Eye on the Amazon

"There Are Many Chico Mendes Around the World"

Franco ViteriFranco Viteri, indigenous leader from the Ecuadorian Amazon, remembers hearing about the death of Chico Mendes. The lasting impression of Chico's example – a quarter century after his assassination – inspired Franco to participate in the Chico Vive! conference this past weekend. Amazon Watch, a conference co-sponsor, was honored to facilitate his presence.

Chico was a humble and brilliant Brazilian labor and environmental activist. He played a key role in promoting the alternative "extractive reserve" model, in which forests are sustainably harvested of their many riches like Brazil nuts and rubber, without causing harm much less clear-cutting them. The son of a local cattle rancher killed Chico on December 22nd, 1988.

As Franco stated during his presentation, "There are many Chico Mendes around the world." An impressive mix of them were in attendance – women and men who take daily risks in defense of both human rights and the environment. Over the weekend grassroots activists shared their wisdom from Latin America (Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala) to Asia (Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines) to Africa (Liberia, Tanzania). Indigenous leaders from Australia and Canada illustrated the universality of struggles to defend territory, culture, and nature.

Over the gathering, those leaders detailed the threats to local people and their surroundings: large-scale dams, oil palm plantations, hydro-fracking, mining, oil drilling, other infrastructure projects, roads… Imagine your community is being negatively impacted by one of those projects. So you stand up, demanding the government protects your rights to clean water, clean air, safe food. When your campaign gains some traction, you start to receive threats to your safety and other intimidation.

This is a pattern that replicates itself around the world, as outlined by UN expert John Knox. He cited statistics from Global Witness, which documented 711 killings of land and environmental activists in the decade prior to 2012. Chico Mendes is just one of hundreds of eco-martyrs who have been killed in recent decades. The pace of such atrocities appears to be picking up.

In the case of Ecuador, Franco explained how the government is criminalizing peaceful protest, accusing indigenous leaders of "terrorism" and "sabotage" for organizing demonstrations against big mining projects or centralization of water resources. The government has also shut down the internationally-respected organization Fundación Pachamama, a perfect example of how the political space for Earth defenders is shrinking.

Like Chico, Franco is also promoting positive alternatives in defense of the forests. Ecuador's indigenous peoples have pioneered concepts like the "Living Jungle", in which they sustainably manage the areas in which they have lived for many centuries. Scientific data demonstrates that local communities are the best stewards of their own territories. When their land rights are respected they are able keep deforestation to a minimum.

As he returned to Ecuador to continue the struggle, Franco was satisfied with the conference. It wouldn't immediately change any of the hard realities facing him and Ecuador's Amazonian indigenous peoples. But he had raised awareness about their situation – priming the pump for international solidarity – and strengthened a growing global network of earth defenders.

With greater international support for environmental rights defenders, fewer will die before their time, like Chico, and more will be able to realize their vision. As Chico said, "At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity."

For more information about the conference, please follow @ChicoVive on Twitter.
You can also review the archive of live-tweets using #ChicoVive.
Amazon Watch will distribute video and other documentation of the conference
as it becomes available in the coming weeks.

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