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Saints or sinners?
Ten years after the Rio Summit, KEN WIWA travels deep into the Brazilian rain forest to find the lungs of the planet increasingly short of breath. Mahogany poachers have ravaged vast tracts of tribal reserves - by slipping a few bucks to the natives themselves

Is she doomed?
This woman is a member of the Arawete, one of the six tribes ravaged by their exposure to the outside world and now in line for assistance from the Amazon Co-op. An estimated four million indigenous people once lived in Amazonia. Today, there are 250,000.
Photo: Sam Harris/The Globe and Mail
By KEN WIWA, Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, June 29, 2002

It looks innocent enough on a map; a thin blue line running south off the main artery of one of the world's great rivers. But once you are in a speedboat skimming over its choppy rapids and swerving round dangerous whirlpools with an intimidating mushroom of forest rising from distant banks, you get a very different perspective. A trip up the Xingu River is much more than a journey up a tributary of the Amazon; it is a journey into a cul-de-sac of human folly.

Rising on the Planalto (plateau) do Mato Grosso, the Xingu meanders generally northward for about 1,450 kilometres and drains more than a half-million square kilometres before it joins the Amazon near the village of Porto de Moz. The town of Altamira lies about 500 kilometres upstream from the mouth of the river, and when I arrived there early one muggy morning last month, the damp patches of reddish brown earth betrayed signs of the schizophrenic rainfall that characterizes the tail end of the wet season.

I drove into town past big wooden billboards for everything from government warnings about AIDS to the benefits that the nearby Transamazonica express would bring to Altamira. Gleaming new trucks and SUVs of ElectroNorte, the local utility company, cruised the town centre. The muddy streets were dotted with brilliant bougainvillea plants and immaculate and whitewashed palm trees. Amid the noise of cars and motor scooters, carefree girls from the two local universities rode the streets on precarious-looking bicycles. Now and again, a donkey sauntered past.

Wiwa: Into the Amazon
Main Page
Saints or sinners?

Diary Entry number 1
Live from Los Angeles

Diary Entry number 2
Live from Rio de Janeiro

Diary Entry number 3
Live from Altamira

Diary Entry number 4
Live from Xingu

Background Information
Assurini Indians

Arawete village

Photo Galleries
Rio de Janeiro
Photo Gallery

Photo Gallery

The Author
Ken Wiwa
Read the biography

From my afternoon vantage point in a popular churrascaria (barbecue joint), Altamira looked like a simulacrum of a frontier town in the middle of the jungle, a place where the distance from grinding poverty to extraordinary wealth could be measured by the depth of one's conscience.

Later, as I dozed off to the sporadic shouts of revellers, I imagined that an underworld fuelled by money trickling down from the vast fortunes being made in cattle ranching, gold mining and the mahogany trade was responsible for animating the Amazonian night.

In the morning, I went down to breakfast in the immaculate and virginal white of the Augustus, Altamira's newest hotel. On the patio, a man in a white Stetson was sweeping the pool, watched intently by a posse of five Kayapo Indians.

Benajure (Chief) Kryt and his companions Tumre, Bepnhoti, Bengoti and Bepkoti offered a cultural snapshot of their people. They prowled around the pool as though hunting jaguar, and then Kryt, Tumre and Bepkoti sat and observed from a strategically placed deck chair, while Bepnhoti and Bengoti acted as scouts, providing a running commentary on the scene for their elders. The younger men were in football shirts and shorts and sported pudding-bowl haircuts while the elder statesmen wore their hair long and went bare-chested, proudly proclaiming their tribal colours on their skin.

If the image of the Kayapo that morning has imprinted itself on my mind, I think it is because the scene hinted at the gap that exists between the indigenous people and the priorities of a modern Brazil.

After breakfast, I joined a group of eco-tourists - one Swede, three Brazilians, two Englishmen, two Americans and two Canadians. We crammed into a minibus and headed off to inspect the premises of a co-operative that is trying to provide a sanctuary for six Indian tribes of the Xingu basin. While we went to see sustainable development in action, the Kayapo elected to go shopping.


The next day, it took four hours in an open aluminum speedboat to travel 100 kilometres upstream to Tataquara Island. Four hours is a long time to sit upright. As I fidgeted to ease the strain on my lower back, I kept glancing over my shoulder. Kryt looked relaxed, sitting bolt upright, the wind blowing through his shoulder-length hair. He smiled at me, drew on his pipe and stared into the distance with a serene contemplative expression.

Hells Angels of the jungle
The Kayapo who travelled up the Xingu with Ken Wiwa included bare-chested elders Kryt, left, and Tumre, the jaguar slayer, flanked by soccer-shirted aides-de-camp Bepnhoti, far left, and Bengoti.
Photo: Sam Harris/The Globe and Mail

What, I wondered, was going through his mind? Was he pondering the amazing changes he must have seen in a community isolated from the outside world until the 1970s? The Kayapo are crossing into a modern time zone, but the rest of our group was heading the other way. For Westerners, a trip into the jungle is often an escape from the global village and the tyranny of modern time, an opportunity to get out of our fast-food nations and slip into the slower pace of the river and the jungle.

After two hours of travelling back in time, our speedboat suddenly dropped a gear and veered off toward the bank and a tugboat flying a red ensign. We could see that it was guarding a flotilla of impounded mahogany logs. Bengoti leapt out of the speedboat on to the logs and proceeded to relieve himself on the mahogany. Perhaps I misread the smirk on his face, but he seemed to be putting on a show for us.

We had been told about the logs in Altamira. They were part of a consignment of 60,000 trees that had been poached from Indian reserves and seized after an investigation by FUNAI, the agency responsible for the welfare of Brazil's native population. It was hard to fathom that they had a market value of $200-million (U.S.) - and yet by the end of the trip, I would come to realize that they were worth much more than that.

In the struggle for the heart and soul of the Amazon, mahogany logging is the latest devil leading man into temptation. Since 1970, a swath of forest the size of France has been lost to gold mining, logging and cattle ranching, but mahogany now ranks as the greatest menace.

Mahogany trees are found in more than 1.5 million square kilometres of the Amazon region, but only in 8,000 square kilometres of the Xingu basin are they commercially accessible. This mahogany belt - called the Middle Lands - corresponds with large concentrations of native territory (about 90 indigenous groups live there) and nature reserves.

Nothing like the mahogany trade illustrates the vanities of our consumer society. Highly prized for its incredible beauty and durability, the big-leaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) is distributed sparsely throughout the Amazon forest, found either as a single tree or in small clusters (rarely more than eight trees per hectare). It grows to 40 metres and takes about 100 years to mature, but just two minutes to be cut down. The World Wildlife Fund now considers it one of the 10 most endangered species on the planet.

Studies have shown that for every towering mahogany tree extracted, 27 other trees are damaged and 1,450 square kilometres of forest destroyed. Driven mainly by the quest for mahogany, illegal roads - more than 3,000 kilometres so far - are carved into unexplored areas, opening them farmers and ranchers who clear the land.

The Earth Summit held 10 years ago in Rio de Janeiro came at the height of global awareness of the Amazon as the heart and lungs of the planet's ecosystem. More than 180 countries signed the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species - agreements intended to provide a comprehensive framework for the protection of threatened natural habitats.

Brazil placed itself in the vanguard, imposing controls and requiring loggers to produce forest-management plans and obtain written permission before shipping logs from the Amazon. Yet the system has been corrupted, with officials turning a blind eye to poaching in return for a little something under the table.

Brazil estimates that 80 per cent of mahogany being exported has been cut illegally, and Greenpeace cites "widespread fraudulent use of official documentation" that renders national and international control measures "almost meaningless."

According to its recent report, Partners in Mahogany Crime, natives are paid no more than $30 (U.S.) for a tree that can fetch upwards of $3,300 on the export market. "This same tree," Greenpeace claims, "supplies enough mahogany timber to assemble between 12 and 15 twelve-seater solid mahogany dining-room tables, which wholesale for $4,150 and retail to the public for $8,550 each.

"Hence, the products from one five-cubic-metre mahogany log have a retail value of up to $128,250 when sold at prestigious retailers - equivalent to the sale of 4,275 mahogany trees in the forest."

The logging trade is dominated by an elite group of mills and export companies controlled largely by two powerful reis do Mogno (mahogany kings): Moises Carvalho Pereira and Osmar Alves Ferreira. Mr. Pereira is reputed to earn $1-million (U.S.) a day, and last year Epoca, the country's second-largest weekly newsmagazine, accused him of being the testa-deferro - front man - for the former president of the Brazilian Senate, Jader Barbalho.

Most of the wood is shipped to the United States and Britain. Last year, Gibbard Furniture Shops Ltd. of Napanee, Ont., believed to be Canada's oldest furniture maker and a leading supplier to the federal government, stopped importing Brazilian mahogany in favour of Central American timber.

But a FUNAI official named Caetano Ventura says Canada's connection to Brazil's mahogany trade hasn't been severed completely. Logging near a Kayapo village called Pukany, he said, was financed by an advance from "a Canadian company."

With the certification process now under investigation, there is a temporary worldwide ban on all mahogany.


The numbers tell an eloquent story, but there is nothing like the sight of 60,000 logs floating in a river to bring home the lunacy of the mahogany trade. As we sped away, a mournful, stunned silence filled the boat. Someone finally compared the situation to the fur trade, but it seemed more like a killing field to me. A morgue in the river.

I wedged into a corner and flicked through Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, searching for these lines: "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."

As we journeyed upstream, I became disoriented. The river seemed to twist and double back on itself. Sitting behind us, Benigno Marques, river veteran and sometime head of FUNAI in Altamira, slalomed the boat round the increasingly numerous rapids and whirlpools.

Swallows swooped and skimmed across the surface. Dark clouds threatened rain. Every now and again, a toucan or a Technicolor macaw would lurch inelegantly from a tree. We passed ghostly mangroves, then an island hut with a satellite dish in its front yard, precarious-looking river vessels laden with passengers and spectacular colonies of flamingos. It was like watching a nature documentary, real life imitating television. Finally, after four hours, we docked at an island in the stream.

Tataquara Lodge is the flagship of Amazon Co-op, a non-profit organization set up in 1998 to "raise donations and develop sustainable businesses" for the benefit of six Indian tribes that inhabit the Middle Lands - the Assurini, Arawete, Kayapo, Parakana, Arara and Xicrin.

Based in Altamira, the co-op has about 1,400 members, all but 40 of whom are native. As well as the lodge, it runs an Internet café, a warehouse that processes brazil-nut oils for export and a "green pharmacy," which manufactures herbal remedies from organically grown plants in the forest.

Late into the evening, the Kayapo sat and listened as Gordon Roddick explained the co-op's raison d'être and management structure. They live farther south in the Xingu basin and had come specifically to see the former chief executive of The Body Shop cosmetics empire, one of the very few white men they regard with even grudging affection.

As Bepnhoti and Bengoti interrogated him, the elders - Bepkoti, Tumre and Kryt - sat silently. "They were trying to figure out how they can take over the co-op," Mr. Roddick joked afterward. "You can describe them as the Hells Angels of the jungle - they'll like that."

Of all the Xingu's Indian communities, the 4,000 Kayapo are perhaps the best known, thanks to their querulous, charismatic nature and talent for self-promotion. "They're totally unself-conscious. Wherever they are, whether it's a restaurant in Altamira or sitting in here, they carry themselves as if they own the place. They look good and they know it," Mr. Roddick said with a mixture of exasperation and admiration borne of a long and turbulent relationship.

That relationship began soon after his wife, Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, attended a 1989 demonstration in Altamira against a hydroelectric dam planned for the Xingu. A Kayapo woman mounted a platform and waved a machete in the face of a startled and terrified ElectroNorte official. With people such as rock star Sting on hand to witness the incident, the world's media soon took up the cause of the Indians and ecologists.

The Kayapo were portrayed as a proud warrior race that had a holistic communion with the ancient forests. The truth was much more prosaic, but few cared and the campaign gathered critical mass until Indians rights were recognized in a new Brazilian constitution that also provided them with vast chunks of protected territory.

The Earth Summit three years later was the high point of the world's love affair with the Kayapo, but the wheels came off soon after when a media-savvy tribal leader named Payakan was accused of rape. In the ensuing controversy, it emerged that, while he spoke fluent ecology in one breath, he also cut deals with loggers in the next.

Somewhere amid the lurid tales of prostitutes, private planes and partying in Rio, the ideals that had drawn the Roddicks and the Body Shop to the Kayapo and the Amazon were lost. The ink barely had dried when governments, businesses and indigenous peoples began to renege on the agreements signed at the Earth Summit.

While the world's attention shifted to other stories, Mr. Roddick reaffirmed his comitment to the Kayapo and the indigenous peoples. His dedication may be admirable, but is he, I wondered, only delaying the inevitable?

"Oh, yes," he admitted.

"So, how long do you give them?"

"No more than 25 years."

Then what are you doing here?"

"Well, if we weren't here, they'd all be dead."


I slept badly that night, roasting in the heat of the jungle night while the piune, a nasty little biting bug, dined out on me. Mr. Roddick's frankness about the future troubled me for two days - until I had an epiphany of sorts.

One morning, I woke before dawn and sat by the banks of the Xingu to watch the sun come up. The air was crisp and an eerie silence had fallen come over the forest. The river was flat and almost still, flowing past with languid grace, its surface occasionally punctured by the rustle of a tucunare (peacock bass) or perhaps a piranha.

As the sun came up, howler monkeys screeched in the canopy behind me. Imagining that somewhere in the forest, the ropkrore (jaguar) would be hunting, I suddenly felt exposed. If attacked by South America's largest predator, you can't escape - jaguars can swim, run and climb trees. The night before, Tumre had described how he once killed two of the big cats while out hunting. They surprised him, and he had only enough time to shoot one. The other he clubbed to death. "He looks mild-mannered," Mr. Roddick explained in hushed admiration, "but Tumre is a pretty ferocious guy."

As the sky turned from grey to bright blue, the river seemed to speed up and aboard the Maya, an old tugboat that looked like something out of the African Queen, several hammocks began to stir. Little did I know that within hours I would be trying to purge my nostrils of the pungent whiff of death.

The history of the Assurini symbolizes that of all indigenous peoples in the Amazon. Blessed with a very gentle nature and a beautiful sense of aesthetics, they are famous for their exquisite pottery with unique geometrical designs that are also found in their body painting. They lived in nomadic isolation until 1971, when the TransAmazon road cut through their lands.

Contact with the outside world forced them to settle in a permanent village and their population fell to just 39 people at the end of the 1970s. Malaria, tuberculosis and influenza decimated the male population and the psychological shock of contact and forced settlement crippled their morale.

For a decade, the Assurini refused to have families. Rather than putting their children through the agony of living, women would abort or bury their newborns alive. Benigno Marques adopted his youngest daughter, Priscilla, after digging her out of a grave 17 years ago.

Only the determination of FUNAI field workers such as Mr. Marques and Manuel Lucas saved the Assurini from extinction. By the late 1980s, they began to prosper and, at the latest count, 111 are living on 374,000 hectares of the Xingu basin.

In 1994, the Assurini were confident enough to build a traditional "house of the dead" in the middle of their village to shelter the remains of their ancestors, which were transported from previous settlements. Long and rectangular, the building is divided into three parts by wooden fences with the newest Assurini families living at either end and the cemetery in the middle. As I stood there, the smell in the air made the presence of a fresh corpse abundantly clear. Apart from the odour, there was something profoundly unnerving about the scene. I walked slowly back to the Maya.

"Maybe you're looking at it from a different perspective," Mr. Roddick suggested, a little irritably. Perhaps but there was a fatalism about it that unsettled me as well. I felt there was something too passive and timid about the house of the dead - as though the Assurini were aware of the proximity and probability of their own extinction. Part of me, the indigenous part of me, wished they were more like the Kayapo. Maybe I wanted them to be feistier, more cantankerous; to wave their machetes in the face of development because their survival depended on their desire to take control of their destiny, whether they were prepared to adapt their traditions and engage with a world that had been closing in on them for 500 years.

When the Portuguese first arrived in 1500, an estimated four million indigenous peoples lived in the Amazon. Smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, measles, influenza, pneumonia, malaria and venereal disease - all imported from Europe - took their toll, and now the political realities of the 21st century are turning the Amazon into a mass grave for the 250,000 Indians who remain.

That story is not all black and white, however. Brazil has an estimated 64 million working people, two-thirds of whom cannot find meaningful work. Unlike Mexico, Brazil has no rich neighbours where the unemployed can go looking for jobs. The obvious solution is land reform, but the fazendeiros (estate owners), with their massive ranches and disproportionate influence on the government, are in no hurry to change.

So successive governments have skirted the issue, electing instead to build roads. Work on the Transamazonica highway began in 1965 with slogans promoting the Amazon as "the land with no people - for people with no land," conveniently forgetting that Indians had lived on that land for centuries.


As I sat aboard the Maya trying to pacify my unease about the Assurini and the predicament of all the indigenous people, I also found myself questioning the logic of giving them vast tracts of land. What about the millions of landless and unemployed? I have always been uncomfortable with herding nomadic peoples on to reserves, until the thought occurred to me that, but for the Indians, the Amazon and its tributaries would be choked with mahogany waiting to be turned into dinner tables, coffins and wood panelling on luxury yachts.

And that's when I had an epiphany of sorts. It may be tough to argue in favour of allowing a few thousand indigenous people to occupy millions of acres when millions roam the country landless and unemployed. But by keeping them in the forest and helping them to avoid the temptation of poachers' paycheques, we protect both them and the forest from those who would cut it down in a hurry.

So the net effect of ring-fencing communities like the Assurini and enabling them to begin to recover from the ravages of "civilization" is to maintain an uneasy balance in an increasingly interconnected, illogical and precarious world.

As the Maya pulled away, heading back downstream toward Tataquara, I felt at ease again. An hour into the journey, we ran into some menacing rain clouds. For about 20 minutes, the clouds unleashed a biblical downpour. The Maya chugged on gamely through the storm. Then as suddenly as the heavens opened, the rains stopped. We emerged into bright sunshine and there was a bracing, cool freshness to the late-afternoon air.

I looked across to the bank, to the lush greens of the dripping forest, an eerie mist wafting through the tree tops. This, I imagined, was nature in its virgin state, untouched, like it might have been on the morning of creation day. The Maya powered on downstream, heading into the imminent dusk and the uncertainties of the night.

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