Chico Mendes

Francisco (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".

Chico 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 by Euclides.

Towards 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.

Massive 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.

During 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.

"Don't 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.

In the 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.

At the 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

Tony 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.

In 1987 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

In June 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.

Bishop 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.