Albion Monitor /News

Mahogany is Murder, Activists Tell Coffin Makers

by Jeff Elliott

Protestors carried tombstone-shaped posters with names of Amazon tribe victims

SAN FRANCISCO -- Surprising manufacturers at the annual Casket and Funeral Supply Association convention in San Francisco on Friday, September 30, activists from Rainforest Action Network (RAN) demanded an end to use of the rainforest wood in expensive coffins.

With some dressed in black robes and faces painted like skeletons, the protesters interrupted conventioneers as they ate breakfast at the Fairmont Hotel. Many carried tombstone-shaped posters with the names of Amazonian tribes whose people have been murdered by mahogany loggers, according to RAN, and others acted as pallbearers carrying coffins made of completely recyclable materials.

As RAN activist Atossa Soltani begged the group to stop using mahogany, the president of the association, David Beck of the Clark Grave Vault Company in Columbus, Ohio, attempted to out shout her by using the PA system. Soltani grabbed a cordless microphone from a nearby table and continued, only to have the microphone taken from her hand by Beck. Unthwarted, she concluded her remarks with a bull horn brought by the activists.

By coincidence, the State of the World Forum ran concurrently with the casket makers' convention at the Fairmont Hotel, and featured speakers Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher and George Bush. RAN activists called on these aging former leaders to set an example for the world, and pledge not to be buried in mahogany coffins.

Mahogany loggers bring disease to remote tribes and sometimes murder

According to Rainforest Action Network, invasion by both Brazilian and Peruvian timber cutters in the Korubo's territory have been increasing for at least six years. Timber cutting in Jarvi Park -- according to the Catholic Church's Indigenous Council -- now accounts for "a good part of the timber production on the state of Amazonas." The situation has become so desperate that some of the Korubo have left their forests and fled into surrounding ranchlands. Since the invasion began, at least four Korubo have been murdered by timber cutters' gunmen.

In 1986, one indian was killed and another wounded when they were caught by loggers on the Rio Branco. In November 1989, at the confluence of the Rivers Itui and Itacoat, the federal police recovered the bodies of three Korubo believed to have been hunted down and murdered by timber cutters -- possibly the firest whites these Korubo had encountered. CIMI reports that the killer of the three are well known, but that to date no serious attempts to prosecute them have been made.

A film crew from the Univeristy of Brasilia encountered a team of eleven timber cutters entering the forests of the Korubo armed with shotguns, apparently at the beginning of an indian hunt.

The ecological effects of the cutting in Korubo territory are severe. Anthropologist Delvair Montagner notes, "the timber cutters are the greatest predators in the Park, due to the immense roads which they open in the forest to roll the logs to the streams or the rivers." Of the Korubo he writes: the situation of the isolated indians is terrible. FUNAI [Brazil's National Foundation of Indian Affairs] must be prudent and act rapidly, before the invaders and criminals decimate them."

As the Korubo remain out of peaceful contact, it is impossible to assess the effects of introduced disease among them. Some indication of how they might be affected is offered by the condition of two of the other peoples of the Jarvi Valley whose lands have been affected by timber cutters. In 1991, epidemics of tuberculosis and other diseases were reported among the Marubo, while the Matis were found to be suffering from widespread measles and flu complicated by bronchial pneumonia. All of these diseases are potentially fatal among Amazonian indians.

"The bottom line," says RAN spokesman Mark Westlund, "is that no one needs to die so we can be buried in style."

Morticians joke about demonstration later

A different funeral industry seminar was held a few days later in nearby Tiberon, where many of the same leaders of the profession attended. Many jokes were made about the protest, and the concerns of the activists dismissed offhand.

One funeral director discussed the issue with Jessica Mitford, author of The American Way of Death and number-one critic of the industry. "I have a few questions about the demonstration," the undertaker told Mitford. "The amount of mahogany used in the funeral industry would be miniscule compared to that of the furniture business."

"On the other hand, furniture lasts a long time," Mitford pointed out.

Photos, background information courtesy Rainforest Action Network.

Albion Monitor October 9, 1995 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page