(Chico) Mendes was born on the night of December 15, 1944
in the colocacao Pote Seco of the seringal Porto Rico. He
was brought up surrounded by, extreme poverty, abandonment,
isolation, all kinds of shortages and overexploitation. The
Battle of rubber ended in 1945 when the demand created by
the Second World War dropped and the situation in Amazon worsened.
North American people left the ports and airports, and the
seringueiros were obliged to sell the rubber at a loss, to
merchants risking their lives while violating the obligation
of selling only to those who were seringalistas. The Newspaper
"A Provincia do Pará" estimated that from
the 50,000 registered as "soldiers of the rubber",
23,000 had died "with no bread and no medical care".
was lucky to meet Euclides Fernández Távora,
a political refugee in the Amazon. When he was 14 years
old he learned to read and write with him, making use of
magazines and old newspapers, and finding out what was going
on in the world, thanks to a short wave radio had brought
1970, the Brazilian president Medici decided to build a
Transamazonian highway of 5,000 kilometers to offer "a
land without men to men without lands". However, neither
the land was fertile nor was it empty: there were natives,
riverside people, seringueiros, and people who lived from
and took care of the forest. The highways impacted the lives
of 96 tribes. The nambiqwara, admired by the anthropologist
Lévi-Struss, were reduced from 20,000 to 650, after
the tracing of the BR-364. Father Turrini, a Rio Branco
missionary, estimated that 838 children out of one thousand
died before the first year of life in Acre.
deforestation and intentional fires would increase during
the next two decades encouraged by the fazendeiros and the
garimpeiros. The ancient forests were replaced by farms
and ranches of uncertain profitability and even more uncertain
duration. In Amazon the agricultural expansion is unsustainable,
the cattle are zebus imported from India -for the Mc Donald's
hamburgers of Texas, for instance; and when it rains the
unprotected, fragile land, erodes rapidly. In a few years
the abandoned farms of Amazon, like the depleted fields
of Mato Grosso, looked like a semi-desert. Meanwhile, the
Indians and the rubber tappers emigrated to settle down
in the ghettos of the chabolas and the favelas, uprooted
and without jobs.
the 70s title deeds were forged and adulterated, and documents
were given no matter whether those were indigenous' lands
or inhabited by families of rubber tappers for decades.
The fazindeiros burned the forest to "open up pasture",
while obtaining the property over hundreds thousands of
hectares and claimed state subventions. The fires started
from sporadic to massive. In a paroxysm of destruction the
airports are closed because of the clouds of smoke. Rondonia
and Acre burned from all sides taking advantage of the dry
season every year.
you sign anything!", told Chico to the rubber tappers.
"This land is ours. When you change it into money,
you are loosing the possibility of surviving. Land is life!".
But those who didn't sign were threatened, moved out and
many times were killed by bullies sent by fazendeiros. The
new highway BR-317 which linked Rio Branco to Xapurí
became a nightmare: in order to burn the forest, the landowners
didn't hesitate to even use napalm. When the trees were
burned the land eroded and brought clouds of mosquitoes
raised from the pools, transmitting malaria. During those
years the catholic missionaries published the "Catechism
of Land", explaining the basic rights of the seringueiros.
The first trade union was founded in 1975. Among the leaders
were Maia, Wilson Pinheiro and Chico Mendes. Pinheiro was
killed by two hired murderers on July 1980. By the end of
70s the price of gold rose and the "gold fever"
struck Amazon. In 1980 there were five thousand people working
at the garimpo (10) of Serra Pelada; in 1983 they were 100,000
and kept on coming to live under sub-human conditions. Landing
fields were built where the illegal circuits of gold, fauna
traffic, drugs and prostitution converged. Part of the gold
is refined with mercury. Each ton of gold, is equivalent
to one ton of mercury in the ecosystem. Blood analysis of
kapayós natives, neighbors of the garimpos, revealed
that more than 25% had an excess of the lethal mercury,
the same as all the fish.
face of advances upon the ancestral lands the "empates"
appeared, seringueiro's mobilizations and producers who
realized that they were going to lose their job and way
of life if they did not defend the forest. Chico acted from
the trade union, but when he launched his electoral campaign
he didn't obtain the votes, neither the expected support.
The fact is that - as Javier Moro puts it- "As Chico
wasn't dogmatic, there was a constant collision between
him and the limits imposed by the different ideologies",
his "was more a moral authority than a political one".
Nevertheless, he took advantage of the electoral rallies
to denounce illegal logging, violent expulsions and arbitrary
arrests. In April 1983, he got married to Ilzamar Moacyr
and went to a CUT congress on their honeymoon in San Pablo.
Afterwards, they lived in a borrowed house.
beginning of the 1980's the dictatorial government impelled
the Polonoroeste Project intended to "set up the production"
of 25 millions of hectares on the frontier with Bolivia;
for that purpose the BR-364 had to be enlarged by 1200 kilometers
linking Cuiabá, Mato Grosso capital, to Porto Velho,
Rondonia capital. The World Bank and IDB, ignoring their
own environmental experts, were the financiers. The forecasts
were clear; after the BR-364 what took place was the annihilation
of Indians, deforestation, extinction of species, soil erosion,
social and economic disaster. Later on Tucuruí was
built, by that time, the fourth largest in the world, on
the Tocantins river, an Amazon tributary, which is nowadays
considered an environmental, sanitary and social disaster.
Afterwards, another complete setback would follow: the large
Balbina dam was built in order to provide electricity to
the industrial area of Manaus. These facts promoted environmental
legislation projects in the USA, demanding impact reports
before financing these kind of works; "easy to manipulate,
but at least a good start", said Barbara Bramble, who
from the National Wildlife Federation, knew and supported
the Chico's struggle, together with Bruce Rich, Blackwelder,
Steve Schwartzman and other North American ecologists. They
lobbied at the Congress, while they questioned the World
Bank. The Treasury Department asked the WB for explanations
for the first time. Goodland and Price, WB advisors, presented
conclusive reports as regards to the environmental and social
disasters financed by the Bank.
Adrian Cowell, a British film director, shocked the world
with a series entitled "The Decade of Destruction",
filmed in Amazon; which includes "Betting on Disaster",
a documentary showing bloodcurdling images of the fires
and the dramatic consequences after the road paving of the
BR-364. Signatures were collected for a letter addressed
to the WB, ranging from the NGOs to the German Bundestag.
After that, they succeeded in temporarily blocking the WB
funds; until 1985 when Brazilian government finally demarcated
a territory for the Indians and the BR-364 went on.
Gross and Mary Allegretti, a Brazilian anthropologist who
had known Chico and had worked in the forest, reinforced
the international movement to attract the attention on Amazon.
By that time, Chico rescued from the meetings of seringueiros
the idea of "extractive reserves": areas where
not only native rubber would be of use, but also the recollection
of wild fruits and medicines -1,400 forestall plants containing
actives agents against cancer, for example. It has been
proven that one-hectare of forest produces -not only in
rubber, but in nuts, resins and fruits- much more than one
hectare given over to cattle raising. Besides, these reserves
guarantee the forest and the traditional peoples' preservation.
Chico, encouraged by Mary, Adrian and Steve, went to the
USA. He dialogued with WB and IDB directives, and explained
the idea of the extractive reserves while criticizing the
transamazonian highways. After a while, in Washington, he
maintained a series of interviews including a key meeting
at the Senate. Then, Senator Kasten, would require explanations
to the Banks regarding the disaster in Rondonia and Acre.
The tour was a success; but it also brought up adverse reactions,
especially among the Brazilian landholders.
in mid-1987, the satellite NOAA-9 detected large fires in
the Amazon. During that time, on both sides of the BR-364,
there were more than 200,000 intentional fires: an area
twice as big as switzerland, was burning. Setzer, the Brazilian
researcher, who had followed the satellite images in his
computer, calculated that fires had injected into the atmosphere
more than 500 millions of tons of carbon; equivalent to
10% of the world contribution of greenhouse gases, which
every year affect the global climate.
1987 Chico received the Global 500 Award of the United Nations,
which catapulted him to international fame. Although, the
Brazilian government and the media in his country ignored
him, Chico was rewarded in London with international media
coverage. Later on, in New York, he received the Better
World Society Prize, created by Ted Turner, the CNN owner.
Chico estimated that with the cost of each breakfast in
the Waldorf Astoria, a rubber tapper's family could live
for about fourth months.
Grechi supported Chico's proposals and his opposition to
the "development" style which was sought to be
deliberately imposed upon Amazon. In November 1987, Chico
made a speech in the Legislative Assembly of Acre. The resistance
was settled and a historical "empate" at the seringal
Cachoeira in the face of the attempted logging and agricultural
colonization. Chico impelled expropriation to be turned
into extractive reserves. In June 1988 the Río City
council gave him the keys of the city. That was the first
public acknowledgment he received in his own country. But
it came too late; the landholders violence in Acre increased.
After a new murder of a seringueiro leader, the federal
government established that the seringales Cachoeira, Sao
Luis do Remanso and two more, should be turned into the
first extractive reserves of Brazil. The climate of reprisals
created by the fazendeiros didn't stop. On 6th December
1988, in Sao Pablo, Chico took part of a seminar about Amazon
organized by the University. There he pronounced the famous
speech which ends saying: "I don't want flowers, because
I know you are going to pull them up from the forest. The
only thing I want is that my death helps to stop the murderers'
impunity who are under the protection of the Acre Police
and who, since 1975, have killed more than 50 people in
the rural zone. Like me, seringueiro's leaders have worked
to save the Amazonian rainforest and to demonstrate that
progress without destruction is possible". On December
22nd 1988, Chico was shot to death in the chest outside
his home in Xapurí just before dark.