CHICO MENDES: Gandhi of the Rain Forest
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
“Chico is alive in the things that he did, the things that he stood for.”
On the evening of Thursday, December 22, 1988, Brazilian labor leader and environmental activist Chico Mendes was brutally gunned down before the horrified eyes of his four-year old daughter. Land developer Darly Alves da Silva was later convicted of having hired two men to assassinate him. That year, 19 rural activists were assassinated in Brazil alone. The struggle to protect the world’s ecosystem is often a war in which the best and the brightest sacrifice their lives.
Mendes was a rubber tapper. Tappers harvest latex from rubber trees in the rain forest, practicing a form of monoculture less destructive to the ecosystem than coffee or palm oil farming.
Mendes grew up in poverty, unable to read or write until he turned 18. Plantation owners prohibited education, preferring a population of docile worker ants, who could be manipulated and intimidated. With maturity, Chico grew ever more saddened and angered by the poverty and injustice suffered by the tappers.
Beginning in the 1960’s, under the iron heel of a brutal dictatorship, Brazil launched a program to raze Amazonia and convert the land to cattle grazing. Roads were cut through the forest, and settlement was encouraged. After a few years, the soil was exhausted and people lost everything, often settling in crowded tenements. The consequences for the tappers were calamitous.
To protect the basic human rights of tappers and indigenous peoples from those intent on destroying the forest and those dependent upon it, the Xapuri Rubber Tappers Union was founded in 1970. Mendes served as president.
Mendes and the union initiated a literacy program for tappers and advocated the formation of extractive reserves, areas managed by local communities with the right to harvest forest products guaranteed. They used a series of nonviolent protests called empates, drawing upon the techniques of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, to protect the forest, often forming human barricades to halt bulldozers.
Standing up to powerful landowners, corrupt politicians and heavy-handed police is a risky business. The opposition recruited armed vigilantes to attack union members. Beatings and killings became common.
Mendes was brought to Washington by US environmental groups to successfully convince the World Bank not to fund cattle projects in Amazonia but to encourage the extractive reserves. He was presented with the UN Environmental Program Global 500 Roll of Honor Award in 1987 and the National Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Achievement Award in 1988.
The interconnectedness of human rights and environmental issues was soon evident to Mendes. He observed, “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, and then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”
In 1987, rancher Darly Alvas da Silva, already wanted for murder, purchased the land where many tappers were working, with the intention of clear-cutting it for cattle grazing. The union successfully lobbied the government to declare it a reserve, preventing da Silva from logging the area. In revenge, da Silva had Mendes murdered.
Brazil later declared that part of Amazonia the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve and set aside 20 other such areas, totaling 8 million acres. A movie was made about Chico, entitled “The Burning Season”, and Paul McCartney dedicated a song to him, “Flowers in the Dirt.”
Da Silva and his cohorts received lengthy prison sentences, but the destruction of the rain forest continues to this day, as does the violence. Between 1988 and 2008, 1,100 activists, priests and judges were killed. In 2005, American-born nun Sister Dorothy Strang was murdered because of her advocacy on behalf of tappers and the rain forest.
Given the apparent acquiescence of the U.S. government when confronted by the relatively recent bullish behavior of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his mob of armed crazies, perhaps the story of Chico Mendes and his attackers is a harbinger of our own future, where private armies and hired bullies can break the law and walk away unscathed.