Remembering Chico Mendes -- The Martyr of the Amazon Lives On

The 1988 murder of Francisco Alves Mendes Filho, better known as Chico Mendes, in Brazil’s Amazon River basin was a major international story. This all-but-invisible man who worked extracting latex from rubber trees organized a union deep in the world’s biggest rain forest and wound up influencing global environmental policy made headlines around the world when he was gunned down.

Although the Amazon holds the world’s largest rain forest, cloaking an area as big as the United States east of the Rockies, it was then largely unknown to the public, both in the North and in Brazil itself. It was one of the world’s few remaining frontiers, but it was disappearing fast.

During the September burning season that year, satellites recorded more than 8,000 places across Amazonia where fires glowed. With the Amazon burning, with record-setting heat year after year, the notion was finally beginning to emerge that humans around the world were altering the dynamics of the atmosphere and climate.

The global issues were riveting but Mendes, with his sad owlish eyes and plain thinking, gave them a human face. Just 44 when he was gunned down, Mendes had been to the United States several times to press international development banks and lawmakers to halt loans for road-building projects in the Amazon until they incorporated the goals of the forest people. His goal was to sustain communities of rubber tappers and indigenous peoples who knew how to live in the forest without wrecking it.

This overlap with environmental preservation brought Mendes to the attention of conservationists who shared his goal of preserving the rain forest, but their motives remained far apart. He would chuckle sometimes about these head-in-the-clouds types, with their talk of biodiversity and atmospheric circulation. But he knew an ally when he saw one.

While forging partnerships with green groups, he insisted that people should not be held separate from nature but instead considered as an integral component of the natural landscape. He was a pioneer in what is now called environmental and social justice, promoting the rights of communities to help shape their destinies from the ground up.

Despite threats, Mendes refused to leave the Amazon for safer terrain. And so his life was cut short by a single shotgun blast. His killers were caught and then escaped after serving a short span in an Acre prison. Darly Alves da Silva, the man who ordered the shooting, and his son Darci, who pulled the trigger, were later recaptured. Both men were released recently after serving less than half of their sentences. A memo from the American Embassy in Brazil explained the situation succinctly: “They were sentenced to 19 years in prison, but at that time murder was not a ‘heinous crime,’ so they had their sentences reduced.”

Mendes’s compatriots have risen to prominence. As the new millennium began, the daughter of a rubber tapper from Acre, Marina Silva, became the federal minister of the environment. A forest engineer and former political advisor of Mendes’s, Jorge Viana, was elected Acre’s governor. The mayor of Xapuri, Mendes’s hometown, was Julio Barbosa de Aquino, a rubber tapper and Mendes ally. And although Brazil’s first working-class president, Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva, was criticized early in his administration by environmental groups for allowing deforestation rates to climb, his presidency clearly signaled a great transition. Lula once stood trial in military court alongside Mendes for their union activities.

Stephan Schwartzman, an anthropologist for the American nonprofit Environmental Defense and one of Mendes’s early contacts outside Brazil, says the friction points leading to violence have shifted. The conflict over land use and development is now most intense in the sprawling state of Para, which spreads south of the Amazon’s mouth. In that region, Mendes’s philosophy has been adapted by rural Amazonian communities of small farmers and settlers, including those lured up the spreading road system in the 1960s by offers of free land dangled by the military dictatorship. Some of these farmers, seeing the limits of the old methods of cut, burn, plant and move on, have embraced new forms of agriculture that can be sustained on fragile Amazonian soils.

More than one hundred grassroots groups and unions have formed a coalition—the Movement for the Development of the Transamazon and the Xingu—devoted to advancing education, nondestructive agriculture techniques revolving around tree-grown crops and small-scale development projects. Schwartzman says the groups have proposed a conservation strategy for the region that could create an intact corridor of different kinds of reserves spanning 62 million acres. Together with existing reserves and Indian lands, this could preserve a swath of ecosystems ranging from the drier savanna to the depths of the still-undisturbed rain forests of the deepest Amazon.

The corridor could serve as a shield against development that still spreads apace along the Trans Amazon Highway, the original spearhead for destruction. The effort has the support of the federal and state governments but has run up against the same barriers Mendes faced: corruption and fraud in land transactions, illegal logging, real-estate speculation and the threat of violence. In August 2001, the leader of this new-style land reform movement, Ademir “Dema” Federicci, was assassinated; another organizer, Bartolomeu Morais da Silva, was killed in July 2002.

And the pace of deforestation, which had also dropped for a few years after Brazil became the focus of international attention, has accelerated. Brazil is promoting road-building projects, including one, Avança Brasil, which biologists say could open the long-shielded heart of the rain forest to development. If development happens as planned, 40 percent of the Brazilian portion of the Amazon forest could be gone in two decades, with only five percent left that can be said to be pristine. In November 2003, the government seemed to recognize how untenable this was, concluding in one report that projects in the region generally still “reproduce the model of development which has predominated in Amazonia over the last 20 years, based on the expansion of new frontiers.”

One of Mendes’s earliest allies from the other Brazil—the developed, industrialized south—was the late Jose Lutzenberger, an agronomist who became the country’s leading ecologist and then briefly its environment minister shortly after Mendes’ death. He sees the Amazon as a smaller mirror of the global environment. “[It’s] a complicated system [that] can take a lot of abuse, but you get to a point where suddenly things fall apart,” Lutzenberger once said. “It’s like pushing a long ruler toward the edge of a table. Nothing happens, nothing happens, nothing happens—then suddenly the ruler falls to the floor.”

Lutzenberger pursued the protection of the Amazon and global ecology with the fervor of a missionary until his death several years ago from an asthma attack. Back in 1992, just before the much-heralded Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, when the rate of Amazon forest destruction had slowed, Lutzenberger remained cautious. “In the environmental movement,” he said, “our defeats are always final, our victories always provisional. What you save today can still be destroyed tomorrow—and so often is.”

With all of Mendes’s successes, the central lesson of his life may well be that the vigilance and resolve of the individual must be passed to the community, and then down from one generation protecting an environmental legacy to the next. (Excerpted from the updated edition of The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest (Island Press / Shearwater, 2004). —Andrew Revkin

Info on the updated edition of the book: www.islandpress.org/burning

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