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Mahogany coffins.

Demand for mahogany caskets among rich people in the United States who want to take some wealth to the grave is propelling illegal attacks on rainforests and indigenous people in Brazil, say activists who are trying to open a Northern front in the tropical timber battle.

"The U.S. is the largest importer of Latin American mahogany and the high price the wood gets on the international market lures outlaw timber profiteers to log illegally on indigenous peoples' land," says an October 1995 statement from San Francisco, California-based Rain Forest Action Network (RAN). "They harass, maim and murder those who dare stand in the way."

Motivated by mounting mahogany demand, armed gangs of illegal loggers killed 14 Tikuna Indians in Alto Rio Soli in Amazonas state in 1990. A few days after denouncing invasions by mahogany loggers in May 1993, rubber tapper Arnaldo Ferreira was killed in southern Para state, according to Roberto Smeraldi of Friends of the Earth's Amazonia Program. A Nhambiquara Indian was killed in neighboring Rondonia state in 1994. Loggers who wanted to harvest mahogany on Nhambiquara land were again considered likely suspects, Smeraldi says.

RAN argues that most legally available mahogany has been harvested, pushing loggers into wildlife protection areas and territories that are supposed to be under indigenous control. Brazilian media have reported suspected links between loggers and killings of people belonging to eight different indigenous groups: the Korubu, Flecheiros, Tikuna, Awa-guaja, Zoro, Mura-Praha, Guapore, and Uru-Eu-Wau.

Mahogany is in danger of being cut into extinction in the Amazon, according to the Brazilian Institute of Environment in Brasilia. Representatives meeting under the auspices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Miami, Florida in November 1994 considered listing mahogany as an endangered species, though the step has yet to be taken. Loggers have carved more than 3,000 miles of illegal roads through the Brazilian Amazon, destroying 3,000 square feet of forest for every cut tree, according to RAN.

"Rolls Royce" rites

In an attempt to head off further killings of people and trees, activists shouting "Mahogany is murder," protested in October 1995 at the High Point Furniture Market in North Carolina, where hundreds of U.S. furniture dealers gathered. Black-clad RAN and Environmental Awareness Foundation protesters staged a mock funeral procession for indigenous victims of the growing U.S. mahogany market. Traditionally used for fine furniture, mahogany also is becoming trendy for last rites in the United States, where 80 percent of the 2.2 million people who die each year wind up in a box. An increasing number of wealthier stiffs are buried in hand-made mahogany caskets that fetch as much as $10,000 each.

The lumber and coffin industries welcome the trend. Asked why people are buried in mahogany, David Buck, president of Columbus, Ohio-based Clark Grave Vault Company, told the San Jose Mercury News, "Why does someone buy a Rolls Royce rather than a Yugo?" Beck, who is also president of the Coffin Manufacturers Association, said $1 billion in coffins are sold in the United States each year.

Commerce Department records indicate that the United States imported 48,648 cubic meters (CM) of mahogany in 1991 and 66,416 CM in 1992, declining thereafter to 48,740 CM in 1994. Despite this reduction in the volume of mahogany imports, demand kept the value of imports high. U.S. mahogany imports, which were worth approximately $27 million in 1991, kept at a steady value of approximately $32 million for the years 1992 through 1994, even with declining volumes. The import value of a cubic meter of mahogany in 1994 was $661.

Almost half of all Latin American mahogany is exported to the United States, where half of it is used for furniture and the rest is sold as lumber and coffins, according to RAN. The top 10 U.S. importers, including the North Carolina-based industry leaders Nordisk of Greensboro and Dan K. Moore of Lexington, handle 80 percent of all mahogany imports. RAN says customs records indicate that U.S. importers regularly buy mahogany from suppliers that Brazilian courts have convicted of illegal logging.

Stumping for imports

"Despite being convicted, these exporters don't lose their export licenses, which gives them access to American markets," says Mark Westlund, a RAN campaigner in San Francisco.

The furniture industry denies links to illegal logging. "No logging company is involved in attacks" on indigenous people, says Robert Waffle, government affairs director of the Alexandria, Virginia-based International Wood Products Association. "I think there may be some independent people doing this."

"Given the poor law enforcement and corruption prevalent in Brazil and Bolivia, there is just no way to ensure that a given mahogany shipment is legal and not stolen from Indian communities," says RAN activist Atossa Soltani. To avoid these complications, Soltani says furniture companies should stop buying mahogany.

"It's stupid to say that mahogany imports should be banned," Waffle says. Activists "don't understand that indigenous people would like to raise their income" through mahogany sales, he says.
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Title Annotation:includes list of mahogany furniture makers
Author:Rizvi, Haider
Publication:Multinational Monitor
Date:Nov 1, 1995
Words:834
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