COLUMN ONE : How Gold Led Tribe Astray : The Amazon's Kayapo Indians traded the wealth of their land for cars, planes and money. Now Brazil has shut off the tap, leaving them with an undermined culture and devastated homeland.


On the southeastern side of Brazil's Amazon rain forest, the Kayapo Indians struck it rich. Or at least some of them did.

Men who had once painted their faces and hunted naked in the jungle were living in town, sporting designer jeans and sunglasses, driving new pickups, hiring pilots for their private planes.

It was easy money, millions of dollars. It came from logging companies that were cutting valuable mahogany trees on tribal lands, and from gold miners who were ruining previously pristine rivers that run through the Kayapo reservation.

Amazon Indians are often portrayed as wise conservationists whose native customs blend harmoniously with their natural habitat. Brazil's Kayapo are an example of how a good relationship with Mother Nature can turn bad. Over the past 15 years, logging and mining have done serious environmental damage. And although most Kayapo received relatively little benefit from the mahogany and gold, it was just enough to change their way of life. The easy money has undermined the values and customs of a once proud and self-sufficient native society.

For many of the Americas' native peoples, the road toward cultural collapse has been rutted all the way by poverty and misery. For the Kayapo, it was paved with gold at first--but this is where the pavement ends.

Basing its decision on a previously ignored clause in the constitution, a Brazilian court last year ruled that the logging and mining must stop. Since then, the government has enforced the ruling, and the Kayapo boom has gone bust.

The Indians have had to sell off planes, pickups and cars. They now depend on government food aid, and some of them seem sad and bewildered to find themselves no longer part of the consumer society.

"We are used to the city ways, so we are suffering without the things we need," said Paulinho Paiakan, a Kayapo chieftain who was one of those lured by the logging and mining money.

In the late 1980s, Paiakan teamed up with the British rock star Sting to campaign against destruction of the Amazon, traveling widely in Europe and the United States. Today, like several other Kayapo leaders, Paiakan lives not in the forest but in Redencao, a city of about 70,000 located many miles east of his wilderness homeland.

Sitting in a tree-shaded hammock outside his sky-blue bungalow, he talked about how life has changed for the Kayapo.

Before the mahogany and gold boom, "we were very content with our lives," Paiakan said. Numbering nearly 4,000, the Kayapo roamed the vast forest, hunting and fishing, gathering roots and fruit. They cultivated some native plants for food but mostly respected the ecology and lived from nature's bounty.

Around 1980, prospectors began mining placer gold from a river on Kayapo land with permission from the military government that then ruled Brazil. Under an agreement with the government, Paiakan said, the Indians received "0.1% of the income--almost nothing."

The government also permitted the first mahogany logging on Kayapo land in 1982, Paiakan said. Never, he recalled, were such projects discussed by the communities.

"Just one or two chiefs were invited to the city to approve projects," he said, adding that no one complained at the beginning. "The Kayapo always thought that activity, mining and mahogany exploitation, was a good thing."

Wiser from experience, many Kayapos now know all too well how such a "good thing" can jeopardize their well-being. The thousands of miners and woodcutters brought malaria, tuberculosis, influenza, venereal diseases and other ills. Loggers scared off game, and their roads brought in squatters. Placer mining devastated stretches of river, polluting water downstream and depleting fish stocks.

To separate gold flakes from silt, prospectors used mercury, releasing it into the water. "Any kind of animal that drinks the water is being contaminated," Paiakan said. "People are contaminated."

In the past year, at least two women have given birth to babies with defects caused by mercury poisoning, according to Paiakan. Although an official of the National Indian Foundation, known as Funai, said he had not heard of those birth defects, he did not express surprise.

In 1988, a new constitution prohibited outsiders from exploiting natural resources on Indian land, but that didn't stop the loggers and miners on the Kayapo reservation.

Funai was apparently deeply involved in the exploitation. Funai agents have been accused of taking bribes from logging and mining concerns--and kickbacks from Indians--for brokering mahogany and gold deals.

"It was Funai that opened the doors to the loggers in violation of the constitution," charged the Rev. Diego Pelizzari, a Catholic missionary from Italy who lived with the Kayapo for three years. Dozens of Indian agents were fired, and eight face charges of illicit enrichment.

Loggers and miners customarily paid off Indian chiefs, often in consumer goods instead of money, Pelizzari said.

"They could go to Redencao, buy whatever they needed, including cars," he said. "Then a representative of the logging company went to the stores and paid the bills of the chiefs. So the Indians had a debt with the loggers, and the loggers kept cutting and cutting to collect the debt."

Pelizzari said the wealth enhanced the status of the chiefs and their friends. Even Paiakan, a champion of the rain forest, was seduced, the priest said. "He couldn't resist the easy money. He ended up giving in to the loggers and the miners."

Now, "the Kayapo culture is in crisis," Pelizzari said in a telephone interview from the Amazon city of Altamira.

With even a small share of the wealth, Indians grew increasingly dependent on store-bought food and clothes, metal utensils, outboard motors and manufactured goods. Unaccustomed to money, they were often taken advantage of.

"The Indians were cheated a lot, poor guys," a local businessman said. "A car was worth 5,000 [reals, the Brazilian currency]; the white man said 15,000, and the Indian paid."

Many came to town not just to shop but to live. They now stay in a crowded compound of rundown dormitories called the chacara or at more comfortable houses owned by Kayapo community chiefs.

As consumer goods have replaced forest skills in the Kayapo livelihood, traditional social values and structures have eroded and crumbled. But without money, the citified Indians are suddenly adrift.

"They had a standard of living where they needed the same things we do," said Carlos Marinho, an adviser to the president of Funai in Brasilia, Brazil's capital. "They need soft drinks, [they need to] buy clothes, to buy stereos. Those needs remain, but now they have no way to meet them."

"Things are bad for everyone," said an Indian youth who hitched a ride from the Funai office on the edge of town. "Not enough money, not enough food, not enough anything."

Celio Beckmann, the acting director of the Funai office, said the Indian agency needs the equivalent of about $165,000 a month to provide food, transportation and other aid for the Kayapo since the Indians stopped selling wood and gold.

"Suddenly they lost everything," Beckmann said. "It was a shock for them. Then they became totally dependent on Funai."

Outside the Funai office, a tiny woman named Ruth Kayapo voiced a common feeling among Indians: "[Funai] gives us food because it is obligated to. But sometimes there isn't enough. We lack sugar, we lack coffee. We're used to those things, you know? White people's things."

Later, at the chacara , several Indians were sitting outside the dormitories, hoping that Funai officials would deliver some food for dinner. "What are we going to eat? We have nothing," said Kabole Kayapo, 66.

Like many of the Kayapo, Kabole uses the tribe's name as his surname. He said he is the No. 3 chief of a forest community, but he lives in a house in the chacara compound. In more plentiful times, he had a car, but he said he is glad the loggers and miners are gone.

"When we drank water dirty from mining, we got sick with malaria and flu," he said. The loggers "took out a lot of wood, and they promised to build 50 houses, but they didn't build anything."

While the Indians were prospering from mahogany and gold, so was Redencao. The city grew rapidly in the 1980s and early 1990s, thanks to the exploitation of Kayapo resources.

Jose Roberto Ferreira, executive secretary of the city merchants association, said business has declined 50% to 70% since last year. "More and more businesses are shutting down," he said. "If it keeps on like this, I think most businesses will close their doors."

Jose Luiz de Souza, owner of a gold-buying business called Banco Cindam, said he used to buy more than 100 ounces of gold daily but now takes in only five to seven ounces a day. He said he is operating in the red, and most gold buyers have gone out of business.

Adir Valente, a former bush pilot who now owns five planes, said his fleet used to average four or five flights a day for Indians, gold prospectors and others. Now, he said, "sometimes I go two weeks without a flight."

He said the Kayapo had eight planes here, but only Paiakan's remains. Paiakan said the plane, given to him by the Body Shop Foundation of Britain, isn't in use these days because he doesn't have money for maintenance.

Paiakan also sold his pickup truck. "I had to, to pay my community's expenses," he said.

Paiakan's community, with a population of about 240, is more fortunate than most. It has a contract to supply Brazil nut oil for Body Shop cosmetic products. But he said the company doesn't need oil from other Kayapo communities.

He said the Indians plan to do some placer mining on their own, without using mercury. Funai hopes to help them with that and with agricultural development projects. But funds for such projects are in short supply, and skeptics point out that the Kayapo have never shown much interest in farming.

Some also predict that the Kayapo soon will begin to permit clandestine logging and mining on their land. Redencao banker Manuel Nogueira Jr. said gold prospectors will not stop trying to get in, with or without the Indians' permission.

"The federal police are guarding it for the time being," Nogueira observed. "But they won't stay to guard Indian land forever."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World