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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, by 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)

1.

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 are very much of this genre. Considered together, however, they provide a revealing picture of Chico Mendes, the causes of his death, and his transformation into an international “ecology martyr.”

2.

Acre, the backwoods region where Chico Mendes lived, suffered heavily from the violence and destruction that swept through Amazonia in the 1980s. Once claimed by Bolivia, the region was incorporated into Brazil in 1903 during the rubber boom. In the 1940s, when the US sought to maintain a supply of rubber after the Japanese takeover of Southeast Asia, a “war for rubber” was declared by the government of President Getúlio Vargas. Poor peasants were mobilized in the drought-plagued northeast of Brazil and sent west into the Amazon forest to tap Acre’s rubber trees. But after the emergency was over, Acre once again became a remote, thinly populated federal territory, accessible almost exclusively by river from Manaus and Belém.

The territory became a state in 1962. As elsewhere in Amazonia, a new highway, extending from the state of Rondônia in 1971, broke Acre’s isolation from the center and south of Brazil, though the road from Rondônia remained little more than a dirt track through the forest, passable only for a few months of the year. Nevertheless, in the inexorable Brazilian process of settlement, land grabbing, ranching, and social conflict soon followed. The new state government, having high hopes for ranching, encouraged private investment in land, promoting Acre as a potential corridor to the Pacific—five hundred miles to the west with the Andes standing in between and no roads yet constructed.

This, however, was for the future—or so the government’s publicists promised. One third of the land in Acre changed hands from 1971 to 1977, much of it with forged titles. Land prices along the highway rose 2,000 percent. Financial groups from the south of Brazil bought out rubber estates and sought to evict the tappers, leading to violent fights. With the extension of another highway from the state capital, Rio Branco, to Brasiléia on the Bolivian border, Xapuri, a sleepy port halfway between the two towns, became the new cattle frontier. Between 1970 and 1985, the number of cattle in Xapuri County rose from 7,000 to 52,000 head. Augusta Dwyer, a Canadian free-lance writer whose book is among the best written and most evocative of the new books on the Amazon, visited Chico Mendes some months before his assassination when he told her that

from 1970 until 1975 or 1976 all our comrades who lived along the margin of the road to Brasiléia were expelled using the most violent means possible. Their shacks were burned down, gunmen would show up on their land, their animals were killed.

Many of these dispossessed rubber tappers, some 10,000 according to the Catholic church’s land commission, crossed the frontier into Bolivia. Others migrated to the capital, Rio Branco, whose population rose from 36,000 in 1970 to 92,000 in 1980.

In the new economic situation brought about by the highway and the increase in cattle ranching, the bosses who had controlled the rubber trade and held the tappers in virtual bondage through debt found their profits declining so drastically that they were only too glad to sell off their rubber estates to the ranchers. As elsewhere in Amazonia, the new roads to the south and east broke the old riverine trading and business connections, opening up the region to the aggressive intervention of powerful economic interests from the industrial heartland of Brazil, especially São Paulo. The rubber tappers were left to look after themselves as best they could.

Thus, as the rubber trade diminished, the tappers gained by default a certain degree of independence, but their livelihood also became highly dependent on government, which imposed tariffs and taxes to keep the price of cheaper imported rubber high. This was the same government that was simultaneously handing out easy credit and tax write-offs to southern businessmen if they invested in Amazonia cattle ranching. But despite a fall-off in rubber production (in the municipality of Xapuri, for instance, where 1,250 tons of rubber were produced in 1971, only 403 tons were produced in 1981), Acre remained Brazil’s largest producer of natural rubber. In 1980 some 23,000 families were still directly dependent on tapping native rubber trees for their livelihood.2

3.

Born poor in one of the most remote and backward parts of Brazil, Chico Mendes was illiterate until he was twenty years old. His grandfather had migrated from Ceará in the northeast of Brazil to Acre in the 1920s and settled near Xapuri. Mendes grew up in the forest, working as a rubber tapper from the age of nine. His family lived in a modest hut in a forest clearing at the center of a clover leaf of forest trails used by the rubber tappers. Each trail gave access to between one hundred and two hundred rubber trees over an area of seven hundred or so acres, forming part of a large tract of forest, or seringal. These estates were owned by well-to-do businessmen in the town of Manaus, a thousand miles down river.

In 1962, when he was eighteen, Chico Mendes met Euclides Fernandes Távora, a Communist and former army lieutenant hiding out in the frontier jungle. Their relations remain obscure but there seems no doubt that Euclides taught Chico to read and write. He also introduced Mendes, according to Andrew Revkin in The Burning Season, to “the basic tenets of Marxism,” giving the young rubber tapper a “mastery of the vocabulary of socialism and communism.” In 1965, Távora, who settled in the district for a time with a local woman, disappeared as mysteriously as he had arrived, but he had given Mendes a sense of the larger world that existed beyond the forest. Mendes himself later recalled,

[Távora] gave me a lot of advice about how to organize in the trade union movement…. Despite the defeats, humiliations, and massacres, the roots of the movement were always there, he said. The plants would always germinate again sooner or later, however much they were attacked.

Chico Mendes moved to Xapuri in 1971. He had learned enough from Euclides to teach for a year in the literacy campaign sponsored by the military regime and he worked as a salesman in the shop of Guilherme Zaire, a local warehouse owner and rubber trader of Syrian origin. In 1975 Mendes took advantage of classes in union organizing set up by a representative of the state-sponsored Brazilian Confederation of Agricultural Workers (CONTAG). The rubber tappers, faced with the expansion of ranching and the transfer of titles to the forest where they worked, in 1976 devised an increasingly successful method of resistance, the empate. The empate was an organized showdown between the rubber tappers and the workers sent in by the ranching interests to cut down the forest. The unions claimed this was legal under the Brazilian civil code, which allows a person “to maintain or reinstate his claim through his own force, provided he does so immediately.” The empate was not a form of Gandhian passive resistance, but, as Cowell’s TV documentaries (if not his book), Revkin’s photographs, and in particular, Augusta Dwyer’s account make clear, it used tactics of pressure and persuasion. Dwyer describes it as

in many respects, a show of class force, a large group of people, often including entire families, descending on the ill-paid workers who were slaving away to destroy the forest. Their empate was first an attempt to bring these fellow workers around to the other side, to make them understand that they were taking the food from the mouths of their comrades. It was also a statement, one that said to everyone: “You will have to kill us to get us out of here.”

The problem with this strategy was that the right to defend land by force was also claimed by the rich landowners. In the general atmosphere of lawlessness that permeated the frontier, it is hardly surprising that the larger proprietors, reacting to the empates, turned increasingly to gunmen to defend their claims.

  1. 1

    David Cleary, Anatomy of the Brazilian Gold Rush (University of Iowa Press, 1990), p. 203.

  2. 2

    The best short introduction to the recent social and economic history of Acre is provided by Keith Bakx in “The Shanty Town, Final Stage of Development? The Case of Acre,” in The Future of the Amazon, edited by David Goodman and Anthony Hall (St. Martin’s Press, 1990), pp. 49–69.

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