Loggers and Indians 7th July 2007

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Roadside RepairsFrom São Félix we took a bus to Tucumã, four hours away. We then went by camionete pick-up to the riverside on our way to the Kayapo villages which are located along the Riozinho River. The journey should have taken three or four hours, but the steering of the vehicle gave way halfway and we were left in the mid-day sun for three hours while our driver found a lift back to Tucumã, unearthed a mechanic (it was Saturday), and returned to carry out a roadside repair.

As a result of the delay, we arrived at the river as darkness fell, leaving us with a night-time boat ride of three hours. It was a wonderful night with a full moon and the Kayapo boatman knew the river like the back of his hand, so we were able to really enjoy the experience. We arrived at Kikretum after ten o’clock; apart from a couple of televisions, the village was quiet.

Aldeia KikretumNext day was a revelation for us. We are used to small villages of around 200 to 300 people; Kikretum has 800! The village is an uneasy mix of traditional and brick houses; in the past the village traded large numbers of mahogany trees for the construction of the brick and tile houses, and other trappings of white society.

The brick houses were built in a large circle in the traditional way. Today, many of them are deserted and crumbling. The village has reverted to building the much more comfortable and appropriate traditional thatch and wood or adobe houses, most of which are in a new circle inside the brick houses. At a first casual glance, the village is traditional Kayapo; it is only on further consideration that the brick houses can be seen.

The village shows just how transitory are the supposed advantages the Indians gain from their liaisons with loggers and illegal gold miners (garimpeiros). For a few short years, this was a village apparently in transition from a traditional way of life to something closer to mainstream Brazilian culture. But the appearance was deceptive; with no long-term source of revenue and no income-generating employment, the ‘progress’ came to an abrupt halt as soon as the loggers disappeared from the scene.

By the time this happened, there were no more mahogany trees worth extracting in the area. In fact, the trade was ended by a change in the law to prohibit the export of quality timber (madeira de lei), combined with action by IBAMA (the government Environment agency) and the Federal Police. But even if this had not occurred, the income would have continued for only a few more years, until the useful timber was exhausted.

The relationship between the village and the loggers was heavily loaded on the side of the loggers. But Kikretum was not the only village drawn by the promise of easy money and the trappings it could bring.

The logger would befriend the Cacique over a period of time, carefully cultivating the ‘friendship’ with generous gifts. In some cases, the result was a drunken cacique.

Aerial View of A-Ukre VillageThen the logger offered the infrastructure; “Wouldn’t it be better for you if you had nice houses like you see in the towns? Your old thatch and wood houses catch fire so easily, and you have to build new ones every few years. You’d have these for ever. Tell you what, I’ll build them for you! Just sign this piece of paper….”

The piece of paper was a contract, valuing the houses at an inflated cost, and putting in place an exchange for timber, which was conversely valued at a very low price. Thus the trading relationship was established. It continued; whatever the village needed, the logger would provide. “Oh Cacique, just sign this piece of paper to say you received R$2,000……”. But the Cacique signed a blank piece of paper; his ‘friend’ would fill it in later “…when I have some time..”. And when he came to fill in the receipt, he would put R$5,000, R$10,000 or whatever he felt like putting.

The Cacique returned to the village triumphantly laden with food, tobacco, televisions, sometimes beer or cachaça – and without leaving any money in the village bank account. Soon the food had run out and he returned for more money, always signing away more timber. The televisions required electricity; the logger installed a huge generator, which required a constant supply of fuel.

Men in Kikretum VillageWith such easy money, the villagers no longer needed to maintain their plantations. Their diets changed, replacing the fresh foods of the forest with dried and packaged foods from the towns. Manioc and sweet potatoes were replaced by biscuits and Coca Cola. Soon their teeth were rotting, their children were suffering from malnutrition and their health was in a descending spiral from lack of exercise and an impoverished diet.

By the time the loggers were removed, the Indians had become dependent on the things the easy logging money brought. Now, with no income to maintain the houses, the generators and the televisions, the Indians are unhappy. They blame everyone; FUNAI, IBAMA, President Lula. Each village wants a bigger slice of the available resources.

Men of Kikretum Village watching a football match on TVOrganisations like Floresta Protegida and Instituto Raoni are trying to help these villages to develop alternative sources of income, but it is an uphill struggle. Most sustainable products do not generate a high price, and their extraction or production requires some effort on the part of the Indians. There are successes, but they are hard to maintain, needing constant inputs of resources and organisation.

Markets are difficult to find and can be fickle, disappearing overnight and leaving the villages dispirited and demoralised. The Indians have no way of finding markets for themselves, other than through the local middlemen who pay only a fraction of the value.

What the Indians need is someone dynamic with experience in marketing to find markets for them and carry out the administrative necessities which dealing with the commercial world brings. The non-governmental organisations are not well-equipped to perform this function, but the right person could improve the lives of many villages.

And in some places the loggers are back. Now that so much of the non-Indigenous land has been denuded of its trees, even the less valuable timbers are rising in price, making invasions and deals with gullible villages viable once again.

Maria Kayapo, widow of Cacique Tuto Pombo.There are many Indians in the villages who recognise the failings of the logging years. The women are returning to the plantations, and many of the men are embracing the new projects with renewed energy. Their diets are improving once again, driven by necessity rather than by desire.

With help, the new future will be one which is truly sustainable, and which will enable the Indian communities to maintain their traditions and return to the good health of their old way of life, yet give them the buying power for the things they need to purchase.

With help, the new sources of income will be properly managed to benefit all of the communities instead of benefitting the few and bringing divisions and friction to the villages.

With help, the people of the villages will learn the lessons needed to make sense of their relationship with the people and the goods of the mainstream Brazilian culture.

But without help, the future contact with Brazilian society will bring more division, more bad health, more cultural damage and more destruction of the environment.

© Patrick Cunningham


⇒Next: A-Ukre

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