My dream is to see this entire forest conserved because we know that it can guarantee the future of all the people who live in it___If a messenger from heaven came down and guaranteed me that my death would help to strengthen our struggle it would even be worth it. But experience teaches us the opposite.. .I want to live.1
Francisco 'Chico' Alves Mendes Filho, man of courage, words and deeds, hero of the rubber tappers of the Amazon, played a major role in the transformation of the landscape of the Brazilian rainforest. Chico Mendes was born on 15 December 1944 on a rubber estate in Xapuri, Acre, in northwest Brazil. Forty-four years later, on 22 December 1988, he was brutally assassinated, leaving wife Ilzamar G.Bezerra Mendes and their two children, Helenira aged 4 and Sandino aged 2. Mendes' short life was devoted to leading the rubber tappers' fight to defend the Amazon Forest and its fragile eco-system against exploitation by powerful and wealthy land speculators and ranchers.
Mendes was born into poverty. His parents had come from the northeast during the Second World War, having been sent to cut rubber for the Allied war cause. He received no formal education and became a seringueiro, a rubber tapper, at the age of 9. He learned to read and write around the age of 20.
My life began just like that of all rubber tappers as a virtual slave bound to do the bidding of the master. I started work at nine years old, and like my father before me, instead of learning my ABC I learned how to extract latex from a rubber tree.. .schools were forbidden on any rubber estate in the Amazon. The estate owners wouldn't allow it.. .If a rubber tapper's children went to school they would learn to read, and write, and add up, and would discover to what extent they were being exploited.2
Ruthless exploitation from a variety of sources was to become the dominating force in the rubber tappers' existence, and resistance to this the focus of Mendes' life. Traditionally rubber tappers were at the mercy of a system of debt bondage, but during the 1960s and 1970s this system faced collapse in Xapuri. Ranchers from southern Brazil began to buy up rubber estates and clear vast areas of the forest for cattle grazing. Many tappers were forcefully, often brutally, evicted. Others retreated deeper into the forest to continue their work, only to be exploited by local merchants.
Chico Mendes knew that the future of the forests and of the rubber tappers were inextricably linked; that in order to secure a future for the people, the forests had to be protected and managed by those who understood the eco-system and how to live in it sustainably. From his endeavours emerged the concept of 'extractive reserves', which are legally protected forest areas that are held in trust for people who live and work on the land in a sustainable manner.
Early in the 1970s, the Xapuri Rural Workers' Union was founded, and Mendes was elected its president. As exploitation and conflict intensified, the Union developed the technique of the 'empate' or 'standoff'. During the dry season ranchers hire labourers to clear the forest for pasture. Just before the rains come in September the cleared areas are fired. Faced with eviction the rubber tappers assembled at sites about to be cleared, preventing the clearing and persuading the labourers to lay down their chainsaws. During the months of June, July and August in the 1970s and 1980s the forests of the upper Acre valley were the scene of numerous empates.3 In 1985, Mendes and other leaders founded the National Council of Rubber Tappers (CNS) and gained increasing international support for their cause and passive resistance demonstrations. The movement was recognized as a force not only for social justice, but also against environmental destruction. The rubber tappers were able to propose a socially equitable and environmentally sustainable development policy for the region based on securing and improving their way of life, rather than official investments in ranching and colonization projects that would lead to disaster both for them and for the forest.4
Chico Mendes played a crucial role in negotiating with governments, with the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. For example, in 1987 he visited the USA at the invitation of the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Wildlife Federation in order to discuss an Inter-American Development Bank-funded road paving project in Acre. Chico's message of caution was that the project would be disastrous if environmental conditions in the loan were not fulfilled. The loan was later suspended.
In addition to a great deal of respect and support, Mendes won two international prizes for his efforts. He was awarded the Ted Turner's Better World Society Prize and the United Nations Global 500 Environmental Prize. In 1988, responding to ever-increasing international pressure and support for the cause, the Brazilian government established the first ever extractive reserve. Yet as rewards and support increased, so too did risk to the rubber tappers, and, as their leader, to Chico Mendes in particular. Despite the creation of the CNS and the increasing level of organization of the tappers, the political power of the landowners was formidable. Their movement, the UDR, was enormously influential throughout the country and in Congress. It had successfully defeated land reform proposals in the Constituent Assembly.
Here in Xapuri, the UDR is beginning to make its presence felt. Since April 1988, when it formally set itself up in Acre, the number of hired gunmen in Xapuri has increased, as have the number of assassinations and attempted assassinations of workers. These gunmen are in effect the armed wing of the UDR and we are the targets.5
Chico Mendes was well aware of the threat to his own life; perhaps he foresaw his death. The quotation at the opening of this account is taken from a letter he had written shortly before his assassination by the son of local cattle rancher Darli Alves da Silva.6
Perhaps the most significant element of the legacy of Mendes is the enhanced power and voice of the organizations associated with him and the rubber tappers' cause—the National Council of Rubber Tappers and the Amazon Work Group from whose membership emerged a new generation of environmental leaders and activists. In Acre, Mendes' co-campaigners won important elective offices. For example, Marina Silva, co-founder with Mendes of the union movement and the Workers' Party in Acre, was elected to the Federal Senate in 1994; colleague Jorge Viana was elected mayor of Acre state capital in Rio Branco in 1992 and governor in 1999; and environmentalist Jo o Alberto Capiberibe was re-elected in 1999 as governor of Amapa. Such political successes for the Mendes cause have transformed national debate in Brazil on the Amazon region. The new generation of environmentalists have a major task ahead—the environmental, ecological and social crisis of Amazonia remains critically serious. Yet the political conditions for potential change have never been better as state and federal policies which promote and support sustainability are framed.
At the time of writing, a total of twenty-one extractive reserves and extractive settlements have been established in the seven states in Brazil, covering an area of 3.3 million hectares, together with a number of state reserves. By law, residents of the reserves must prepare a management plan for their area in order to obtain long-term rights of use. Both local communities and government have rights and responsibilities which encompass principles of ecological sustainability. Beyond Brazil, international agreements enforce protection of rainforest ecosystems. Yet federal extractive reserves account for some 1.5 per cent of the Amazon area. Deforestation rates are as high as ever in many regions, land degradation becomes an increasingly significant issue as time goes by, fires are more frequent and harder to control, and illegal logging practices continue to strip hardwoods from within protected areas. Furthermore, rubber prices have fallen so low that the extractive reserves are not producing the income to support even the basic needs of some communities. The poverty, degradation and destruction of Amazonia are amongst the greatest socio-environmental challenges of the present day; challenges brought onto the world's political stage and the agendas of NGOs as a result of various significant influences. The charismatic and courageous leader of the Brazilian rubber tappers' union must surely be one of the most significant of all.
In early 1989, in the aftermath of Mendes' death, which made a great impact not only in Brazil but world-wide, the Second National Congress of Rubber Tappers was held in Rio Branco. Rubber tappers of Brazil were joined there in force by tappers from Bolivia, by indigenous communities from Acre and elsewhere, and by representatives of government, human rights groups, the Church and political organizations. The meeting published twenty-seven demands concerning environmental protection, social development and human rights protection. It also published the Declaration of the Peoples of the Forest in memory of Chico Mendes and in the hope of the fulfilment of his vision for the future of the Amazon:
The traditional peoples who today trace on the Amazonian sky the rainbow of the Alliance of the Peoples of the Forest declare their wish to see their regions preserved. They know that the development of the potential of their people and of the regions they inhabit is to be found in the future economy of their communities, and must be preserved for the whole Brazilian nation as part of its identity and self-esteem. This alliance of the Peoples of the Forest, bringing together Indians, rubber tappers and riverbank communities, and founded here in Acre, embraces all efforts to protect and preserve this immense, but fragile life-system that involves our forests, lakes, rivers and springs, the source of our wealth and the basis of our cultures and traditions.7
1 Fight for the Forest, Chico Mendes in His Own Words, p. 6.
3 T.Gross in Fight for the Forest, p. 2.
5 Fight for the Forest, p. 80.
7 National Council of Rubber Tappers, Union of Indigenous Nations, Rio Branco, Acre, March 1989. In Fight for the Forest, p. 85.
Mendes' major writings
Mendes, C., Fight for the Forest, Chico Mendes in His Own Words, London: Latin American Bureau (research and action) Ltd, 1989.
Branford, S. and Glock, O., The Last Frontier: Fighting Over Land in the Amazon,
London: Zed Books, 1985. Caulfield, C., In the Rainforest, London: Heinemann, 1985. Hyman, R., 'Rise of the Rubber Tappers', International Wildlife, 18 (5), pp. 24-8, 1988.
Revkin, A., The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest, New York: Plume, 1994.
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