Raping the forest for ephemeral fashions

Raping the forest for ephemeral fashions THE alleged rape in Brazil of an 18-year-old teacher by Paulinho Paiakan, chief of the Kayapo tribe, may be seen as symbolic of the rape of the Amazon rainforests using as a lure the theory that marketing forest produce is more economically beneficial and ecologically friendly than selling timber.

Attracted by an orchestrated publicity campaign launched by a US-based organisation, Cultural Survival, commercial firms such as Body Shop, a British cosmetic company, and Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream, an American concern, have become major buyers of forest products supplied by Cultural Survival, which includes spices, fruit, flour, oils and essences used in cosmetics and medicines.

Now Survival International, a London-based group lobbying for tribal peoples "to have proper ownership rights over their lands, so they can decide what does or does not happen to them", has accused Body Shop of being morally responsible for the rape incident involving Paiakan. Stephen Corry, who heads Survival International, says, "The (business) projects that Body Shop has run with Paiakan are at least in part responsible (for the rape) in that the company has put him in a position of considerable wealth and power."

Paiakan's traditional lifestyle changed drastically since an agreement was reached with him by Anita Roddick, founder of Body Shop. In the last three years, Paiakan has been furnished with two cars and a private plane in which he has criss-crossed across the globe to tie up marketing deals and make publicity appearances.

Last year, the Kayapos marketed 500 kg of oil, extracted from 22 tonnes of nuts that they had collected from their rainforest. The deal was worth US $100,000. And since 1989, the Kayapos have sold mahogany worth US $60 million internationally. This outpouring of wealth has changed the Kayapos in far more fundamental ways than merely acquiring flashy cars and luxury airplanes. Paiakan admitted during a recent television interview that he was drunk when the rape is alleged to have occurred. A British anthropologist, who has studied the Kayapos and their lifestyles, pointed out that, until recently, "the Kayapos only drank water".

The Kayapos with their resource-rich lands are not the only people to be catapulted into the world of modern commerce. Other tribes have become victims because of rubber in South America, rattan in southeast Asia, gold and other minerals in Africa. In recent years, tribals have begun to protest such exploitative commercial intervention. The Brazilian Rainforest Peoples' Alliance published a report in which they scathingly attacked Cultural Survival, saying, "(Our problems) ....have been aggravated even more by the new wave of initiatives and proposals coming from outside, which are completely detached from the reality we are constructing for ourselves".

American anthropologist Terry Turner says the Cultural Survival deal has only aggravated divisions within the tribe, with some saying they are happy with the deal and others expressing unhappiness. And, Fiona Watson, Brazil campaigns officer for Survival International, warns of even more traumatic times ahead and asks pointedly, "What will happen to the Indians when the (rainforest) harvest-based product goes out of fashion?"

Survival International contends it is not against tribals gaining access to international markets; it only wants that tribals should be allowed to decide this for themselves. But David Maybury-Lewis, founder of Cultural Survival, pointed out, "Of course, there are problems as people come into a market system. But it is the stance of an ostrich to say, 'I wish it had never happened'."

A way out of this impasse may have been suggested by Ghillian Prance, director of the British Royal Botanical Garden in Kew, who wrote in Encology (Vol. 5 No. 5) that biological diversity in rainforests could be preserved by using it judiciously instead of just designating the forest an "untouchable biological reserve".

But Corry sounded yet another note of caution in saying, "Binding the economic future of tribal peoples to the creation of ephemeral, foreign markets in non-essential luxuries such as ice-cream or shampoo with added rainforest ingredients will not solve their problems. Are we really going to let business and profits dictate conservation and human rights strategies and goals?" His question remains unanswered.