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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.

August 29, 1995|WILLIAM R. LONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

REDENCAO, Brazil — 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.

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