshirts, tinned food, radios, torches and plastic toys. They handed them out to the Indians, who were glad to receive them.

Several weeks later the same men turned up again, announced that they were timber cutters, that the goods they had distributed had been sold to the Kayapo on credit, and that they had come to claim their debts. As the Indians had no money they would collect what they said they were owed in the form of timber.

The Kayapo could do nothing to stop them moving in and taking wood many hundreds of times the value of the merchandise they had distributed. Once there the cutters began to work on the more dominant members of the group, tempting them with promises of trucks, stereo systems and prostitutes. Their behaviour has been compared by Indian rights campaigners in Brazil to that of drugs pushers. Several of the village leaders became hooked, and started selling off the forest without consulting their people. The results for both the society and environment of the Kayapo have been catastrophic.

The timber cutters have torn nearly all the mahogany from four of the six Kayapo reserves. Taking no measures to limit the destruction they cause, they have laid waste to much of the forest in which the mahogany grew, driving out the game and pulling down the fruiting trees the people used. Now many of the Indians spend the minimal amounts of money the cutters pay on rice and beans.

The leaders have used their gains to elevate their standing, and buy the most worthless manufactured goods. One chief, unable to power the stereo system he has acquired, uses the speakers as stools. Outside his mud and palmthatch house sit two giant porcelain dogs. As the cutters move out, the Kayapo find themselves left with neither forests nor money.

In Rondonia the Cinta Larga Indians, unable to cancel the grossly uneven contract they had been coerced into signing with a timber cutter, killed five of its employees last year. The murders provoked national outrage. The killings of Indians by timber cutters on the other hand are so commonplace that they scarcely feature in the Brazilian press.

Timber cutting in reserves is illegal: even the Indians are not allowed to cut their wood for profit without special congressional approval. But profits are so large and the industry so powerful that there is little anyone can do to stop the sawmills. In the eastern Amazon the timber industry has more power than any government institution. The cutters have formed a cartel which beleaguered government officials have likened to the Mafia. They now coordinate their reserve invasions. Typically one will open the road, another will cut the wood, and the two will sell to a third. Under these circumstances it is effectively impossible to prosecute.

When the Attorney-General’s office files applications to take illegal timber cutters to court, the judges are either bribed or threatened, and court orders are withdrawn within days of their issue. Gunmen, often the people who are also contracted to murder Indians, are sent to threaten civil servants or human rights campaigners monitoring their company’s business.

Many of the institutions supposed to restrain the excesses of the timber industry are largely staffed by people promoting them: either placed by influential cutters or suborned once at their posts by means of money or guns. IBAMA, the government environment agency, has been described by the Brazilian Secretary of State for the Environment as ‘absolutely hopeless’ at discharging its duties.

It was a president of FUNAI, the government Indian Foundation, who signed some of the illegal contracts allowing cutters into Indian lands. While he was promoted out of his job, many of his corrupt employees remain, some of whom receive two regular salaries: one from the government and one from the timber cutters. In the state of Rondonia FUNAI officials have threatened their own employees with death for trying to stop the invasions of the loggers.

IBAMA is responsible for approving the management plans timber cutters must issue before they start work in the forest. These are supposed to ensure that the production is sustainable and reforestation takes place. With few exceptions they are entirely bogus. Typically a timber cutter will produce a plan for the management of an area in which it is allowed to work, and then extract wood from an entirely different one, such as an Indian reserve.

Once the wood is sawn and trucked its origin cannot be determined, and it is scarcely in the interests of IBAMA officials to try to find out. Jose Lutzemberger, the Environment Secretary, describing them as a complete fraud, has made plans to suspend all the management plans. In the meantime timber importers in Britain flourish them as proof of the environmental friendliness of the wood they buy.

Most of the timber cutting in the Amazon, particularly for the export market, is highly selective. Unlike the dipterocarp forests of South East Asia, in which most of the trees belong to the same fairly uniform family, the trees in the Amazon forests vary wildly in terms of colour, texture and use. The most valuable species, such as mahogany, Spanish cedar, ipe, freijo, pau amarello, angelim and sucupira, are found – where they occur at all – at maximum average densities of between one and two per hectare. So in order to harvest a working load, the cutters have to move through a vast area of forest. As there is no attempt to limit the damage they cause, their impact is out of all proportion to the amount of wood taken.

Rather than marking the trees to be felled, planning tracks which cause the minimum of damage, and cutting the vines which bind the trees together, the cutters’ machines rampage through the forest, careering from tree to tree, pulling down all those connected to the one to be taken, and knocking over everything which stands in the way when the tree comes to be dragged out.

As a result operations removing 2% of the trees destroy on average 56% of the canopy, while the average large sawmill cutting mahogany creates 500 kilometres of roads each year. In the sawmill itself only half the log ends up as planks, the remainder being burnt. The proportion falls when the wood is destined for export: then as little as one third of the log might leave the mill as sawn wood.

This profligacy does the cutter no harm. The characteristic pattern in the Amazon has been to extract the most valuable wood in one area then move to another. When there is nowhere left to go, the cutter reinvests in another industry. The Indians and wildlife are left with a wasteland, in which vines crowd the broken canopy and render the understorey impenetrable.

The cutters’ claims to be replanting the forest they destroy are simply ludicrous. All Brazilian timber companies are supposed either to reforest or to give money to reforestation firms. Those who profess to be doing it themselves are, if doing anything at all, growing trees in monocultural plantations. While they may plant as many trees as they cut, they do nothing to replace the far greater numbers they destroy in the process. Reforestation firms are among the biggest rackets in the Amazon. None of the money they receive is used for replanting. Instead it finances cocaine smuggling, gold-mining, ranching, or – commonly – timber cutting.

While the haste and carelessness with which the timber cutters operate result in drastic changes in the structure of the forest, this is only the beginning of the process logging precipitates. The network of roads the cutters build provide access to settlers and ranchers. By selling the remaining wood on their lands to the sawmills, these farmers finance agriculture which would otherwise be economically inviable.

The timber industry in the Amazon has become the economic motor driving the other forms of deforestation there. As the government’s money has dried up, it has left its road-building plans in Amazonia to the cutters. Just as government subsidies ended and land prices stopped rising (these were the two main factors promoting ranching in the Amazon), the timber industry began providing the money the ranchers needed.

In many cases, especially those involving indigenous reserves, the relationship between timber cutters and farmers is explicit. The timber cutter builds a trunk road through the middle of the forest, from which its logging roads branch. It then encourages colonists to move down them. The colonists both help to justify its illegal presence – it can argue that the sawmill is just part of a much wider invasion – and provide a cheap source of labour. In return for new roads built for them by the sawmill the colonists extract the wood it wants.

The destruction the timber cutters initiate is completed by the colonists they subsidise: the remaining trees are cleared for agriculture. In indigenous reserves the Indians find themselves outnumbered by the farmers, and subject to their diseases, posses and political power: the votes of the many colonists in some reserves make local politicians reluctant to expel them.

All this makes a nonsense of the principal argument used by timber importers in Britain: that if the trade were restricted the forests would no longer be valued for the wood they contained, but would instead be cut down for agriculture. It is because of the timber trade that agricultural frontiers are still expanding in the Amazon. Far from protecting the valuable forests, the timber cutters are destroying them as quickly as their machinery allows.

Of all the woods cut in the Amazon the one whose extraction is most destructive is mahogany. One researcher in Brazil described the distribution of mahogany as “a perfectly designed boardgame for maximum environmental destruction.” The mahogany trees are extremely valuable and widely spaced throughout the forest. They cannot be extracted without causing a huge amount of damage. Some of the highest concentrations are – or were – inside indigenous reserves.

The world’s largest market for mahogany is Great Britain, thanks to the associations people in this country make between mahogany and old world luxury. The mass-produced television cabinets, coffins, fitted kitchens, toothbrush racks and toilet brush holders for which mahogany is now used may stray from this ideal, but appear to be considered so essential to our civilisation that rainforests and whole Indian peoples have to be sacrificed to make them.

For this reason it seems to me that the British timber industry is just as destructive as that of the great environmental bogey: Japan. Though Britain consumes far less timber than Japan, most of Japan’s comes from the more consistent forests of South East Asia, where less destruction is required for each tree extracted.

Mahogany is now close to commercial extinction. At the March meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an attempt will be made to restrict its trade. Whether or not this succeeds, the mahogany industry will soon come to an end. Conscious of this, British traders are beginning to bring new species from the Amazon onstream. All of these, like mahogany, are thinly dispersed through the forest. As their value rises the impact of their extraction will become just as great as that of the mahogany trade. There is not a single commercial sustainable timber operation in the Brazilian Amazon.

The disasters associated with the timber trade in South America are not confined to the Brazilian Amazon: it is just that there the scale is beyond that of other operations. In the eastern lowlands of Bolivia the rapacity of timber cutters working in indigenous lands in the Chimanes district drove 700 Indians to march all the way from the Amazon to the Andean capital La Paz. The popular support they raised forced the president to close the timber cutters down. The Indians are now starting the enormous task of trying to repair the damage the loggers have caused.

In Chile Japanese wood chipping and timber companies are moving into the famous Araucaria – or monkey-puzzle – forests, an important element in the subsistence of the Mapuche Indians. Here replanting programmes appear to be as much of a threat as the cutting itself; for the woodchip industry envisages the establishment of massive plantations of non-native species.

Guyana is currently selling its rainforests to foreign companies in a frantic effort to pay off its debts. Among them is one of those responsible for the pillage of Sarawak. A road Brazil has built into the centre of Guyana will open the forests there to the horrors the Brazilians have visited on their own.

For some idea of what might happen to the Amazon at the hands of the cutters, it is interesting to see what they were doing before they moved into the region. Many of the biggest suppliers now logging there were just ten or twenty years ago working in southern Brazilian states such as Parana and Espirito Santo.

Making no attempt to limit the damage they caused or to restore the broken forest, they stripped those states of all their marketable timber. The roads they built gave access to ranchers and cash-croppers, who cleared the remaining trees and pushed out the subsistence farmers who had been living among the forests. The states have been transformed into deserts of soyabeans and ranchlands, unbroken but for monotonous plantations of eucalyptus. British builders can do no worse for the South American rainforests than to buy the timber they produce.