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Pocahontas and Pig Iron: An L.A. actor connects to Brazilian forestry problems

Pocahontas is on the right.
Pocahontas is on the right.
Marizilda Cruppe

The two categories of actors who ally themselves with eco-matters are not “the ones who are earnest” and “the ones who aren’t.” Green carpet or blue carpet, red carpet or no carpet, they pretty much all mean it--at least the ones I talk to--when it comes to the ocean or climate change or energy efficiency. The dividing line is really “the ones who are serious” and “the ones who needed a socially-valid hobby.”

Apparently Q'orianka Kilcher is of the serious type. She’s a 22-year-old actress, based in LA. She’s all over issues raised by GlobalGreen, Oceana and even the L.A.-centric Liberty Hill Foundation. Her own foundation aims to put video cameras in the hands of people who can document environmental harms in hard to reach places. This week she climbed up an anchor chain in Brazil as part of a protest that’s now extended a week, over the export of pig iron to U.S. companies. Iron ore gets turned into pig iron with incredibly high temperatures created by burning wood. In Brazil, charcoaled wood comes from rainforests. Greenpeace has brought in people to sit, essentially, on the anchor, to point out that this is still happening.

In 2006, Kilcher played Pocahontas in the Terrence Malick film “The Lost World.” That’s the same year Bloomberg broke news that the charcoal-producing sector of the Brazilian economy still ran on slave labor. Reporters found iron produced with slave-labor charcoal in bath fixtures from Kohler, appliances from Whirlpool, and cars from GM, Ford and Toyota.

Six years later, The Guardian reports on a Greenpeace investigation finding that Ford, GM and BMW are buying pig iron for use in steel and cast iron. (And the all-American icon, John Deere, who made cast-iron tractors for kids that my cousins and I used to ride growing up.)

Erin Hale wrote for The Guardian: “Ford was the most forthcoming and indicated that it has been working with the ILO and Brazilian government, and has been training suppliers on labour codes since 2006 and sub-tier suppliers since 2011.” But other companies didn’t acknowledge obtaining steel that was tainted by human slavery and deforestation; a website called followed up with companies named in the Greenpeace report and collected responses in a story. 

Keeping your supply chain respectable seems sort of a constant battle these days. And according to the Guardian’s own reporting, the Brazilian government has cut logging activities in the rainforest to a quarter of what they were in 2004. So why is Pocahontas on an anchor chain now?

One reason is that the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio + 20) takes place next month, and environmentalists are looking to make people care. Another likely reason is that, while it might have gotten easier to be a tree in Brazil, it’s harder to be a person protecting a tree. (That's been the case for environemntalists since a double killing of self-described rainforest protectors last year.) The president of Brazil has until Friday to decide whether to relax the country’s Forestry Code. (“A defining moment of her presidency,” says the NYT.) And then there’s Kilcher’s reasoning, in her own words: “People living in the forest are having their home destroyed just to shave a few cents off the price of a new car.”