Interview: THE TIMES (1989)

April 01, 1989

The following article by Bryan Appleyard appeared in an April 1989 issue of The Times newspaper...

Protection the roots of the forest - Sting...

Pale and jet-lagged after an overnight flight from Los Angeles, Sting, the exemplary, super-healthy rock star with a conscience, is campaigning again. After a world tour with Bruce Springsteen on behalf of Amnesty International, he has taken up the cause of the Amazonian Indians. He is to travel with Chief Raoni of the Kayapo tribe for two months before his next concert tour. For Sting, it is another date in his diary. For Raoni, it is a matter of life or death.

'Raoni's definitely the real thing,' Sting explains. 'He's what we want to defend. He looks like something from another planet. He's terrifying.'

The rock star is now taking the chief around Europe to raise money and prick consciences about the fate of the Brazilian Indians. 'He has this massive lip, these incredibly intense eyes. The Indians in the cities look like bureaucrats. From a show business point of view and I know something about that he's the best.'

Raoni is the most uncompromisingly purist of the Amazonian Indian leaders who are now fighting for their rights and the survival both of themselves and the rain forests where they live. Some Indians are happy to campaign from apartments in Sao Paolo, some believe in letting white miners and ranchers on to their land and negotiating royalty deals. But Raoni is ultra-conservative.

'I agree with him,' Sting says. 'All those deals will assimilate them into something that ultimately destroys them. Raoni says that money is the root of all evil. He says young Kayapo should have the plug put in their lips that they later make into that big plate. He's right as soon as they start wearing Reeboks and Levis they've had it.'

Sting's involvement began two years ago, after some hugely successful concerts in Brazil which reached a climax before a 200,000-crowd at the Maracana Stadium in Rio. He met up with the Belgian film-maker Jean Pierre Dutilleux, who, a decade before, had made a film about Raoni and the plight of the Indians. The film was nominated for an Oscar, but did nothing to combat the threat to the Indians. Their land the rain forests was being depleted daily at a horrifying rate. A long history of genocide appeared to be nearing some kind of climax. Before the white man arrived in South America, there were 6 million Indians. Today, there are 250,000.

Sting's musical success penetrated the jungle. Raoni asked to meet him and Dutilleux fixed it. 'We flew from Brasilia over miles of red desert with just a few stumps of trees. That was all jungle 10 years ago. It was very, very sad.'

Sting stayed with them and talked. In a weak moment he also stuck a McVitie's digestive in his mouth in mockery of the huge plates embedded in the lower lips of the Kayapo men. Raoni saw this, took out a knife and offered to give Sting the real thing by a simple slit under the chin.

'That would have terminated my career on the spot. I told him I had a photo session.'

He discovered that all but one of the Kayapo tribes were belligerent, usually at war with each other and prone to killing white men who strayed on to their land. Their more pleasant attribute was that the warlike tribes jointly protected the peaceful one. 'I don't condone their violence, but it is one reason they have been able to survive.'

But Raoni had united the tribes to confront the overwhelming threat of deforestation. Their land is an area the size of Italy near the conjunction of the Xingu and Amazon rivers. In theory, it belongs to them by government decree. In reality, the burning of the forests on a gigantic scale to allow for brief periods of cattle farming or a couple of years of crop-raising before the land finally dies is not containable by decree. Kayapo forest could be burnt before anyone knew anything about it. And, once the forest is gone, the Kayapo civilization is gone.

'I know a lot of people are campaigning about the effects of the burning of the rain forests on the environment. I am doing it this way round because to save the Indian culture is to save the rain forest. You can't separate the two.'

Drawing a map in the dust with a stick, Raoni showed him their land. He explained they needed it to be clearly marked with outposts that would be manned by Indians. They also needed publicity to make people aware that the land really was Kayapo.

Sting agreed to lend his name to the project. Along with Dutilleux, Raoni and his nephew and a few others, they set up the Brazilian-based Rainforest Foundation. Last month, Sting returned to Brazil to arrange Raoni's world tour. The problems turned out to be immense. Not least because, Sting explains, Indians are not full citizens. They need permission to leave the country. When we met at his 17th-century home in Highgate, north London, Sting was negotiating the issue of whether they would have to take along a government observer or 'spy', as he preferred to say.

But there were also the frightening and elaborate politics of Brazil and the passions aroused among both farmers and environmentalists about the rain forest issue. The dangers and complexities became clear to Sting when he went to a meeting at Altamira to discuss the building of a hydro-electric dam. The government and the right-wing farmers' lobby want the dam built. It would flood an area the size of England. Sting was against the whole idea, convinced that electricity could be generated by other means. But he could see the arguments of the poor whites for the jobs that would be produced by the dam and he did not want, at that delicate stage, to align himself with anti-government feeling. He needed their help.

'There was certainly an edge of danger at that meeting. The right-wing farmers had threatened to send 2,000 gunmen into the town and shoot it out. Death threats were being made all the time and there were plenty of stories of others dying trying to stop the farmers. I didn't get threats, though I have to say that I am confident that my position as a rock star would make killing me self-defeating. I have to hope that's true anyway.'

And the fact that he was a rock star did earn him the somewhat startling privilege of an audience with Brazil's President Sarney during that last trip.

'The main thrust of what he told me was that you cannot stop the poor people of his country exploiting the rain forest when the economy is in such a state. Brazil actually has a trade surplus but it's all eaten up by paying interest on their debts. He explained they could never climb out of this hole. And they couldn't disobey the banks' rules they need dollars to buy things so they have to play ball. He said if some of the rules on debt repayments could be relaxed, it would make things easier, so that's the other part of our campaign. It is debt that is destroying the rain forests.

'People are starving, they are desperate. You can't blame them for burning the forest because they need to live, they need a crop. They shouldn't be seen as the baddies. There are bad guys. But you can't just say the Brazilians are bad, they are desperate.'

Sarney's government has suspended the financial incentives that used to be given to develop ie, destroy the rain forests and the President gave Sting's foundation a tentative green light. It was, however, diplomatically hedged. 'I see his problem. The military is always in the background with a gun at his head. He can't just announce that he is internationalizing the rain forests. I think he wants to do something.'

The foundation decided that the world trip around Europe and to both the United States and Japan will aim to raise about Dollars 2 million and a good deal of publicity. Sting has financed the operation so far. The money will be used to provide outposts, a scientific station for studying the rain forests, an aircraft for observation, medicine and some means of systematically preserving the Indian culture.

'They need a place where young Indians can be taught the old ways. Through contact with the white, they are losing touch with the knowledge of the old Indians.'

Of course, the danger is that this whole artificial process of protection cannot possibly work that exposure of such a fragile culture to the power of the West, even a caring West, can only ultimately destroy. The minute you introduce penicillin you plug the Kayapo into the world economy.

'I know. But we can't not give them penicillin. We've already given them our diseases. I lived in Raoni's village for five days last month. It was infested with cockroaches. They weren't there five years ago; they come from the cities.

'My fear is that if we raise too much money, we're going to be left with this thing we don't know what to do with. We want to give help and advice, we don't want to throw money at the problem and leave it.'

Implicitly, Sting is answering the criticisms levelled at Live Aid that it failed to follow through properly once the excitement of the fund-raising exercise was over.

It is clear that Sting is distancing himself slightly from the seemingly endless litany of rock-star causes primarily by not singing about the Indians.

'I've never considered I want to sing about this issue. I've been writing about 15,000 words of stream of consciousness that will be published as a book next month. But I'm a little bored with the idea of singing for causes.'

Boredom is accompanied by more than a hint of fatigue. The organization of the tour is riddled with complexities. Among other things, they have to bring a doctor. Sting is concerned for Raoni's health on his first exposure to the bugs of civilization outside Brazil. He already suffers from malaria.

On top of that, he has formally to establish charities in each of the countries they visit and gauge the local politics. In Japan, in particular, there will be a problem. The Japanese are actively involved in the exploitation of the rain forests.

'I don't want to be involved in politics. But I sometimes like the chess aspect of it. But I'm a dreamer, a Utopian, I would be no good at full-time politics. And it's exhausting, exhausting,' he admits. 'But we've got to do this for the Indians. We can maintain their self-esteem and make them realize or feel that they are important and, of course, they are.

'My feeling is that once they're destroyed then we are all in line.'

© The Times



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Oct 1, 1988

Sting On the Warpath - Singing in the Rainforest. Hemmed in by hostile settlers and logging companies, Brazil's forest Indians stand in the Xingu National Park. But the world took no notice until Sting became involved. There were huge difficulties in getting permits for the trip. Officials were uneasy about possible adverse publicity. Sting's concert the night before had been a huge success - 200,000 fans had packed Rio de Janeiro's vast Maracana stadium to hear him and now the rock star was in his hotel, talking to Belgian film-maker Jean-Pierre Dutilleux...