The legacy of Chico Mendes: the man who gave his life for the Amazon

. Sep 16, 2019
chico mendes amazon rainforest Chico Mendes

In February, Brazil’s new Environment Minister Ricardo Salles was being grilled on weekly interview show Roda Viva. Awarded the cabinet seat despite never having visited the Amazon rainforest, Mr. Salles was quizzed on his knowledge of key environmentalist figures, and became increasingly irritated at his own ignorance of his field.

Asked about what he thought of Chico Mendes, the most famous of Brazilian environmentalists, Mr. Salles stuttered, replying indignantly, “what difference does it make who Chico Mendes is?”

</p> <p>At a time when the <a href="">Amazon rainforest is burning</a> and attracting widespread international attention, many would say that Brazil&#8217;s Environment Minister knowing who Chico Mendes does, in fact, make a significant difference.</p> <p>Chico Mendes was a rubber tapper, trade-unionist, and environmentalist who fought to change how Brazil made use of its forests. One of the forefathers of the concept of sustainable development in the Amazon—creating wealth from the forest without felling trees—he is partly responsible for the model of environmental preservation employed today by the Brazilian government.</p> <h2>Humble beginnings</h2> <p>Born in 1944 in the rural town of Xapuri, in the northern state of Acre, Chico Mendes followed his father into the rubber tapping trade at a very young age. The rubber trade is punishing work. Tapping trees involves spending much of one&#8217;s time in deep jungle, and rubber plantations rarely have basic infrastructure for their workers. Mendes, for instance, learned to read when he was 19.</p> <p>Seeing the forest around him being cut down, Mendes became a trade unionist, working to defend traditional rubber tappers and their rights to collect latex and nuts from the trees. He organized workers and their families to push back against loggers, becoming famous for his so-called &#8220;empates,&#8221; peaceful demonstrations in which women and children would physically stand in the way of deforestation attempts.</p> <div class="wp-block-image"><figure class="aligncenter"><img src="" alt="rubber tapping chico mendes" class="wp-image-24179" srcset=" 600w, 300w" sizes="(max-width: 600px) 100vw, 600px" /><figcaption>Chico Mendes</figcaption></figure></div> <p>After helping fund the syndicalist <a href="">Workers&#8217; Party</a> in 1980—which remains the largest political party in Brazil—Mendes went on to create the National Rubber Tappers Council (CNS) and the Union of the People of the Forest, which was a broad front to defend the rights of rubber tappers, indigenous and riverside communities, fishermen, nut harvesters and any autonomous group operating in the rainforest.</p> <p>This gave him nationwide fame, which also came at a higher risk. As he rallied the workers of the forest, he became the enemy of landowners and those in the agribusiness sector.&nbsp;</p> <p>In 1988, one year after Chico Mendes received the United Nations&#8217; Global 500 Award for environmental protection, he was murdered at his own back door.</p> <h2>The death of Chico Mendes</h2> <p>At the beginning of 1988, Mendes was involved in the creation of the first extractive reserves in Brazil, which are areas of protected rainforest where only the local community is allowed to engage in traditional practices such as harvesting plants and hunting. The creation of one such reserve, close to Mendes&#8217; hometown of Xapuri, drew the anger of Darly Alves da Silva, a local landowner who claimed he had purchased a rubber plantation known as Cachoeira.</p> <p>Mendes received death threats on a near-constant basis and was under police protection, with Darly Alves&#8217; hired gunmen scouting Mendes&#8217; home every day. On December 22, 1988, Mr. Alves&#8217; son Darcy killed Chico Mendes by firing a shotgun into his chest.</p> <p>His murder sent shockwaves around the world, making the front page of <a href=""><em>The</em> <em>New York Times</em></a>.</p> <h2>A legacy of protecting the Amazon</h2> <p>After his death, Chico Mendes became hailed as a hero, a man who gave his life to protect the Amazon rainforest. When the Environment Ministry created an agency to conserve biodiversity, it named it after the rubber tapper from Xapuri: the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Diversification, or ICMBio, for short.</p> <p>The extractive reserve where Mendes was born, lived, and died, ended up being named after him. The Reserva Chico Mendes was intended to be a model of sustainable development, with its residents cultivating nuts, rubber, and other products from the forest.&nbsp;</p> <p>However, the influence of cattle raising has started to eat away at the reserve. This year, amid the Amazon fire crisis, the Reserva Chico Mendes was the conservation area in Acre with the highest number of blazes, to make space for raising livestock. There have been 163 fires in the reserve this year, in an area of under 10,000 sq km.&nbsp;</p> <p>Deforestation remains, until today, the easiest way to make a lot of money in a short space of time in the Amazon. Clearing, logging and <a href="">burning virgin forest</a>, to then sell the area to farmers, is a very profitable business indeed, and economic hardship is pushing many poor families to chop down trees for a quick buck.</p> <p>Those who decide to raise the cattle themselves are also finding it a more profitable option. Tapping rubber is dangerous and hard work, and its value is negligible in today&#8217;s Brazil. This was always the case, however. Around the time of Chico Mendes&#8217; death, the people of the forest felt more of a duty to protect the environment, an activism that appears to be fading with time. Perhaps it&#8217;s not just the Environment Minister who needs to remember the teachings of Chico Mendes.

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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