The Mystery of Chico Mendes

Into the Amazon: The Struggle for the Rain Forest

by Augusta Dwyer
Sierra Club Books, 250 pp., $10.00 (paper)

The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rain Forest

by Andrew Revkin
Houghton Mifflin, 317 pp., $19.95

Fight for the Forest: Chico Mendes in His Own Words

additional material by Tony Gross
Monthly Review Press, 96 pp., $6.00 (paper)

The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon

by Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn
Verso, 266 pp., $24.95

The Decade of Destruction: The Crusade to Save the Amazon Rainforest

by Adrian Cowell
Holt, 215 pp., $19.95

O Empate contra Chico Mendes

by Márcio Souza
Marco Zero, 168 pp., 1,150.00 CR

Rural Violence in Brazil: February 1991 An Americas Watch Report

Human Rights Watch, 122 pp., $11.00 (paper)
Chico Mendes
Chico Mendes; drawing by David Levine


On December 22, 1988, Francisco “Chico” Mendes, a Brazilian union organizer, was murdered at his modest house in Xapuri, a remote rubbertrading outpost of five thousand people in the Brazilian border state of Acre. Mendes was a plump, agreeable, talkative activist who had tried to protect the livelihood of his fellow rubber tappers, which was threatened by the destruction of the Amazonian rain forest and the encroaching cattle ranches. To do so he had allied himself with prominent members of the international environmental movement. He spoke the lingua franca of visiting anthropologists from Berkeley and Paris, European TV producers, and Washington environmental lobbyists. Mendes’s aim had been to protect the forest, by persuasion if possible, by force if need be. He wanted the Brazilian government to promote “extractive reserves,” a policy by which ecologically desirable activities such as rubber tapping and nut collecting could continue, but environmentally destructive forest clearance would be prevented.

Chico Mendes’s assassins were gunmen of a particularly nasty ranching clan, the Alves da Silvas. The Alves da Silva family was originally from the state of Minas Gerais in south central Brazil, and had moved during the 1960s to the southern Brazilian state of Paraná. In the mid-1970s they came to Acre, on Brazil’s northwestern border with Bolivia and Peru. Each move, it was revealed later, was occasioned by the need to escape arrest for a previous murder.

The assassination of Chico Mendes was ordered by Darly Alves da Silva and was carried out by Darci, his twenty-year-old son. An archetypical, old-time backlands boss, Darly lived on a 10,000-acre ranch with his wife, three mistresses, thirty children, and an assortment of cowboys who could have come out of The Dirty Dozen. He fitted perfectly the demonology of Amazonian ecological destruction. The cattle ranchers were to a large extent responsible for the vast clearing, burning, and degradation of the Amazonian landscape that occurred throughout the 1980s in Brazil. Chico Mendes, little known within Brazil, had become through his connections with foreign ecological experts one of the best known abroad of the new generation of grass-roots peasant leaders to emerge during the twilight years of the Brazilian military regime. Of the many such leaders who were slected for assassination by the hired guns of the large landowners, Mendes was one of the few with influential friends abroad.

Chico Mendes is as well known internationally as Pelé and Carmen Miranda, with the difference that he is seen as a martyr from the worlds of the dark Brazilian forest and violent backlands, which seem to have special glamour for North Americans and Europeans and none at all for Brazilians. David Cleary, in his sober account of the Amazonian gold miners (garimpeiros), notes that there is a long tradition where “people could be enticed into believing almost anything about Amazonia,”1 and several of the recent North American and European books about Mendes…

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