Plundering the Timber on Brazilian Indian Reservations


Because of the obvious bad consequences, lumbering has traditionally been prohibited, at least in principle, on Indian reserves in Brazil. Recently, however, this protective stance has been reversed: the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) itself has encouraged the greedy and wasteful destruction of Indian forests, with severe consequences for the Indians involved. This article presents a brief overview of this grave and growing menace, focusing on two states in Brazil - Rondônia and Pará. The problem is not confined to these areas alone, however, and threatens to become universal. Information for the article comes from anthropologists, FUNAI officials, missionaries and others in contact with Indians, and from written reports, newspaper articles and copies of contracts.

The Situation

In Rondônia, most but not all of the Indian posts that have access by road were involved in some sort of lumbering activity in 1987. In some cases - always with FUNAI involvement - lumbering has been going on for as long as three years.

In southern Rondônia much of the lumber from the Macurap-Sacurap reservation is already gone. On the A.I. (Indigenous Area) Rio Branco previous lumbering expanded greatly in 1987. Lumber contracts now exist for the reserve of the Tubarao-Latundê, the A.I. Rio Mekens and the Guaporé Valley of the Nambiquara area in Mato Grosso. The reservation of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, previously invaded, undergoes extensive lumbering.

In eastern Rondônia lumbering began on the P.I. (Indigenous Post) Roosevelt about three years ago; it continues today, both with contracts made by the Cinta Larga Indians and contracts made by FUNAI. The idea has spread rapidly throughout the region. The Cinta Larga of P.I. Serra Morena are selling wood from an area to be inundated, and their fellow tribesmen on the P.I. Capitao Cardoso and P.I. Rio Preto are trying to get roads built in order to sell lumber. The most serious threat is a project to open a road from the city of Vilhena to the P.I. Tenente Marques in return for 40,000 cubic meters of mahogany (export value: an astronomical $20,000,000). This project would expose the entire center of the Aripuana Park to further invasion and exploitation. The project was initiated in 1987 but has since been dropped, at least temporarily.

On the Suruí reservation the rate of lumbering increased greatly in 1987, each "native leader" made an oral contract with a lumber company. Lumbering began on the reservation of the Gaviao and Arara Indians for the first time (except for previous removal by squatters) in the dry season of 1987, at first clandestinely and on a modest scale, then with a large contract, which, however, was not accepted by FUNAI because of all the scandals surrounding wood deals. The Zoró reserve has been invaded massively for several years by settlers, who at one point had three sawmills in operations.

The situation appears to be more controlled in Pará, but at least five Kayapó posts - Gorotire, Kikrêtum, Kubekrakren, A-ukre and Koraimôrô - are selling mahogany very actively. Lumbering was stopped on the Cateté reservation. Some other Kayapó villages, however, are eager to begin lumbering.

How the System Works

Lumbering can be instigated by lumbermen, Indians or FUNAI officials. They all live in a certain proximity and can easily find each other. Sometimes lumbermen steal wood outright, quickly taking a few logs and disappearing before they can be apprehended. This has been going on for some time, for example, in the Guaporé Valley, which has relatively easy road access. At times lumber is felled but immediately seized before it can be transported. If this lumber is then sold by FUNAI, the action sets a precedent; Indians grow more interested in further transactions, while the lumber company contracted to remove the fallen wood is given the chance to persuade the Indians to sell more.

The lumbermen are extremely adept at bribing influential Indians; they ask around to find out who the local "chief" is and then make promises and give presents to him. In the case of the Gaviao and Arara Indians, for example, lumbermen gave about $300 worth of goods - most of it food - to each of the groups to induce them to sign lumber contracts. Lumbermen offer to pay travel expenses for Indians to go to the regional FUNAI office and demand to sell wood. If necessary, lumbermen take Indians to Brasília to sign contracts with the approval of the FUNAI president.

Although some local and regional officials have few scruples, many still resist selling wood because of the problems it brings. Indians, supported by lumbermen, can adopt a number of measures to overcome this resistance, varying from theatrical displays (stripping to their shorts, painting themselves, proclaiming they must sell wood because of insufficient FUNAI funds or the need for a road) to demands for the dismissal of the resisting official, to serious threats of violence. Because they fear for their jobs and know that the FUNAI president supports lumbering and mining, many officials end up complying, trying to limit the damage as much as possible. Also, additional pressure comes from Brasilia to encourage local and regional officials to get their operating funds from logging.

Under traditional circumstances Amazonian Indians have no arithmetic skills, market economy or long-range economic planning. If a piece of land was despoiled, they could always pick up and move to another place. As a result, Indians are quite unprepared for the dangers of extractive activities such as lumbering. Furthermore, if one man does not want to sell wood, he is powerless to prevent someone else from selling his share.

In several parts of the world anthropologists have noted an odd phenomenon known as "cargo cults," a shift in a native society which occurs after contact with Western society. Tribal members, by adopting certain symbols of Western technology (such as mock radios or airstrips), believe that they are becoming the dominant power instead of the white people, and expect to receive supplies of Western goods. The powerful attraction of the easy money from lumbering and the irrational behavior often associated with it are reminiscent of the cargo cult wishes - consumer goods, power, Western symbolism - even though rationally many Indians are fully aware of the long-term damages that lumbering can inflict on their land.

Certainly the unnecessary lack of economic alternatives for Indians propels them in the direction of the simple, known option of selling wood. Indians have abundant opportunities for making money from their land in a sustainable manner (through cutting rubber, collecting Brazil nuts, and cultivating coffee, cacao and other tree crops). Unfortunately the present FUNAI administration lacks the will and the competence to implement such projects.

The Damaging Effects of Lumbering

According to Article 46 of the Statute of the Indian in Brazil's constitution, lumbering on Indian land is illegal because it is not "conditioned to the existence of programs or projects for developing the respective land by crop and stock farming, industry or reforestation." It is also illegal under the Forestry Code because timber removal is completely unsupervised and uncontrolled and there is no reforestation nor the slightest concern for forest ecology. Aside from these legal matters (which the mining and lumbering interests are trying to remove from the forthcoming new constitution) there are many reasons why lumbering on Indian lands has proven to be a disaster.

1. The payment for lumber is seldom divided in a just and equal manner. This unequal access to the money or goods creates an undesirable system in which some Indians control money, power and goods, leaving others more powerless and often poorer than before.

In one Kayapó village, the money from wood sales (and mining) goes directly to the "chief" in defiance of FUNAI regulations, which state that such funds must be used for the good of the community. The chief's sons receive a much larger share than others. A similar situation exists among the Suruí Indians of Rondônia, who speak of caciques ("chiefs") as opposed to "peons," who don't get to have lumber contracts.

The president of FUNAI, Romero Jucá Filho, has declared himself opposed to this unequal sharing. But this stance only serves as a protect for him to make more contracts himself - he has done nothing to curtail the unequal distribution of profits among the Kayapó, the Suruí or any other indigenous group. In the case of the Cinta Larga, individual Indians continue to make contracts at the same time that FUNAI also makes them.

2. Indians receive very little money for the wood in relation to its value. The money they do receive is not being invested for the future, but is spent instead on consumer items, especially those of prestige value, and on "improvements" in Indian reservations that are of no real benefit to the Indians.

Consider the terms of a 1984 contract to sell Kayapó wood to the firm Azzayp-Industria e Comercio de Madeiras: 70 km or road in return for 10,000 mahogany trees. Estimating at least 5 cubic meters of wood per tree, at the current mahogany price of $500 per cubic meter at the port of export, the final value of the wood should be $25,000,000. Granting that the value of the standing wood is less than it is in the city, the value received is still ridiculously less than the value of the wood given.

A contract dated 28 September 1987 for 5,000 cubic meters of mahogany from the A.I. Rio Branco stipulates a payment of only about $25 per cubic meter of mahogany, to be paid for in the form of a 15-km road, a Toyota, various hardware and consumer items, a pharmacy building plus supplies and some livestock. Certainly within three years very little will be left of these things. In general, nobody on Indian reserves is trained to fix such items.

Most of the Suruí men who had lumber contracts in 1987 were living in hotels in the nearby city. Those who were more prosperous had cars with chauffeurs and maintained steady relationships with while prostitutes. Exactly the same pattern occurs with the Kayapó chief Pombo and some of his sons: alcohol, white women, hotels and automobiles for the elite prevail.

The contracts made by FUNAI frequently contain infrastructural items which at first sight appear useful but which are generally unnecessary. Roads appear frequently in contracts, because the lumbermen have to make roads in any case in order to transport logs - they play a neat trick by charging for something that they were going to have to make anyway. Roads naturally wash out every rainy season and have to be maintained each year. Even with heavy equipment, highway BR 364 in Rondônia was very difficult to maintain before asphalting. Without the constant presence of lumbermen, miners or ranchers, the roads would be swallowed up by the forest. For practical purposes, the less prestigious water or mule-and-trail transport is more appropriate. Airstrips and houses can be constructed by any Indian group that really wants them.

Thanks to an anthropologist, a large claim settlement benefiting the Gaviao Indians of Pará was invested so that they only spend the interest but keep their capital. FUNAI does not promote these kinds of settlements; money from lumber sales is immediately spent in a wasteful manner, with no provision whatsoever for the near future when the resources are exhausted. The Kayapó mahogany is already tapering off. One logger estimated that at the present rate of extraction all the Suruí wood supply would be exhausted in five to six years.

3. The money from wood sales, rather than resolving any local problems on the reserves, instead serves to create more difficulties. For example, the mortality rate of the Arara and Gaviao Indians in Rondônia increased with greater access to the city. None of the Suruí wood money is being used for health care, in spite of a massive tuberculosis problem. Even areas in which pharmacy buildings are being built see no improvement due to the limitations of poor training or lack of medical attendants. Many of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, a group first contacted only about five years ago, are dying from disease; the presence of loggers simply increases the contagion.

Because recently contacted Indians have high mortality rates from pneumonia complications (unless properly treated), uncontacted Indians on the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau reservation are jeopardized by logging activities there. The road project to P.I. Tenente Marques would seriously imperil the lives of the uncontacted Nambiquara in the south of the Aripuana Park; the road being constructed to the P.I. Rio Preto in the north of the Aripuana Park will endanger the isolated group near there known as the Baixinhos (already in danger because of the 100 gold miners on the P.I. Rio Preto, linked to the notorious FUNAI official nicknamed "Chicao").

None of the wood proceeds are spent on education. The Cinta Larga are not literate, and the profits from selling wood are not changing that at all. The native group's economies are adversely affected by lumbering since other, nondestructive economic activities are discouraged. Many Suruí planted less in 1987 because they expected they would eat in restaurants.

Settlers can use the lumber roads for land invasions. As these roads multiply, land defense becomes more difficult.

4. Violence and disorder increase with lumbering. In 1987 a Suruí, frustrated at seeing nearby trees cut while he could not share the profits, shot a lumber worker. Three lumber workers were shot by the Kayapó in a dispute over lumber between two Indian groups. The Guajajara took prisoners in order to force permission to sell lumber. Because Indians are not subject to the usual legal penalties, this violence is very difficult to control.

5. Measuring the amount of lumber removed is difficult and the large amounts of money involved make corruption inevitable. One noteworthy case of corruption involved the president of FUNAI, the regional superintendent in Cuiabá and an assistant to the superintendent - all accused of attempted extortion of funds in signed statements by two lumber companies.

6. The ecological destruction from lumbering is serious, especially since Indians traditionally depend so much on the forest.

7. In spite of the illusion of economic development, the selling of natural resources on Indian lands destroys self-sufficiency, creating a population without the will to work and without a subsistence base. Traditionally, Indians have displayed excellent general competency (apply themselves well, learn, execute) and excellent specific competency (knowledge of nature, techniques). When they become dependent on selling resources, however, they lose their traditional specific competency without gaining new, Western competency. Their general competency also diminishes as alcoholism and idleness increase.

8. The extraction of lumber and other natural resources from indigenous areas does not favor the economic development of Brazil, as some will imagine. Rather, extracting natural resources simply intensifies the country's dependency on low-skill, low-technology industries extracting non-renewable resources, when just the opposite focus is needed

Pretending It's a Good Thing

In a recent interview the FUNAI president declared, "The Brazilian Indian is potentially rich. He has rich land, has minerals, has lumber. And he knows that these riches can be used in favor of his entire community. What right do we have to prohibit this?".

As has been proved by the facts above, this statement completely distorts the issue. The end result of the resource exploitation will not be rich Indians (in the sense that non-Indians are rich: educated, healthy, secure masters of the system). Rather, the end result will be marginalized, degraded, dependent Indians, some of whom, for a few years, had a lot of cash slipping through their fingers or stared out at unnecessary airstrips, roads and buildings of putative community benefit.

What right do we have to prohibit this fate, even if some Indians want to hurry off in that direction? When anthropologists and others speak of "self-determination" for Indians they mean it to exist within a secure framework. All societies regulate certain aspects of life - for example alcohol, gambling, medical practices and commerce - for the good of their members. Within that framework people choose what to do.

At around the beginning of this decade the Brazilian government made an attempt to "emancipate" Indians. This effort was rejected by all those knowledgeable in Indian affairs, because, for example, if Indians could sell their land, they could be quickly exploited, with disastrous consequences. FUNAI president Jucá's statement, though it sounds favorable to Indians, simply reworks the emancipation proposal. It represents an attempt to open the way to inducing Indians to give up what is theirs, for the benefit of the lumbering, mining and agricultural interests and, it appears, for Jucá's own personal benefit.

The problem of lumbering is a very serious one. To prevent it from affecting all forested reservations in Brazil and corrupting and degrading each Indian group on such reservations, it must be energetically resisted now.


Since this article was written both the public and those in the legal profession have begun to recognize the threat posed by logging in Indian areas. FUNAI, however, continues to promote such activities and the situation remains very serious.

A Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry in the state of Rondônia studied the question of lumbering on Indian reserves from September 1987 to April 1988, concluding that such extraction of lumber was illegal, that the Indians were being cheated and that widespread complicity was taking place between officials of FUNAI and the IBDF (Brazilian Institute for Forestry Development). However, no effective action was taken by the police, FUNAI or the IBDF.

In June Judge Odilon de Oliveira declared all lumber contracts made by FUNAI in Rondônia and Mato Grosso to be illegal. The regional FUNAI superintendent agreed to respect this decision, stating that the contracts were already suspended.

Recently, however, the superintendent reversed his decision, claiming that the contracts are legal. Meanwhile, lumbering continues in Indian areas, now carried out more extensively on the basis of oral contracts made by lumbermen with Indians and local FUNAI officials. For example, lumbering in the area of the Cinta Larga Indians, though within the area of the judge's jurisdiction, continues intensively during the present dry season, with full FUNAI consent and complicity. One tragic result of this was the death on 29 June 19878 of two young Cinta Larga men in a traffic accident while driving drunk with two white women - car, liquor and women paid for with lumber money.

The lumbering in Kayapó areas appears to continue unaffected. One bright spot in this picture is the Suruí Indians, who have expelled all lumbermen, deciding that it was not in their interests. Much of the lumbering on Indian lands is in areas of projects sponsored by the World Bank, which have provisions for the protection of indigenous groups and the environment. It will be instructive to see if any effective action is taken against lumbering by those in charge of monitoring implementation of loan provisions.

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