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The Case Against Mahogany



There is a very strong case to be made against Brazilian mahogany. Logging for mahogany is rapidly becoming the most significant cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, both because of its direct effects of logging on the forest and because the access logging roads provide for further clearing. Mahogany cutters are working in breach of all aspects of Brazilian law, and wherever they have entered the forests they have brought violence and disease to the local Indian populations, including some of the most remote and vulnerable people in the world.

In most of the Amazon, logging would not be economically viable were it not for the high price of mahogany. If the markets for mahogany disappeared, there is every reason to believe that most of these areas and their peoples would remain undisturbed.

The key consideration for British people is that it is largely the very high demand for mahogany in Britain that is fueling this market. There is little demand for mahogany in Brazil, and, of the 80% that is exported, 56% is consumed by Britain.

It is only rarely that the consumers of just one country play such a decisive role in the destruction of the environment of another. It is even rarer for the demand in one country for just one product to have such a decisive role. Many people in Britain are horrified when consumers in other countries have such an effect; for example the Japanese taste for whale meat, or the demand for endangered animals for Asian aphrodisiacs. Yet, in respect to mahogany, Britain is no different. Because of a traditional demand for a luxury product, Britain is playing a major role in the destruction of the world's largest and most precious rainforest, and the immeasurable richness of its life.

There can be no doubt that a successful British campaign on just this one timber species could measurably reduce rainforest destruction. This situation is virtually unique in the rainforest campaign.


The two main South American Mahogany species are Swietenia marcophylla and Swietenia mahogani. They have been traded as Mahogany for over four centuries and are possibly the most valuable South American timber species. The initial trade up until the 19th century was in S. mahogani, especially under the commercial names of Cuban and Honduran Mahogany. S. mahogani has suffered a reduction in the numbers and quality of its remaining stands over its entire range. Due to the continual removal of the best specimens, it is now largely a much-branched "bushy" tree unsuitable for timber production and considered as a weed (Styles 1981).

With the steady decline in both the quality and quantity of S. mahogani, S. macrophylla has become the main species sold as South American mahogany in Britain, and is rapidly following the same course.

The natural distribution of Swietenia macrophylla is in a band across the southern Amazon - from close to Brazil's east coast to the Bolivian border - through the far western Amazon, then narrowing through Ecuador and Columbia to central Venezuela, crossing the Darien Peninsula and occurring on the eastern seaboard of Central America (Lamb 1966).

Commercial pressures have degraded most indigenous stands of S. macrophylla throughout it's range. In Capobianco, Venezuela, it's population has declined by 2/3 in less than fifteen years, and may be gone by the year 2000, though it is still abundant in the high western plains. In Peru, there has been a drastic fall in populations and it has become rare in Columbia, Coast Rica and Guatemala due to over exploitation, much of it illegal. Little is known of its current population in Mexico, though it is likely to have declined i proportion to Mexico's tropical forests which now cover only 20% of their former area. Only in Brazil and Bolivia are there still large populations, but here too logging is rapidly reducing its range (Campbell 1992).

As a result S. Macrophylla has been listed by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPRG) as a high priority species for genetic resource conservation. Brazil listed it as a vulnerable species in the Annex of the Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere.

The main attempt to restrict the exploitation of the species was the 1992 proposal of the USA and Costa Rica to list all Swietenia species in Appendix II of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which would ensure the close monitoring of its trade. This move is a preliminary to its listing on Appendix I, which would ban all trade. Despite having the support of the EC and Brazil, the proposal failed because of intensive lobbying by American timber importers and the Bolivian government. However, many exporting nations have already placed restrictions on the trade of Swietenia spp, especially as unprocessed logs.

Although Mahogany has a wide natural range of over 80,000 km2, the range in which its harvest is commercially viable is far smaller. Government officials claim that Mahogany is close to commercial exploitation in the accessible areas in which it is legally exploitable which has led to very widespread illegal logging in Indian reserves (Monbiot 1992).


According to observers and researchers, logging for tropical hardwoods is becoming the most significant cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon (Padua, Anderson 1992).

In the past the timber industry has played a relatively minor role in Amazonian deforestation, especially compared with cattle ranching, regional grand plan "development" programs, and large scale dam and mining projects. There are some indications that overall deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon may be slowing. The Brazilian government has reserved most of the tax breaks for cattle ranching and has an ambitious program for the demarcation of tribal lands. Agencies now show greater caution in funding large scale development projects in the area, though such projects still continue. Yet, the battle to save the Amazon is far from over. Mahogany cutting is now rapidly taking over the role of opening intact forest areas, providing access for settlers, and has become an important factor in the economies of further expansion of ranching.

Logging for Mahogany is basically a "grab it and run operation" with highly destructive felling practices. A study in the south of Para found that for each mahogany tree removed, 28 other trees were seriously damaged: mots of them toppled or uprooted. 1450 square meters of forest were affected by the cutting of every mahogany tree (Verissimo 1992). As most mature mahogany trees are removed by the cutters, and logging takes place before the tree's fruiting season, little seed is left for regeneration. S. macrophylla seedlings have a high mortality, and, throughout its range, logging has led to a considerable fall in the population. Verissimo et al. conclude that "considering natural mortality, it is unlikely that this stock could produce a second harvest" (Verissimo 1992). Such destructive logging methods are nearly universal in the tropics, but in this case it is unlikely that there would be and logging at all in much of the forest in which mahogany grows were it not for the mahogany extraction (Verissimo 1992, Albrechtson 1991).

Logging is now the principle means by which new agricultural frontiers are being established in Amazonia: colonists and ranchers make use of the roads cut through previously inaccessible regions, and clear the forest the loggers have opened (Plowden, Kusada 1989, Uhl 1990, Verissimo 1992). Because mahogany is widely distributed at low densities, logging requires excessive road access, with up to 400 k between forest and mills (Uhl 1990). In the case of logging in the Xingu area, 130.5 km of primary loads and 173 km of secondary roads were opened for the extraction of 5999 magno (mahogany) trees (Vidal, Giannini 1992).

There are eye witness accounts of colonists following these logging roads. 1,500 families followed Bannach into the River Iriri area of Arara territory and settled along its 90 km logging access road. Bannach's road was built in conjunction with the Rondonian colonisation program (Monbiot 1992). In Paragominas, the profits from Mahogany logging are helping to subsidise and expand uneconomic cattle ranching (Uhl 1990).

In a number of cases the cutters have actively encouraged colonists to follow them to provide cheap labour and protection from the Indians and authorities. Claiming that they are just a small part of the wider invasion, the cutters shelter behind the political difficulties involved in the removal of colonists from reserves (Monbiot 1992). In the Alto Turiacu Reserve, in Para state, the timber cutters were followed by 1,100 colonists and ranchers (Mensangeiro No 67, January/February 1991). In the Guapore Reserve in Rondonia, 50 families of colonists moved up the logging roads, at the instigation of the loggers and 400 speculators staked claims to the land in the reserve, erecting signs along the roads (Rasmusson 1989a).


Officials from the Brazilian Department for Indigenous Affairs (FUNAI) claim that there is little hope of preventing the disintegration of indigenous societies in the southern Amazon while the mahogany trade continues unchecked (Sydney Possuelo, President of FUNAI, pers. comm., FUNAI Belem and FUNAI Altimira, pers. comm., cited Monbiot 1992).


Almost the entire adult population of the Surui people of the Sete de Setembro Reserve has contracted one or other venereal disease, and 20% of the population is suffering from tuberculosis (Porantim: September 1991). The population of the Surui has fallen by 90% in the 20 years since first contact, but the recent outbreaks have been blamed by the Indians themselves on the presence of loggers in their lands.

The Uru Eu Wau Wau are believed to have lost half their numbers since first contact in 1981, from diseases introduced by both timber cutters and colonists (Survival International 1991).

There have been epidemics of tuberculosis and leishmaniasis have been reported among the Marubo in the Javair Valley and widespread measles and flu complicated by bronchial pneumonia among the Mati's (Mesangeiro No 68 March/April 1991).

The easternmost Arara are suffering severely from serious flu outbreaks following contacts between them and employees of the several logging firms invading their lands (O Liberai 10.11.88).

In 1991 12 of the 188 Kulina of the River Jurua, in Amazonas state died of whooping cough and malaria introduced by the invaders associated with the Mahogany industry (Porantim, September 1991).

20% of the Hahaitesu-Nambiquara in Rondonia have died since 1987 through diseases introduced by timber cutters and colonists (CEDI 1992).


In most reserves in which Indians are regularly dealing with cutters, alcoholism is a problem, as white is rum handed out or traded for mahogany (CEDI 1992, Porantim November 1991 Aconteceu Especial 18).

Having used the forest to meet all their needs, Indians can become dependent on a cash economy without cash, and many are tempted to sell other rights to their lands - such as mining concessions - in order to keep themselves alive. Young Indians come to lose respect for their own culture. They "are dazzled by the political power the timber cutter gives them. For them the timber cutter is the overall chief." (Vidal, Giannini 1992).


There have been a large number of cases of Indians being murdered by timber cutters. In some of these cases there has been violence on both sides and mutual vendettas.


  1. In some cases, Mahogany cutters move into the reserve clandestinely, cutting until the Indians discover them. At that point they either leave, threaten the Indians or try to suborn them.
  2. In the territories of people such as the Kayapo', renowned for their violent resistance to timber cutting, loggers have been known to dash in, fell as many mahogany trees as they can, then approach the Indians through intermediaries, arguing that as the wood has already been felled, the Indians can only gain by receiving a share of the profits once the logs are hauled away and sawn (testimony of Kayapo leaders visiting Britain 1992).
  3. Cutters distribute truckloads of cheap merchandise: torches, radios, T-shirts, biscuits and tinned food. A few weeks later they return, claiming that the goods had been sold to the Indians on credit, and that they have come to collect their debts in the form of timber.
  4. The cutters single out members of the group and attempt to persuade them of the merits of trading their timber. If they succeed, contracts are drawn up. These are both illegal and, characteristically, one-sided. The Indians are paid in case, services or merchandise, at rates far below those charged by other landowners. Even so, cutters often steal more wood then they pay for.


According to Jose Lutzenberger, and other government sources, the majority of Brazil's Mahogany exports have been illegally logged in Indian and Biological reserves (Lutzenberger 1992).

The Brazilian Constitution determines that "the lands traditionally occupied by the Indians are set aside for their permanent possession, leaving to them the exclusive use of the riches from the soil, the rivers and the lakes existing in them" (Senado Federal 1988). Not only are the logging activities in demarcated Indian territory without Indian permission illegal, but, under Brazilian law, any logging by non-Indians in indigenous reserves mast be approved by the National Congress. Not one such logging operation ever has been submitted for approval, and no timber on the export market is know to come from Indian controlled operations. Therefore ALL timber currently coming for Indian lands is illegal.

The current logging is also breaking the Brazilian Statute of the Indian and the Draft United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples International Labour Organisation's conventions 107 and 169 (Monbiot 1992).

In 1987 the Brazilian export agency, CACEX, recorded that 69% of all the mahogany leaving Brazil came from the Kayapo reserves (CEDI 1992). This proportion has since declined due to depletion. In 1988 the ex-director of Funai, Ezequias Heringuer Filho, reported that a preliminary study in Rondonia, Mato Grosso, Amazonas and Para showed that at least $1 billion worth of timber had already been removed from indigenous reserves (ABC 1988). Illegal mahogany logging is also taking part in biological and extractive reserves (Ecopore 1991).


Many of the civil servants charged with protecting the Indians and the forests, as well as members of the judiciary, have been bribed or threatened into acquiescence with the illegal trade. Some officials are known to draw regular salaries from the loggers. (Lutzenberger 1990, Sydney Possuelo, President of FUNAI, pers. comm. FUNAI officials, Para, pers. comm. All cited in Monbiot 1992). Jose Lutzenberger, the former Brazilian Secretary for the environment described IBAMA, the Brazilian Environment Department, as being "just another branch of the logging industry ... a den of crooks and thieves" (Washington Post, March 21st 1992).

In an open letter to British consumers, Lutzenberger says: "Though timber cutting inside reserves is illegal, timber traders in many part of the Amazon wield more money and power than most government departments. They have succeeded in corrupting many of the people charged with the protection of the Indians and Forests. My attempts to stop their illegal activities were partly responsible for my sacking". (Lutzenberger 1992).


The Brazilian Department of Forests clearly has no real control over logging. There are only 50 forest rangers to monitor the entire Amazon and most concessions are probably never inspected.

Although government fines for illegal cutting can, in theory, be as high as US $1,200 per ha, these have not been enforced. Indeed, in some areas, the majority of logging is totally illegal and operating without any permit. In Acre, for example, 400,000 ha of forest were logged although only 100,000 ha had been allocated for logging (Plowden, Kusada 1989). In September 1988 one representative of the government exported 22,000 m3 of unprocessed mahogany logs from Itacoatiara to China. The declarations were false and made through a 'front company'. (Pabst undated).

In theory operations should be issued with management certificates by the federal Environment Institute, IBAMA, as proof of good management practices. However, these have long been an object of ridicule among researchers in the Amazon. In 1992 Jose Lutzenberger revealed that they were being handed out blank by corrupt IBAMA officials for the cutters to fill in for themselves (Monbiot 1992).

The Brazilian Department of Forests required logging companies to pay a reforestation tax of 62 Cruzados/tree (October 1988 rate). In reality it has done no reforestation with this income, and has used the money elsewhere (Pabst undated).


Although there are no specific laws regulating contracts with tribal groups, such contracts are invalid under general contract law requiring that all parties have a full understanding of the terms of the contract being signed. The Indians' lack of understanding of the meaning or contents of contracts has also been exploited by companies. According to the Paiakan, "At the moment, very few of us can speak or read Portuguese. Fewer even can count or check money deals. Numbers are not part of our tradition. We were always cheated." (Paiakan 1992).

When contracts have been signed with local Indians it has invariably been with a very few individuals with no authority to represent the entire tribal group, such as in the Kayapo contract with Maginco (Vidal and Giannini 1992) or by FUNAI acting on the Indians behalf. Romero Juca' Filho, head of FUNAI from 1986 to 1991, signed many such contracts on behalf of the Indians resulting in huge personal gains for himself (Senhor 20.10.87). He also reached deals with logging companies to construct the FUNAI administrative buildings in reserves, thus reducing FUNAI overheads. These contracts caused a national scandal and were canceled by the federal courts in 1988 (Correio Braziliense 6.8.88) but the cutters continued to use them in attempts to legitimise their presence.

Although Sydney Possuelo, Filho's successor of FUNAI, is determined to stop the abuses, middle ranking officials throughout the Foundation continue to preside over contracts between cutters and Indians, taking a substantial cut from the loggers in return for convincing the Indians that they are not being treated unfairly (Monbiot 1992).


Mahogany companies have been grossly under declaring their level of cutting to avoid paying tax. In Para state, the main source of Mahogany, companies declared to the Department of Forests that they had cut only 2,174,715 cubic meters. In reality they had cut 39,803,595 cubic meters, nearly 20 times as much. The level of tax defraudation is 94.5% (Greenpeace 1992).


In the very few cases where FUNAI or the police have attempted to enforce the law they have been virtually powerless against the loggers. In every case where the logging has been temporarily stopped the companies have simply started again.

A case in point was the 1991 application by FUNAI to the Federal Attorney-General or Para against Bannach's illegal operations in the Arara-Xingu catchment. The judge made a preliminary measure which he subsequently withdrew (Potiguar 1991).

In Guapore, Rondonia, there has been four expeditions mounted by FUNAI, some with the help of the Federal Police, to close down the timber operations in the reserve by the middle of 1991. After every expedition the cutters began operating almost immediately, relying on the widespread support of corrupt officials. In the dry season of 1991 a more effecting operation was launched, which stopped the cutting in the reserve at least until the end of that year (Monbiot 1992).

On January 15th 1993, Selene Maria de Almeida, a judge in the Brasilia Federal Court, placed an immediate interdiction on all illegal roads being opened by logging companies in demarcated indigenous lands in South Para. The companies named included Perachi and Maginco, two of the largest suppliers to the UK market (see below). They were given 10 days to stop all road building activities and withdraw all equipment and employees. Only Perachi is appealing against the decision.


In 1990, Britain imported 62,000 tonnes of sawn Brazilian Mahogany, 74% of the Mahogany entering Europe, and 52% of Brazilian exports. Only 20% of Brazilian Mahogany is consumed in Brazil, making Britain the largest consumer in the world (Monbiot 1992).

Given this overwhelming importance of Britain to the Brazilian mahogany industry, a fall in UK demand would have a dramatic effect on the Brazilian industry, especially as Mahogany has no significant Brazilian market.


The main benefactors of the Brazilian Mahogany trade are the intermediaries, who take 80% of the price, and the UK government, which collects VAT on the sale price. Johnson (1991) estimates that the British government earns twice as much per cubic meter on VAT as the Brazilian logging company which produced it. Francesco Martone of Greenpeace International suggests that the VAT on Brazilian mahogany alone may well exceed the British Overseas development Administration's spending in 1990/91 on all forestry projects (Martone 1991).


According to the International tropical Timbers Organisation (ITTO) the Brazilian forest sector is 4% of GNP and employs 60,000 direct and 300,000 indirect jobs. 33% production directly consumed in the Amazonian states, 55% for other parts of Brazil, 12% for export (cited Plowden 1989). This means that only 7,200 people are involved directly in timber production for export. Given that Mahogany was only a third of exports in 1990 (Hahn 1991), this would mean that only 2,376 people are directly employed and 11,880 indirectly employed in the Mahogany industry.


The following is detailed evidence of illegal practices by three of the main companies supplying the UK with Brazilian Mahogany; Maginco, Bannach and Parachi, which are understood to supply two thirds of the UK Mahogany market (Mallinson Y. pers. comm.). In November 1992, DR. Sydney Possuelo of FUNAI challenged the British timber companies to stop buying Mahogany from just these three companies, which, he said, were all involved in illegal activities. Since then, Maginco and Perachi have been found guilty of illegal logging by the Brazilian Federal courts. All three are known to have direct links with British importers and wholesalers. The following British companies have admitted in writing or on film to buying from these companies (documentation available on request):


M & N Norman, the main supplier of Mahogany to Scotland, and Richard Burbidge now claim to have ceased buying Mahogany from Brazil. It is believed, though, that Richard Burbidge has continued to sell Mahogany to his wholesale customers. In a reply to a House of Commons question in 1989, the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher confirmed that 25 m of Brazilian Mahogany used to refurbish rooms in 10 Downing Street was bought from Maginco (Hansard 1989). Mahogany for the restoration of Buckingham Palace was purchased from Latham's which has admitted that 95% of its supplies come from Maginco.


The following is from Vidal, Giannini 1992 and Aconteceu 24.1.92.

In 1991 alone, logging companies extracted 30,000 cubic meters of Mahogany illegally from the Xikrin lands in Catete. In July 1989, Bannach Industria persuaded two co-opted Xikrin leaders to sign a contract allowing it to cut 20,000 m3 per year for five years. Bannach got 50% of the wood in payment for its services, with the Xikrin obliged to sell it the remainder for $100 per 5 trees. The market price in 1989 for standing mahogany trees in the region was $80 per cubic meter: an average of $230 per tree.

The regional administrator of FUNAI, Jose Ferreira Campos Junior said "The cynicism of this contract is such that 50% of the wood extracted goes to the company to pay for its own extradition of the wood ... It's the first time that I've seen a timber company being paid for extracting timber.".

The money was not delivered to the Indians. On the contract a debt of $7900 owed by the Xikrin to Bannach appears, spent on "merchandise" for the Xikrin. At the end of 1990 the Xikrin, finding that they had received almost nothing in return for their wood, tried to get the contract annulled. Certain that nothing would be done, Bannach resumed logging in July 1990, offering the Xikrin a twin motored airplane and a road linking their village to Tucuma. Bannach contracted a further 5 companies to accelerate the cutting. Perachi was one of these companies.

In September 1990 Mr. Bannach accosted the local head of FUNAI and told him "Money pays for anything, and the federal police will not enter the Xikrin area and you will never succeed in opening an inquiry about me.".

There is reported to be widespread alcoholism, prostitution and venereal diseases, and social breakdown as the leaders lose control of the community and the young people break away with easy money. According to Isabelle Giannini, in the first 2 weeks of 1992 6 Xikrin children died of viral dysentery.


Perachi and Maginco have been working inside the Awawete and Apytera reserves of the Parakana and Arawete Indians since 1988 and constructed a 240 km road, which is now the launch pad of further invasions. Before being discovered by the Indians in April in 1988 these companies extracted 7,500 m3 of illegal Mahogany. Two anthropologists working with the Parakana Indians reported that two representatives of Maginco were in the village of the Parakana in March 1992, offering the Indians many presents in return for timber rights.

They write: "We are witnessing a brutal and immoral process of bribery of an indigenous population of recent contact, without any capacity for defense. ... Maginco is buying the Parakana, because until now it has not succeeded in "negotiating" to their content with FUNAI. It is a new method, but the results are the same: Indians humiliated, land (still not fully demarcated) degraded, creation of needs which the Indians could never satisfy, despoliation of natural resources and, it is clear, enrichment of the timber companies and pretty mahogany furniture in Europe." (names withheld - letters available on request.)


Maginco is one of four companies operating illegally in Kayapo territory. According to FUNAI figures, it extracted 4,432 logs in 1988. In 1992 Kayapo leaders complained that the remotest of their forests - the territory of the Pukanu community - were invaded by Maginco. Maginco was well aware that the people of that community were opposed to any deals with timber cutters, and were likely to resist them with violence, it carried out a 'lightning strike', invading the reserve and felling as many mahogany trees as possible in the space of a few weeks. It then sent an intermediary to negotiate with the Pukanu community, arguing that as the wood had already been cut, the Kayapo had nothing to lose by allowing Maginco to remove it in exchange for money (Kayapo leader on visit to UK, April 1992).


The Arara Indians of the Xingu catchment were first contracted by the Brazilian government in 1981 and fled from the lands the company entered, moving to the far west of their territory. In 1991 Bannach built a 95 km logging road westwards, which came to within 20 km of the western Arara's new village, and built a sawmill on the banks of the River Iriri. 1500 families of colonists followed the timber cutters, settling along the main road and the smaller ones it built. One of the companies involved is owned by a government agency, INCRA, which is cutting the mahogany for use by a timber company belonging to one of its senior officials. (O Liberal 10.11.88)

As the colonists following the timber company have clear-felled a wide track of forest which the Arara cannot cross, the 38 people surviving in the western territories have no means of contacting the larger populations in the east. Their total population is believed to have fallen to around one quarter of the pre-contact number and they are said to be suffering from flu epidemics.