Remember the rainforest? Fourteen years after the martyrdom of Brazilian activist Chico Mendes, environmentalists are once again being murdered, while illegal logging pushes deeper into the world's last great tropical jungle. In this investigative report, Patrick Symmes follows the money, the mahogany, and the mafiasand goes underground to join a brave ne
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JUMP GOT HIS NAME BECAUSE HE twitches like the Tasmanian Devil. He is as brown as his father, a Munduruku Indian, but he speaks the slum Portuguese of his mother’s home, Altamira, an ugly sawmill boomtown on the Rio Xingu, in Brazil’s Pará state. The first time I saw Jump, standing in the trash-strewn mud of Altamira’s port, I thought he was drunk, because he was dancing a jig at 9 a.m. But he was sober, and concealed his violent spasms, whatever their neurological cause, beneath a repertoire of gestures—suddenly reaching up to comb his hair, or leaping from a chair to point at something. Only in his voadeira, the fast aluminum canoe of the Amazon’s backwaters, did Jump seem truly at home. He is a good boatman, popular on the river, and since the impulsive shudders of his tiller hand average out, Jump steers true.
High on the Xingu in the wilderness beyond Altamira, Jump takes us straight into the trees, fast, and cuts the engine. At the end of the rainy season, the Xingu runs black and turbulent, drowning its rapids, flooding through the surrounding forest so fiercely that every tree casts a wake. We slide quietly through a slice in the trees, and ground on a spit of red clay. Following Jump, I tramp across the dark space beneath the lush triple canopy. “A Terra do Meio,” Jump says: the Middle Land. A chunk of public land the size of Austria, the Middle Land begins here at the confluence of the brown Rio Iriri and the black Rio Xingu. Its pristine stretch of rainforest is itself surrounded by 62,500 square miles of Indian lands—the home of more than 20 tribes, from the Arara and Araweté to the Kayapó, a group renowned for its fierce resistance to outsiders.
Howler monkeys are somewhere up in the trees, lending their bloody-murder screams to a soundtrack of parrot squawks and dripping water. It takes only half an hour to find the place we’re looking for, where the chairs, tables, and fine nightstands of the future grow in isolation on slight rises in the jungle, where the soil is rich with minerals and sometimes even dry. Jump pauses to point out various lesser trees, slashing at one with his machete until it drips milky white. “Borracha,” he says. Rubber. He points at another—”Cinchona,” whose bark is the natural source of quinine—and pantomimes malarial fever. Finally, as we approach the looming trunk of a giant, Jump utters the word I’ve traveled 200 river miles to hear: “Mogno.” Mahogany.
And there before us towers the immense cause of the trouble in this paradise: a lone, regal Swietenia macrophylla, a big-leaf mahogany tree rising 130 feet toward the sunlight of the upper canopy, its age, perhaps a century, visible in its gnarled branches, in the alteration of craggy bark and bald spots, in the thick roots that flare out like flying buttresses. Skyward, its small, green crown hardly seems enough to support so much force of life.
The Brazilians like to call mahogany ouro verde—green gold. Its wood has become the cocaine of the Amazon, a commodity whose trade thrives on corruption and intimidation, a contraband source of wealth and power jealously guarded by backwoods kingpins. Mahogany is the reason that the head of Greenpeace’s Amazon campaign, Paulo Adario, is in hiding, after numerous death threats, disguising himself with an ugly wig and donning a bulletproof vest. Mahogany may be the reason half a dozen Brazilian environmentalists have been gunned down in the last year alone.
If Jump had brought a chainsaw, I suppose we could hack into one side of this giant’s trunk and bring it down. If we dragged it to the river, we could probably get only about $30 for it, or the equivalent in sugar and gasoline. If we somehow managed to float it 75 miles back down the Xingu to Altamira, the price could increase to over $3,000. Maybe more. It’s a big tree.
But the real money is always farther downstream. In Pôto do Moz, near the confluence of the Xingu and the Amazon, we could cut it into thick boards, load it on a ship, and send it steaming out into the Atlantic through the wide delta at Belém, where all the wood from a thousand tributaries must eventually pass. You could get more than a dozen dining-room tables from this monster, each of which could wholesale for $4,000 and retail for much more: In the showrooms on Lexington Avenue back in Manhattan, I’ve seen table after table of Brazilian mahogany for $15,000 and up. Rough out the math: By the time this tree reaches the furniture markets of America and Europe, the wood could be worth almost a quarter-million dollars.
Our giant is safe, for the moment. Jump aims the machete, waits for a spasm to pass, and makes a shallow slash in the bark to reveal the wood. The first layer is bright red, and fibrous. He strikes again—still a harmless cut, but this time revealing the pale white core. If this mahogany were to float downstream, its heartwood would change. It would dry out, darken. Eventually it would take on a rich red-brown tinge, as though it had been soaked in blood.
IN DECEMBER 1988, WHEN CHICO MENDES WAS shot down by an assassin in the western Amazon village of Xapuri, his murder galvanized a global movement to save the rainforest. Governments protested. Pop stars wrote songs. A thousand T-shirts bloomed. Books and films memorialized the uneducated rubber tapper who died defending the forest.
But the murder of activist Ademir Alfeu Federicci in Altamira in August 2001 echoed barely louder than the gunshot that killed him. Federicci, 42, was the leader of a group called the Movement for the Development of the Transamazon and Xingu; he was merely the most visible of countless rural Brazilian activists—social, religious, or labor leaders first, and environmentalists only by necessity, as they fight to preserve the rainforest for the indigenous people and poor farmers who live there. Dema, as Federicci was known, had loudly denounced the crooked middlemen and tree cutters taking mahogany out of the Middle Land, denounced the politicians who abetted them, and denounced the judges who looked the other way. Not long before he was killed, he had denounced the planned construction of a huge hydroelectric dam at the Xingu’s Belo Monte falls, a federal boondoggle that would largely benefit sitting politicians, if Brazil’s history of massive kickbacks was any guide. Federicci had been denouncing things his entire adult life. He was famous only among his enemies.
On the night of August 25, 2001, Federicci and his wife, Maria, went to bed in their hilltop home in Altamira, near the town’s lightning-rod monument commemorating the arrival of electricity, in 1998. The Federiccis had electricity, but couldn’t afford a fan, so they slept with the door open. At 1:30 a.m., two men approached the house; there was a struggle, a shot was fired; Dema Federicci died on the floor, with his wife and children looking on. The police said the killing was a botched attempt to steal the family’s television and VCR, just another robbery gone wrong in violent Brazil. But the Federiccis didn’t own a VCR. And a wealthy logger had reportedly joked that Dema would soon need some wood himself, for a coffin.
Perhaps you thought the Amazon was no longer a battlefield—it would be easy to assume that the warnings of the eighties and nineties gave way to a lasting solution. We were told that the rainforest was burning, vanishing at up to 3 percent a year, and that 40,000 species would go extinct in a generation. Those figures turned out to be a bit too apocalyptic. More realistic estimates suggest that the rainforest, a vast ecological storehouse encompassing a Western EuropeÐe swath of northern Brazil and portions of Boliva, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, is shrinking at an annual rate of 0.9 percent. The extinction rate, though alarming, is also lower than projected. Still, it’s a mistake to succumb to eco-fatigue, to think that media attention made everything OK, that Sting and Rainforest Crunch healed all wounds. The majority of the Amazon’s 2.3 million square miles—80 to 85 percent—is still wilderness. But it is disappearing all the same.
The most immediate crisis in the Amazon today is that of violence—violence fueled chiefly by a chain of illegal trade that begins with big-leaf mahogany. The tree, which once ranged from southern Mexico to Bolivia, now exists largely in a swath of lonely, slow-growing timber stretching from Brazil into Bolivia and Peru. Its close American cousins were logged out of the Caribbean centuries ago, and are nearing commercial extinction in Central America; other mahoganies—the African genus Khaya, the Philippine Shorea—are still found in tropical forests worldwide, but are not as valuable as big-leaf, prized for its color and durability. According to TRAFFIC, a joint program of the World Wildlife Fund and The World Conservation Union, Brazil exports more than half the big-leaf mahogany on the world market—68,000 cubic meters in 1999, or $70 million worth—much of it from Pará state. Peru and Bolivia split the rest.
Mahogany is merely the wedge that opens the door to a whole cycle of deforestation: The Brazilian government no longer builds roads into the interior, so now poachers ransack the forest for the big trees, because only mahogany brings enough to pay for equipment, or a barge, or a private road. Once a road is built, less valuable woods—cedar, jatoba, and ipe, a rotproof hardwood used for suburban decks—become commercially viable. Plywood makers buy up the soft junk trees. Charcoal makers burn what’s left. The roads draw poor farmers, unregistered extrativistas who plant yucca, scratching a living from the thin soil. Speculators from elsewhere in Brazil, along with an increasing number of Asian investors, buy up huge tracts, often on Indian or public lands no one has a right to sell. They hire pistoleiros to “clean” the land of the farmers who opened it. Cattle ranches and soy plantations follow.
In theory, Brazil does sanction mahogany logging on public lands; companies apply for permits for harvest, transport, and export. But there’s been a moratorium on new logging permits since 1996, and an emergency ban on all harvest, transport, and export since October 2001. Despite these safeguards, a massive illegal harvest has taken place under cover of the legitimate one. Legal and contraband logs float downstream together, into the same sawmills and ports. Paperwork is forged, management plans from one forest used to disguise another. Most Brazilian wood ends up in the United States, which, according to TRAFFIC, imported 36,000 cubic meters of Brazilian mahogany in 2001, $44 million worth. Total U.S. big-leaf imports that year were 85,000 cubic meters.
Like any threatened species, big-leaf mahogany is traded under the rules of the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). And like any illicit trade, it is notoriously difficult to quantify. In 1997, estimates claimed that as much as 80 percent of Brazil’s mahogany was illegal. No way, says the country’s environmental enforcement agency, the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Natural Renewable Resources (IBAMA). While mahogany was indeed stolen from Indian lands, the agency says, the vast majority was legal, and today the trade is kaput. But Greenpeace, using IBAMA figures, counters that half the mahogany logged between 1999 and 2001 was taken illegally.
In the future, it should be possible to get more detailed pictures of the problem, thanks to the Amazon Surveillance System (SIVAM), a $1.4 billion project financed largely by the U.S. Export-Import Bank that uses upgraded satellite images and new ground sensors to track illegal activities—including drug smuggling and deforestation—across 1.9 million square miles of the Amazon. But for now, the illegal trade remains a splendid racket, a multimillion-dollar business concentrated in the hands of a few. And as activists like Federicci rise up in the footsteps of Chico Mendes, protesting this racket, they are laid low with dispatch.
The Pastoral Land Commission, a nongovernmental organization linked to the Catholic Church, estimates that in Pará alone, 475 activists have been assassinated since 1985. In 2001, at least ten Pará social leaders were killed. Most, including Federicci, had signed a letter against government corruption. In October 2001, a list of 24 more Pará leaders who were “marcados para morrer,” or marked for death, was published by the Human Rights Commission of Brazil’s House of Representatives. It is difficult to track the killings, and dangerous: Leôidas Martins, an Altamira lay worker for the Pastoral Land Commission who collected statistics on Pará killings, was himself threatened with death, as was Zé Geraldo, a political deputy who investigated the crimes.
Meanwhile, the murders get grislier: On July 22, 2002, the body of Bartolemeu Morais da Silva, an activist from the Altamira Rural Workers Union, was discovered beside a highway, with both legs broken and 12 gunshot wounds to the head. It was the second assassination in a month.
In Brazil these deaths have become routine. And in the rest of the world, they have gone unnoticed, as silent as the felling of one more giant in the Middle Land.
GIVEN THIS CLIMATE, an environmentalist has to have a certain defiant disdain for the odds. No one projects this more joyfully than Paulo Adario, the director of Greenpeace Amazonia, a division of Greenpeace International run out of Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state. Led by a Brazilian, and more committed to people than trees, this isn’t your usual collection of rainbow warriors. For one thing, in Manaus, saving the rainforest means keeping some serious firepower in the back room.
Greenpeace headquarters sits atop a hill, surveying the sweaty gray buildings and noisy streets along the fat Rio Negro, where it flows into the Amazon. A bricklayer is busy when I arrive in early May, constructing a new guardhouse to go with the new security gate, the new razor wire, and the new electric fence across the roof. There’s also a new set of security cameras both outside and inside the whitewashed three-story structure. Greenpeace HQ is starting to look a lot like Fort Apache.
Adario appears on the second-floor balcony, waving at the guard to buzz me in. He is wearing sandals, jeans, and a T-shirt. “This is the opposite of our projeto,” he mutters. For Greenpeace, the projeto is supposed to mean openness and transparency, not walls and wire. But after Greenpeace Amazonia released a damning report on illegal mahogany in the fall of 2001, Adario received so many death threats that he and his family moved into the Greenpeace compound. Adario may be too effective for his own good.
Like Chico Mendes, Adario is an inheritor of the luta, Brazil’s struggle for social justice, and, like Mendes, he uses the environment to fight for larger things. A former journalist from Rio de Janeiro, he spent the 1980s criticizing Brazil’s military dictatorship and the corruption of its democratic successor. He joined Greenpeace Brazil when it was founded in 1992, and helped launch Greenpeace Amazonia in 1999. Since becoming director in 2000, Adario has combined international charisma with a homegrown sense of Latin realities, alternating between backwoods bushwhacking in Brazil and lecturing in careful English from Amsterdam to New Haven, where last spring he wowed the green intelligentsia at the Yale School of Forestry. Back home, he borrows freely from the Greenpeace playbook with endless propaganda stunts—sending his young volunteers out to crash forest-industry conferences or rappel down hotels unfurling banners.
“It’s not about mahogany!” Adario tells his devoted crew at midnight strategy sessions. “At the end of the day, we are not discussing a tree in the forest! We are discussing democracy!” A 53-year-old man with curly salt-and-pepper hair, a short beard, and rimless spectacles, Adario fiddles with a can of Copenhagen tobacco as we wander through the building. The top floor has a video production suite, a lunchroom that serves as the main hangout for the dozen or so staff, and a kitchen, but every inch of surplus space is crowded with bunk beds and suitcases. Along with Adario and his family, Phil from England, Dave from Scotland, Merel from Holland, and Marcelo, Agnaldo, and Diego from Brazil have moved into the relative safety of Greenpeace HQ. The place has the fetid, untidy atmosphere of a college dorm during finals.
The second floor looks better. Here, in what Adario calls “the intelligence center,” computers are used to crunch data, churn out propaganda, and analyze satellite images from Brazil’s federal mapping agency for new roads or freshly cleared ranchland.
Downstairs, in the garage, gear is stacked everywhere: There are two speedboats; two dirt bikes for negotiating rainy-season logging roads; life vests for the Arctic Sunrise, the Greenpeace polar vessel that serves as mobile headquarters on investigative forays upriver; an industrial slide projector for throwing slogans onto the walls of banks and other capitalist command posts; an inflatable yellow chainsaw the size of a sofa, for mocking sawmill owners; and charts for the floatplane. Tucked in a cabinet, behind some paint cans, is a pistol-grip, high-intensity ultraviolet lantern.
The lantern is the source of Adario’s current troubles. Greenpeace launches several long field expeditions each year, and in July 2000 Adario led a four-month investigation up the Xingu. Spotting illegally harvested mahogany logs stacked along the banks on Kayap- lands, Adario and his cohorts generously daubed the logs with invisible ultraviolet paint.
In the next few weeks, the team, accompanied by a film crew, raided several sawmills on the lower Xingu, scanning stacks of mahogany with the ultraviolet lantern. Bingo. The beam illuminated the brilliant purple flash of ultraviolet paint, proving for the cameras that these were the same trees stolen from the Kayapó. They found another large shipment of illegal timber in the yard of COMPENSA, a lumber company partly owned by a Chinese municipal government. When Greenpeace inflated its giant yellow chainsaw and picketed the COMPENSA yard, Adario was sued by the company for “invasion of property,” a criminal offense with a penalty of up to two years in jail. Adario won the case.
In October 2001, after several more forays up the Xingu, Greenpeace Amazonia released a 20-page report, “Partners in Mahogany Crime,” that named names all the way down the line, starting with two powerful Pará state businessmen, both connected to top politicians. The report described Moisés Carvalhos Pereira and Osmar Alves Ferreira as “kings of mahogany” who finance illegal logging, broker sales to sawmills, and arrange export through a mafia of shifting front companies. The two men control more than 80 percent of the mahogany that leaves Pará, Greenpeace alleged, and more than half that leaves Brazil. Both are now under federal indictment, and both have used their lawyers to avoid arrest. Moisés—so famous he is referred to by one name, like a soccer star—no longer leaves Redenção, the southeast Pará logging town he basically owns.
“Partners in Mahogany Crime” got big play on Brazil’s dominant television network, TV Globo. It appeared in the midst of a congressional investigation into an Amazon development scheme that had funneled millions into the shell corporations of crooked politicians, and was released as the president of Brazil’s senate resigned, under allegations that he was implicated in embezzlement and illegal-logging schemes. In the wake of the report, on October 22, 2001, Brazil announced its blanket mahogany moratorium, leaving the enforcement to IBAMA, an outfit then so broke that it typically deployed just two men to patrol an area the size of California. With helicopter fuel begged from Greenpeace, IBAMA was able to seize $7 million worth of mahogany in ten days.
The Greenpeace report also claimed to have traced illegal mahogany to such well-known furniture makers and retailers as Harrods and, in the U.S., Stickley & Sons, Ethan Allen, and Lane. At the same time, it cautioned that those companies were most likely unwitting consumers and that, unless the wood was certified by the international nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council, “there is no way of knowing whether the mahogany they sell is legal.” Still, the report added, “odds are that it is not.”
Even Queen Elizabeth II has been caught up in the confusion. In June, the London Guardian reported that the new Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace had used five kinds of threatened tropical hardwoods, including mahogany, from dubious sources in Africa and Brazil. Like the queen herself, the architects had a policy of buying wood from sustainable forests. But they had hired a contractor, who hired a subcontractor, who hired a supplier, who bought the wood from a middleman, who got it from dealers on the strength of export certificate “details,” which are routinely faked.
ONE OF THE BODYGUARDS BRINGS a paper bag to the Manaus airport. Adario and a half-dozen young volunteers are heading for Belém, the port at the mouth of the Amazon, to crash an industry mahogany conference. Whatever’s inside the bag, it looks heavy.
The pudgy guard follows Adario, and I follow him, watching as he puts the bag on the ticket desk with a heavy thud. Airport security looks inside, staples the sack closed, and checks it with the bodyguard’s luggage. In Brazil, they do this all the time.
This is Adario’s life: a 24-hour security detail. Five days after “Partners in Mahogany Crime” was released, the phone rang at his home in Manaus. A voice said, “You deserve to die, and will die.” A few nights later, a dark-colored van pulled slowly past the house, three times; a passerby said that the men inside were holding guns. It was only six weeks after Dema Federicci’s murder. Within days, federal police confirmed that there was a price on his head.
When Adario says, “Life in the Amazon costs nothing,” he’s scarcely exaggerating. Brazil’s murder rate has quadrupled since 1980, largely because of organized gangs from urban slums, with names like the Red Commando or the Third Command, who deal drugs and offer assassinations for hire. During my visit, newspaper headlines called one gang the “Exterminators” for blowing away a policeman in Manaus. They don’t charge much to kill someone: about $200 to whack Jose Nobody, a few thousand to eliminate a troublesome judge. This is nothing compared with the losses incurred after the “Partners” report: One wood company, which Adario declined to name, lost $25 million in fines, mahogany, and seized equipment. The math is obvious.
At first Adario declines to specify the size of his particular bounty. (“I don’t want to talk about how much,” he boasts, “but it’s a good price!”) Later, over late-night beers with the Manaus staff, he can’t resist. The figure he reveals isn’t that much, about half the price for killing a judge, or one-third the cost of a mahogany table in New York. It would be a fortune to one of the unemployed assassins living under a tin roof in the backstreets of Manaus.
The first thing Adario did was lodge his family in the Manaus Holiday Inn under an assumed name. The federal police were sympathetic and lent him two bodyguards, but eventually Greenpeace had to hire its own. The Adarios moved from hotel to hotel until that got too expensive, and then began shuttling from house to house, friend to friend. In early November, after a fresh round of threats to other members of Greenpeace Amazonia, the Adarios fled to Rio. When they finally returned to Manaus in the spring, Adario took to wearing an Israeli bulletproof vest and disguising himself in a stringy black wig that gave him an eerie resemblance to Ozzy Osbourne.
“My life is all mixed up with Greenpeace,” Adario’s wife told me one day during a nervous interview at Fort Greenpeace. “It’s difficult,” she said. “Now I don’t feel afraid, but tomorrow, I don’t know. If the pressure increases, I don’t know…”
Adario himself is worried enough about his family members’ safety that he asked that names and details about them not be published, but that doesn’t mean he’s backing down.
“Life is not white and black,” he explains. “It is very simple to be an environmentalist in the north. You are a good guy fighting bad guys. Here, bad guys and good guys change sides all the time. It is a chess game, and you have to be a good player.”
ADARIO HAS CONSISTENTLY CONFOUNDED those who try to guess his next move: No sooner had Greenpeace fought for the ban on mahogany exports than Adario turned around and started advocating the methods of two logging companies that used low-impact harvesting techniques on private lands. In the long run, keeping the forest intact could generate more revenue than logging it. But so far, aside from a few WWF and Body Shop demonstration projects, sustainable forestry is still only a nice theory when you’re talking about a major cash crop like mahogany. Cooperating with (some) loggers, Adario believes, is necessary to move Greenpeace’s Amazon campaign away from gringo utopianism and toward Latin American realism. He has forged a relationship, for example, with Cecilio Rego De Almeida, one of the wealthiest land barons in Brazil. Greenpeace doesn’t make noise about his 30,000-square-mile claims in the Middle Land, and De Almeda lets Greenpeace use his airstrip to chase off freelance wood poachers. Politics makes for strange hammock mates.
Then again, Adario often won’t work with groups that would seem to be his allies, which is why the Greenpeacers have headed to Belém. Adario can’t resist a chance for political theater, and a three-day conference on “Sustainable Trade and Management of Mahogany” is the perfect stage.
The sprawling Amazon delta city is being lashed by the tail end of the rainy season, and people duck under colonial eaves and rush, soaking, into the Hilton Hotel, where the lobby is thick with American timber importers in slacks, Brazilian exporters in gold chains, and academics with pocket protectors from both countries. Adario’s contingent have put on sport coats, but they don’t blend in and are stopped at the door. Greenpeace wasn’t invited.
It’s not exactly a shoving match. A couple of hotel flacks keep the Greenies at bay while Adario protests—”Why are you afraid of?”—in rare mangled English. Security guards and eventually Pará state police are brought over, and finally Keister Evans, director of the Tropical Forest Foundation, comes out. Evans is a lean, gray-haired American, and his Virginia-based conservation group, which also represents machinery companies like Caterpillar, works with genteel green groups like The Nature Conservancy and the WWF. Familiar duelists, the two begin their usual finger-pointing ritual: Adario claims TFF’s politics of compromise clear the way for deforestation; Evans sees blustery Greenpeace as beyond the pale. Adario fulminates about imminent banner-unfurling and street action, and then goes for his ultimate weapon—the media. When a Belém TV crew arrives, Adario bathes in the glow of a camera from TV Liberal, denouncing the “logging mafia” and protesting his exclusion. But Evans calmly surveys the reporters and the microphones, and outfoxes Adario by letting Greenpeace inside. Deprived of the advertised conflict, the journalists leave, and Adario puts on a name tag and takes notes with exaggerated seriousness. “I don’t want to win,” Adario, clearly frustrated, vents to his staff later. “I want to fight!”
Evans just wants him to go away. His foundation, he says, represents the legitimate players in the timber business, not the millionaire middlemen. “Mahogany,” he says wistfully, “has become a lightning rod,” at the expense of the legitimate trade. “In Brazil, mahogany is totally out of business. Totally.”
“THE AMAZON HAS TWO FACES,” Adario likes to say. “It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s mythology.”
Out in the small logging towns of the rainforest, the mahogany shutdown is myth; the reality is still in shadows. Greenpeace can’t be everywhere, though it helps organize and fund dozens of small local labor, religious, and indigenous-rights groups fighting for land reform. About 25 members of these grassroots groups are meeting in Pôto do Moz, a sawmill town at the mouth of the Xingu, to drum up support for two planned sustainable-forest reserves. Adario suggests that I look them up before the pistoleiros do.
As the turboprop climbs up from the tarmac, the region appears to be in terrible shape, but the slashed clearings soon thin out and the roads disappear. From 10,000 feet, the rainforest looks placid and undisturbed, cut by curving channels that carry one-sixth of the flowing fresh water on earth. Great flocks of egrets move in V’s below the plane, submerged savannas reflect the sky, and the smooth green carpet seems, falsely, like an infinite plain of trees.
The activists gathered in a tin-roofed shed on Pôto do Moz’s dismal main street are mostly fishermen, farmers, and members of a women’s cooperative, but there are also three ordained ministers (Catholic, Methodist, and Evangelical, all wearing flip-flops). The only foreigner is Georg Roling, a German development worker with the lean frame of a malaria survivor. Beside him is 29-year-old Tarcisio Feitosa da Silva, the Amazon’s number-one fashion victim, dressed in white from baseball cap to shoes. A former colleague of Federicci’s, Tarcisio has taken Dema’s place as a thorn in the logging industry’s side. There is also a representative from Brazil’s leftist Worker’s Party, Idalino Nunes de Assis, an older man with the lined face of an activist used to backwoods work. Both Brazilians are in danger: Idalino has received multiple threats, and the federal government has notified Tarcisio that his name is on a death list. By summer’s end, both men will be in hiding.
The discussion centers on generating support for the two reserves, which would shut out corporate logging in favor of renewable uses like the harvest of palm fruit, nuts, and a few trees. One would be up in the Middle Land, west of the Xingu. The second would lie just across the river, south of the Trans-Amazon Highway. We set out on a day of forest revivals, spreading the eco-gospel up the Jarauçu, a Xingu tributary running through one proposed reserve. The current is narrow, fast, and brown, and Idalino steers over submerged fields to villages of stilt houses where fat, striped fish are visible through cracks in the floorboards. He regales the villagers with impassioned sermons: “The corporate groups are using you as beasts of burden!”
But many of the extrativistas will have none of Idalino’s reserves: They are unregistered with any government; they’ve heard rumors that they won’t be able to plant corn, or keep chickens, that they will be arrested. That night, on a ferry up the Xingu, watching the boat’s wake as we rumble upstream to Altamira, Roling laments what he calls “conservation imperialism,” the way foreigners’ well-meaning solutions—land trusts that buy huge tracts, ice cream companies offering a square inch of forest per pint sold—don’t take into account this overwhelming poverty. “Preservation,” he says, “doesn’t give you anything to eat.” (Adario has said the same thing—with 20 million people in the region, “you can’t put a bubble over the Amazon.”)
Fear of outsiders plays into the hands of logging interests. When parts of the Amazon were declared World Heritage sites in 2000, Brazilian nationalists said foreigners were stealing part of the country. And loggers have circulated a pamphlet that calls Greenpeace the “Vanguard of the Global Monarchy,” accusing it of colluding with the British and Dutch royal families to impoverish the Third World.
Black dolphins play in the Xingu after sunset, and we spend a long, surprisingly cold night packed in swaying hammocks, chugging past more than 80 sawmills, before reaching the falls at Belo Monte, where we catch a cab the last 25 miles to Altamira. The town where Dema Federicci was murdered is filthy and sprawling, full of trucks, chainsaw dealerships, whorehouses, and pro-logging sentiment. The activists are on eggshells here. Adario won’t even visit the city. But posters of Federicci (“dema, your work is not forgotten”) are everywhere. And Amazon chic has touched even this remote boomtown. “You’ll never guess who sat right in that seat,” a cabdriver told me. “Sting!”
In Altamira more activists greet us, eight of them on death lists of some kind. One is a T-shirted American nun in her seventies, Dorothy Stang from Dayton, Ohio. A member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Stang has lived in Brazil since 1966; she’s used to the heat, the humidity, and the insects, but not the death threats. “The logging companies work with a threat logic,” she says, describing the shadowy magic in which one day a company or rancher will complain about an activist, and the next he’ll be gone. “They elaborate a list of leaders, and then a second movement appears to eliminate those people.”
Stang says she received her most recent death threat just three days ago, after helping disarm three pistoleiros trying to evict farmers from land claimed by a wealthy rancher. “If I get a stray bullet,” the sister says cheerily, “we know exactly who did it.”
THE LAST LINK IN THIS TRAIL of blood and sawdust is up the Xingu in the Middle Land, so I buy 120 liters of gasoline, two blocks of ice, and some food and head for the disgusting Altamira waterfront, where I hire the thrashing, twisting, leaping, jumping, jigging, half-Indian Jump to take me into the rainforest.
Upstream the banks begin to rise up. Clear-cut hills are visible, the trees replaced with cattle. In midafternoon we round an island and come across about a thousand mahogany logs floating patiently in the river. These were chainsawed from the upper reaches of the Xingu, skinned, cut into 20-foot lengths, and then started downriver roped into rafts of 50 trunks each. But the shipment was impounded here by IBAMA as illegal, or “precarious,” last fall. Two wiry old men, Luciano and Pedro, are living here in a puny houseboat, paid by IBAMA to watch the logs, which are tied to the lee of the island.
“Jump, you devil!” Pedro shouts. “Tudo bem?” Everything good?
“Everything legal,” Jump replies, and we all shake hands.
We clamber across the blazing tin roof of their boat and hop down onto a forest’s worth of mahogany. Barefoot, I pick my way over one cluster, skip to the next, and work my way along the future coffee tables of America until I am hundreds of yards into a sea of mahogany, most of it stolen from land simultaneously claimed by Kayap- and Arara Indians, private landowners, and the government. IBAMA isn’t quite sure what to do with it. The middleman who bought the logs and paid to have them rafted downriver has sued to reclaim them. If he wins, this mega-raft will be worth several million dollars.
The trail of blood wood circles back and leads me to Belém. A few days after Brazil’s President Henrique Cardoso boasts on the radio about the mahogany moratorium, I take a taxi to the port. I have been inside the front gate only a few seconds when a harried inspector from IBAMA, Senhor Coimbra, happens by, carrying a tape measure. “We just found some mahogany right now,” he tells me, dragging me past antique iron sheds that line the docks.
The wood is stacked in plain sight, by the road: 264 pallets of boards, a monstrous display of illegal wood. Coimbra, a small, sunburned, middle-aged man, runs a tape measure over a pallet, does some math, and then swats the wood with a swagger stick of discarded mahogany. “All the measurements are false,” he says. The shipping papers describe it as 262 cubic meters; by his calculations, it is 328 cubic meters. I ask if he will impound it.
“We already did,” he says. IBAMA discovered this wood months ago in a sawmill up-country and put it under injunction, but a “substitute judge” was miraculously found to release it. Now a forklift closes in, picks up the first pallet, and carries it toward the Amazon, and we watch as load after load is lifted onto a cargo ship named the Bluarrow. The wood is plainly marked mobile, and is going into the hold alongside cedar equipped with Forest Stewardship Council stickers certifying it as legit. By the time the Bluarrow reaches the U.S., it will be hard to tell the shipments apart.
With Latin flourish, Coimbra slaps a big rubber stamp onto the shipping documents. “This export was determined by precarious judicial decision (injunction),” it reads in precarious English. The message is intended for customs inspectors in the United States. One after another, European, British, and now U.S. customs officials have begun impounding suspect mahogany. In a move supported by the White House, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has seized close to $20 million worth of Brazilian mahogany, estimates Greenpeace, at five ports of entry. Five of those 25 shipments have since been released, and in July, the U.S. timber industry sued the federal government for the release of 16 more. Still, there’s a chance that Senhor Coimbra’s “precarious” mahogany will never reach market.
As we turn to leave, a couple of cops on scooters whiz up. Coimbra looks nervous and signals for me to keep walking, but they cut us off, and a cruiser arrives. We are invited into the back of the police car, taken to the air-conditioned office of the port police captain, and given two cups of coffee and a lecture on interfering with the vital business of loading ships. Despite the fact that Coimbra works in this port every day and is wearing his uniform and badge, the officer leans across the desk and explains that we could be personally liable for the cost of any delays.
There’s a picture of him under the glass of his desktop, taken at a customs conference in New York. He’s standing in front of the Twin Towers, smiling.
“A terrible tragedy,” he says. And then, done humiliating Coimbra and scrutinizing me, he lets us go.
Hours later, a local shipping executive drives up to the port’s front gate. A volley of bullets shatters the windshield. He dies in the driver’s seat. Somebody owed somebody some money. This is how business is done in the Amazon.
AT FORT GREENPEACE, in Manaus, yesterday’s newspaper is laid out on the table. On the front page is a gory photo of blood mixed with shards of broken glass, another twisted, lifeless body in the background. A couple of assassins botched a job on a street corner just 50 yards from here, trying to get a small-town mayor; his bodyguards got them instead.
After 20 minutes of argument, I convince Adario to let me see what’s inside his bodyguard’s paper bag. Apparently some of the staff believe it will hurt the group’s support if people see Greenpeace with a piece.
The bodyguard goes into the back room, comes back, and, with metallic, practiced gestures, drops out the clip, clears the chamber, and hands me the thing. It is cold and heavy. A snubby little 9mm semiautomatic. Perfect in a close-quarters shootout.
Suddenly there’s a commotion. Marcelo, a forestry engineer on staff, rushes into the lunchroom still wearing his bicycle helmet. A new threat has come in. A man has left two messages on the answering machine of Greenpeace’s floatplane pilot. In the first message, the man, who sounds drunk, threatens to rape the pilot’s daughter and kill his family. In the second, he sounds sober and repeats the threat. The pilot and his family are hiding in one of the safest places in Manaus—the mall.
“This is a bad moment,” Marcelo says.
“They’re all bad moments,” Adario says.
I hand the pistol back to the bodyguard, who reloads it and heads for the truck. Adario prepares to follow.
“Somebody convinced us to save the fucking Amazon,” he says, heading for the door. “Now we have to save ourselves.” The last time I see him, he’s a grainy, black-and-white form on a security monitor, climbing into an armored pickup.