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.”
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
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.
Political changes in the south of Brazil were also beginning to affect Acre during the 1970s. Brazil’s military regime had maintained control partly through secret services that repressed or infiltrated dissident movements, but the regime had always been an odd hybrid that never abandoned the formalities of elections. In 1965 an artificial two-party system had been imposed after the coup. Ironically, the military thereby created an instrument for expressing antimilitary sentiment. To vote for the catchall opposition group called the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB) was to register dissatisfaction with the military regime. Chico Mendes had run as a candidate for the MDB in the 1977 municipal election in Xapuri. Sponsored by his then employer, the Syrian rubber trader Zaire, Mendes was elected with two other men who also worked for Zaire.
He was not, however, particularly successful as a member of the municipal council. The chamber would empty when he launched into long, radical speeches, which even his opposition colleagues in MDB found tiresome. Chico Mendes found his period on the municipal council a disillusioning experience, but he justified his participation as well as his union work as being consistent with the lessons Távora had taught him. Távora had told him, Chico Mendes said, that “Lenin always said you shouldn’t stay out of a union just because it is yellow. You must join it and use it to organize the grass roots, spread your ideas and strengthen the movement.”
During the late 1970s, however, several elements came together to help the increasingly desperate cause of the rubber tappers. The Church, long a bastion of landed interests, began to accept new, mainly foreign, priests, who were followers of liberation theology and had experience in organizing grass-roots community groups. The regime’s repressive methods, including widespread use of torture, extensive surveillance and intimidation, the restriction of political rights, and the forced exile of many political figures, had brought the Catholic church squarely into the political and social struggle.
The Church moved into the rural regions on two fronts, both of which were important to union organizing in Acre. The radical priests helped to establish grass-roots communities committed to mutual assistance and political activism. These CEBs (Comunidades Eclesiais de Base) now number 80,000 in Brazil. The Catholic church also set up pastoral land commissions in 1975, which soon found themselves in the forefront of the struggle for peasant rights. These organizations, intended to monitor land conflicts and encourage priests and lay workers to help the peasants defend their rights, became more radical as they found themselves caught up in deadly day-to-day conflict. One of the best known of the priests who became involved is Dom Pedro Casaldáliga, the bishop of São Felix de Araguaia. A Catalan with long missionary experience in the Amazon, Dom Pedro still refuses to baptize the children of some ranchers or say mass on their land. “It made no sense to go out and denounce these people for the killings of peasants and then celebrate mass in their buildings,” he told Augusta Dwyer. “It would be like celebrating mass in a salon of the International Monetary Fund…or the UDR.”
The rural workers unions in the south also sent organizers to the new frontier who provided training, helped in union organizing, and provided legal support for what had previously been mainly isolated and spontaneous resistance. With Church and union support, Mendes helped found in 1977 the Xapuri Rural Workers’ Union, of which he later became president.
As the situation grew more tense, a small coterie of activist Brazilian intellectuals, social scientists, and journalists appeared in Acre. Mary Allegretti, an anthropologist from Paraná who came to Acre to study the rubber tappers of the upper Taranacá River in the late 1970s, became a close friend and adviser to Mendes. Elson Martins set up in Rio Branco a lively alternative newspaper, Varadouro. Between 1978 and 1981 it provided a forum for people whose views were previously unheard. At the end of the 1970s Chico Mendes, through contacts at the new federal university of Acre, established clandestine links with the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), a Maoist splinter party that had taken China as its ideological model and was shifting its allegiance to Albania.
Important changes were also taking place nationally. The intrigues of the secret services began to threaten the military hierarchy itself and the generals found themselves confronted by growing pressure for change within society which they could no longer contain by force alone. Pressure from the Church, unions, and other sectors of civil society, in an alliance not dissimilar to those forming in Acre, forced the regime to begin a slow process of liberalization. In 1979 the constraining and artificial two-party system was abandoned and an amnesty was declared for both those accused by the military regime of political crimes and those accused of gross human rights violations. The new powerful union movement in the south, led by the metalworkers of São Paulo, whose chairman was Luís Inácio da Silva, known as Lula, used the occasion to launch a new Workers’ Party (PT): the first grass-roots political movement to emerge in Brazilian history and a striking innovation in a country where political parties, including those on the populist left, were organized from the top down.
The conflict between union and ranchers in Acre, however, had by 1980 become increasingly ugly. Wilson Pinheiro, a union leader in Brasiléia, a town on Acre’s border with Bolivia, was gunned down in his union’s hall. Pinheiro had befriended Mendes and given him advice, and many assumed that Chico Mendes, who was traveling at the time, was also a target. The enraged rubber tappers took the law into their own hands and shot to death a rancher they suspected of being involved in the union leader’s death. The reaction of the Brazilian authorities to the death of the rancher was rapid. Here was a case where “justice moved instantly,” Chico Mendes told Augusta Dwyer with heavy irony. “Twenty-four hours later dozens of tappers were rounded up, tortured, their fingernails pulled out.” Mendes himself was charged under the national security law in Manaus. He retreated into the forest. In 1981 he was captured and brought before a military tribunal in Manaus, where he was defended by lawyers from Lula’s Workers’ Party. The charges were dropped in 1984.
By the mid-1980s Mendes had developed links with an international network of sympathizers, some of whom could provide financial support for the rubber tappers’ cause. He became particularly close to the British academic Tony Gross, who had been working for OXFAM in Brazil since 1980.
In 1981 OXFAM began supporting the educational programs in Xapuri run by the workers’ union and aimed at bringing literacy to families in the interior of the municipality. By 1983 two producer cooperatives had been founded, located at two of the five schools then in existence. The cooperatives were supported by funds from the Church’s land commission. The Xapuri union, headed by Mendes, broke with the Brasiléia union, which was then close to the party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), the successor of the MDB, and which was working with the government’s rubber agency to establish small rubber processing plants to encourage production and improve the quality of processed rubber. In Xapuri Mendes, who opposed cooperation with state agencies, remained affiliated with the Workers’ Party. In effect, OXFAM and Mendes had chosen to support the more radical of the two opposition parties to the military regime.
Augusta Dwyer describes the differences as being between “those who want a social democratic society, such as Sweden, and those who want democratic socialism, a true workers’ state. Chico belonged to this second group.” The split in Acre, however, reflected the wider split then occurring nationally, leading in 1983 to the formation of an independent union organization (CUT), closely associated with the Workers’ Party.
Tony Gross, who was now responsible for all OXFAM Amazon projects, also introduced Mary Allegretti to environmental activists in Washington. In 1985 Adrian Cowell, a British documentary producer, had, like many others concerned with the headlong destruction of the rain forest, turned his attention to Acre, where the frontier expansion which had devastated Rondônia was now threatening. For Chico Mendes, whom Cowell soon discovered, the connections with Gross, Allegretti, and Cowell were fateful ones.
Adrian Cowell was an awardwinning film maker who had been visiting Amazonia since the late 1950s and had watched with growing resentment and exasperation the senseless destruction of the Amazon rainforest and its indigenous inhabitants. In the early 1980s he became a close friend of the Brazilian agronomist José Lutzenberger, long an outspoken critic of Brazil’s development projects in the Amazon region and an active promoter of the international Gaia movement to protect the world’s ecology. Cowell became convinced of the need to stem the tide of destruction caused in large part by what he considered “phony finance,” especially the credits, grants, and loans that had financed the conversion of forest to grasslands and allowed the road system to be pushed into the rainforest. He therefore, he writes, “turned towards the ultimate source of much of that finance—one of the world’s controlling economic institutions—the World Bank.”
In 1984, while making a film in Washington, Cowell met Bruce Rich, an environmental lobbyist leading the campaign against the banks that were financing Brazilian development, and a leading member of the Natural Resources Defense Council. It was Cowell who suggested to Bruce Rich that José Lutzenberger be invited to testify in Washington before the Congressional Subcommittee on Natural Resources. A year later, in 1985, at a strategy meeting in the United States, Cowell argued
that most previous environmental campaigns, against whaling, for instance, had been about issues that could be decided in the First World. But as tropical forests were in the Third World, everything depended on political decisions in those countries.
At this meeting Cowell also met Stephen Schwartzman, a trained anthropologist who had worked with the Kreen-Akore, the Indians whom Cowell had first filmed in the 1960s, and whose remaining numbers had been subsequently relocated in Xingu Park. The American Beldon and Threshold Foundations later financed a visit by Schwartzman to Brazil to solicit Brazilian help in developing a campaign to oppose the activities of the banks. Cowell had doubts that the tropical forest campaign would be as successful as the one on whaling. “Tropical forests may be more important to the world,” he said, “but they’re less emotive, less cuddly than whales.” Chico Mendes, however, was eminently “cuddly.”
In 1985, Cowell and his colleagues were planning an offensive to make the fate of the tropical forests a major concern of the multinational lending institutions based in Washington with which US influence was paramount. At the same time, in Brasília, the capital of Brazil, the rubber tappers’ first national meeting came up with the central idea of the movement, that of “extractive reserves,” the oxymoron combining the idea of preserving the forest while exploiting its products, such as latex and tropical nuts. “The extractive reserve is a form of land reform,” Chico Mendes told Augusta Dwyer when she visited him in Xapuri in 1988. “The Brazilian government would be pressured to expropriate the rubber estates and designate them extractive reserves. The land would become the property of the nation with the rubber tappers holding the title to use it.” The idea of “extractive reserves” could be appealing to an international audience, as Cowell immediately realized. It was at the Brasília meeting, according to Revkin, that
Cowell turned his attention to the one man among the tappers who seemed smart enough, cool enough, and honest enough to take the tappers’ message out of the forest and straight to the boardrooms of the banks and the halls of Congress, both in and out of Brazil. That man was Chico Mendes.
Cowell, Revkin observes, “never liked to think that he was meddling in things. He did not want to transform the movement, only to give it a louder voice.” Cowell’s friend, Mary Allegretti, persuaded Mendes to modify his message. Instead of the “old calls for social justice, workers’ rights, and agrarian reform—standard issues of the political left…,” he would now call for the preservation of the Amazon. Allegretti and Cowell were now, according to Revkin, “in the middle of a three-year relationship.” It was during this period that they introduced Mendes to ecological and international aid agencies in Washington, with the help of Stephen Schwartzman. Their objective was to force the international lending agencies, especially the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, both highly dependent on US financing and under attack by Reagan administration ideologues, to make environmental concerns central to their leading policy decisions.
There was a ready target at hand. By 1986 the road through Acre was being paved with Inter-American Development Bank funding. Allegretti and Schwartzman agreed that the time had come for an assault on the banks that were financing Brazilian roads and commitments in ranching. Through Cowell, Allegretti learned that Mendes, who was campaigning now on the Workers’ Party ticket for a seat in the state legislature, had included attacks on the road paving in his campaign speeches. This had not made him very popular with local voters (he lost resoundingly), but it provided a golden opportunity for the environmental cause. “Allegretti and Cowell concluded,” according to Revkin, “that Mendes would be much more effective if he left local politics behind, came out of the forest…and directed his criticism directly at the bank.” It made for a very cynical marriage of convenience.
The US Treasury under Reagan was looking, as Schwartzman put it, for a “bludgeon with which to beat” the Inter-American Development bank, which the administration saw as epitomizing the evils of foreign aid. The environmental movement, or more precisely Chico Mendes, would provide the weapon. As Cockburn and Hecht observe in The Fate of the Forest, among the charitable foundations and environmental groups aiding the rubber tappers, “many of their constituents might have been horrified at the idea that their organizations were supporting radical unionizing efforts.”
In March 1987, Mendes set off on a trip to Miami to attend a meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank. Schwartzman and Cowell met him at the airport and took him to the Intercontinental Hotel. “Here we were at one of those classic meetings were everyone is saying, ‘Let’s have fresh raspberries, sip champagne, and talk about the poor.”‘ This, according to Revkin, was how Jim Bond, special assistant to Senator Robert W. Kasten, Jr. (Republican of Wisconsin), described the scene when Chico Mendes arrived among the bankers at cocktail hour.
After introducing Mendes to the bankers in Miami, Schwartzman and Cowell took him to Washington, where he was introduced to Senator Kasten, who had time to shake his hand and comment: “I can promise you that our subcommittee is going to continue to put pressure on the [bank] to withhold funds—to cut off all funds possibly—if they are not more cooperative.” As Revkin observes, it was the unlikeliest of alliances, a staunch conservative from a state of rolling pastures and cows and a Marxist forest dweller whose worst enemies were cattlemen.
The circulation of Mendes’s proposal for “extractive reserves” at the First National Rubber Tappers’ Congress in Brasília in 1985 occurred at a critical moment. That year Brazil returned to civilian rule. But the birth of the “new republic,” as it was optimistically called, was difficult. The civilian elected by the congress to the presidency, Tancredo Neves, an old-time but highly skilled politician from the opposition, died on the eve on his inauguration and the vice-president. José Sarney, inherited the position. Sarney was from Maranhão, the state on the edge of the Amazon basin which provided one of the key outlets for the great mineral discoveries of Carajás. The state capital, São Luis, was the terminal of the new Carajás railroad. Sarney had headed the political party that supported the military regime. The power in the congress, however, lay with the eclectic PMDB and after 1988 the PMDB, also won twenty-two out of the twenty-three Brazilian governorships. A new plan for agrarian reform put forward by the Sarney government was eventually abandoned under intense lobbying by the large landholders, but the threat of potential expropriations was sufficient to increase conflicts throughout rural Brazil, especially in the Amazon, where both landowners and landless sought to establish title. The Church and the rural union represented the peasants in this struggle, and against them were the landowners organized throughout Brazil under the banner of the UDR. Acre did not escape the conflict.
Darly Alves da Silva had moved to Acre in 1974. His ranch was not large by Acre standards. In fact, Darly’s herds were so small that many supposed he had other work—smuggling goods across the Bolivian border and killing by contract. He was one of a notoriously violent family whose members had left a trail of murder behind them in Minas Gerais and Paraná. The Alves da Silva clan and Chico Mendes came into conflict over the last large section of rain forest left in Xapuri County, the Seringal Cachoeira. It included the rubber tapping estate on which Mendes had grown up, and which was now owned by four São Paulo businessmen who wanted it cleared so that they could develop the land for ranching.
A report circulated in Acre that the four businessmen had agreed to sell the land to the Alves da Silva family, but only if the Alves da Silvas would clear the tappers out of the forest. This deal was probably concluded in early 1986. Darly first tried to buy the tappers out, offering them five hundred acres of land that he said he would not touch. When they turned him down he used hired workers to drive them out by force but was met with an empate. He then tried legal action to enforce his title to holdings he had bought from a disgruntled tapper who did not like the union, but the union members occupied the land to prevent the transfer. Meanwhile, on a visit to Paraná where Allegretti had established a Center for Amazonian Studies, Mendes was told by members of the Pastoral Commission that there were warrants out for Darly Alves da Silva’s arrest, and he used his contacts in the Acre region’s newspapers to publicize the government’s charges about the violent past of the Alves da Silva family. Darly’s effort to take over the land failed. He eventually accepted a settlement from the federal agrarian reform office; the government expropriated the land, and paid him well for his title to it.
Worried by the union’s successes, the ranchers made an effort to buy Mendes off. Although virtually penniless, he proudly rejected them. “We have all the money and all the guns. Your movement is like mosquitoes against a jaguar,” Revkin quotes one of the ranchers saying. “But you don’t have the people,” Mendes replied.
After his unsuccessful political campaign, Mendes was almost entirely dependent on foreign financial support. The Gaia Foundation, of which José Lutzenberger was a key Brazilian member, provided several hundred dollars a month to cover his expenses until the Washington-based Ashoka Foundation took over. Mary Allegretti, Steven Schwartzman, and Adrian Cowell contributed $500 to buy Mendes and his family a house in Xapuri. The Canadian government contributed a jeep and the Ford Foundation financed travel and administrative expenses for the National Council of Rubber Tappers, of which Mendes was a member. A Ford Foundation officer introduced Augusta Dwyer to Chico Mendes at an elegant Swiss restaurant in Rio de Janeiro.
But back in Acre the threats and violence against the tappers’ union intensified throughout 1988. In June, a local union organizer and Workers’ Party candidate was killed. On December 5, 1988, Chico Mendes noticed the arrival of an airplane belonging to the leader of the local ranchers’ organization (UDR), João Branco, who was accompanied by two unknown men. Fearing the worst, he wrote at the time,
I do not wish flowers at my burying, because I know they will go and root them up in the forest. I hope only that my death will serve to put an end to the impunity of the hired gunmen under the protection of the Federal Police…. I go to Xapuri to a meeting with death. I am not a fatalist, only a realist. I have already denounced who wishes to kill me and no measures whatsoever have been or will be taken…. [The delegate of the Federal Police] has cancelled my permission to carry a gun, with the allegation that I have links to a ‘communizing’ organization. It is the Ford Foundation of the United States, if you can believe it!3
On December 22, he was shot in the back doorway of his house in Xapuri.
Fixing the blame for the assassination of Chico Mendes should have been easy. The Alves da Silvas had threatened to kill Mendes in an anunciado, as the Brazilians call the chilling warning given to the victim-to-be. Mendes had exposed the plans of the landowners for his assassination in a letter to the Federal Police chief in Acre, Mauro Sposito, and the state governor on October 28, 1988. He had telexed the governor and the head of the Federal Police in Brasília, Romeu Tuma, on November 29. On December 5 he had again warned Tuma, as well as President Sarney. Yet it took two years for the trial in the Mendes case to begin.
At the trial, Darci Alves da Silva unexpectedly confessed (he had done so earlier but then retracted his statement). Many believe he confessed in order to protect his father. With the Brazilian government under international scrutiny, Darci and his father were found guilty and sentenced to nineteen years in prison. Out of almost two thousand rural assassinations the Mendes case was the first in Brazil in which the gunmen and their sponsors were tried, let alone convicted. The result, however, satisfied none of the interest groups that are in conflict over the future of the rain forest, each of which has its own, often confused, vision of the future.
The books by Revkin, Shoumatoff, and Souza, none of whom knew Mendes, are each in their different ways part of this confusion. All three books contain long summaries of recent history, but it is a history that is largely irrelevant to the story of Chico Mendes and seems for the most part culled from the same newspaper clippings and texts (or text in the case of Warren Dean’s environmental history of rubber, which is extensively mined by several of these authors).4
Mr. Shoumatoff calls the events following Chico Mendes’s death an “ecofarce.” An “eco-cash-in” would be a better word. The Francisco “Chico” Mendes Foundation received nine offers for movie rights, four of them over $1 million, according to Alan U. Schwartz, the lawyer for the foundation, which is a coalition of environmentalists, rubber tappers, and family members in Acre.5 Among the competitors for film rights were Robert Redford and Twentieth Century Fox, with Stephen Spielberg as director; Ted Turner of Turner Broadcasting System; HBO and Harmony Gold Productions; Warner Brothers; David Puttnam and Chris Menges; Goldcrest Company, with Costa-Gavras as director; and JN Film, a Brazilian company. According to Hecht and Cockburn, “Stephen Schwartzman spent a fair amount of the past few months [of 1989] in both the United States and Brazil seeking to broker a Hollywood contract for a movie about Chico Mendes and the rubber tappers that on the terms of at least one bid could net him $100,000 in consultant’s fees.”6
In addition, Little, Brown reportedly paid a vast figure advance for the book by Shoumatoff, who had written a piece on Chico Mendes for Vanity Fair, which he hopes Redford will make into a film. The Paris publisher Plon, part of the French group Presses de la Cité, outbid two American houses for the book by Márcio Souza, who had the cooperation of Mendes’s widow, Ilzamar, in return for Plon’s agreement to donate the royalties to the Mendes Foundation, of which she is president. Houghton Mifflin signed on Revkin, a senior editor of Discover magazine. Almost all the other books reviewed here and in my previous article, it should be noted, are dedicated to Chico Mendes.
Shoumatoff takes a more skeptical approach than Revkin to the various parties engaged in the Acre drama. There are moments of high comedy, however, in his breathless and self-indulgent account of his Amazonian adventures, though he recounts them in all seriousness. He visits the forest with a young writer and Green party activist called Julio Cesar from Rio de Janeiro, who has never before visited Amazonia and arrives with silk pajamas. Shoumatoff has hired Cesar to protect him from the police and the ranchers, as well as Brazilian leftists, all of whom he fears “may not have liked” his Vanity Fair article. Together they meet Mendes’s uncle Joaquim and his wife, Cecília, “a radiant old couple,” and Shoumatoff comes across a rambling reflection written by Chico on a napkin that turned up after his death extolling “World Socialist Revolution.” Oddly, the same napkin reflection was reproduced by Hecht and Cockburn in The Nation during their quarrel with Stephen Schwartzman over Schwartzman’s tendency to suppress, as Hecht and Cockburn see it, the rubber worker’s radicalism. The napkin is now to be found in a small circular glass frame under a photograph of Chico Mendes on his grave in Xapuri.
Andrew Revkin’s heroes are the anthropologist and activist Mary Allegretti (Mr. Revkin’s translator was Ms. Allegretti’s brother), the British film maker Adrian Cowell (“without Cowell Chico Mendes would likely have remained a small-time labor leader in the Amazonian backwater of Xapuri”), Tony Gross, the OXFAM representative, and Stephen Schwartzman, the anthropologist and Washington environmental lobbyist. This is the cast of characters of the environmental cause that Mr. Shoumatoff treats with suspicion. Mr. Souza makes them villains of his piece, though he never condescends to name them directly.
Both Revkin and Shoumatoff use many Portuguese words, presumably to create an aura of authenticity. In Márcio Souza’s O Empate contra Chico Mendes, this device is turned on its head. His only reference in English is to “a misteriosa Environmental Defense Fund—EDF.” This sinister, foreign-sounding EDF, as well as Mary Allegretti’s “Instituto de Estudos Amazônicos (IEA),” which, Souza darkly hints, has its “headquarters in the faraway state of Paraná,” are all, he says, “very good at capturing funds for environmental projects” but they “interfere with the struggle and organization of the workers,… using funds from abroad to attack and divide the Workers’ Party, the unions, and the Church.” Mr. Souza believes that Chico Mendes’s death, and “his mystification as a Green leader and an ecologist, who defends little plants and butterflies, brought confusion and uncertainty to the movement.” The colonizing mentality, he says ominously, appears “in many disguises.”
Mr. Souza’s left-wing rhetoric sounds surprisingly like that of the paranoid right in Brazil. The former Brazilian minister of the interior, João Alves Filho, in his testimony before the parliamentary investigation committee for the Amazon in its hearings in April 1989 following the international outcry over Chico Mendes’s death, provided a thirty-nine page statement, later published in English, which contains a listing of every foreigner who ever set foot in, looked at, touched, conspired against, wrote about, or worked in the Amazon from the first arrival of the Spaniards and Portuguese in the sixteenth century until 1989. “Nowadays,” the minister noted ominously, “we face new and strange plans of nations that in the past invaded, occupied, or threatened to take over the Amazon from the Brazilians…. Could it be that the wolves of the past not only changed their fleece but their own natures and became harmless lambs?”7
“Chico Mendes, like many other popular leaders, learned to read as an adult,” Mr. Souza concludes condescendingly, “and did not have a sophisticated formal education. For this reason it is not strange that he did not develop any work of theoretical investigation, no coherent project beyond that of practical necessity.” But Chico Mendes himself said that “the strategic center of the movement, in terms of communications and information, is the Institute of Amazon Studies, where Mary Allegretti, Paulo Chiesa and other friends work….” Perhaps because he is writing a screenplay about Chico Mendes, Mr. Souza excludes or dismisses a great deal that does not fit his story line, for example, the entire notion of “extractive reserves,” the central element of the rubber workers’ demands after 1985, and the direct cause of Chico Mendes’s murder. From his book we can imagine a Márcio Souza-Warner Brothers film in which Gross, Schwartzman, Cowell, Allegretti, et al., are portrayed as so many sinister agents of eco-imperialism. They are not, and Mr. Souza should know better.
Unlike Revkin, Shoumatoff, and Souza, Adrian Cowell knew Mendes well and in fact followed him around Brazil and the US, filming his activities off and on over the two-year period prior to his assassination. Cowell is also as much part of the story of Chico Mendes as he is recorder of it, yet he is very reticent in his discussion of Mendes’s political views (though less reticent in claiming credit for his promotion of Mendes and his efforts to obtain for Mendes his two international awards). Only Hecht and Cockburn’s book deals seriously with his ideas and only Augusta Dwyer in an account of her travels in Amazonia adequately evokes his qualities of tenacity and stubbornness, or the degree to which these qualities contributed to his almost inevitable martyrdom.
Many inconsistencies in all these accounts remain unresolved. No one seems to have bothered to check the military records or otherwise tried to find the truth of Mendes’s claims about the past of Euclides Távora, the former Communist and army lieutenant who befriended him when he was young. Távora told Chico Mendes that he had been part of the Prestes Column, the insurgent forces led by the Communist Luís Carlos Prestes in 1923 on a three-year, eight-thousand-mile odyssey through the interior of Brazil. But Távora’s participation seems unlikely, since he would have been far too young at the time. When Shoumatoff interviewed Prestes shortly before his death, the Communist leader, then ninety-one, said he had never heard of Euclides Távora.
It is also odd that Távora should have been living clandestinely in 1962—the Brazilian military coup was two years later and although the Communist party was illegal at the time (between 1947 and 1985) the Goulart regime was perceived to be sympathetic to the left (this after all was the justification put forward by the military for its overthrow). Chico Mendes, according to Cowell, also said he had met Che Guevara on his way to Bolivia, but no one else reports this claim. A former wife and daughter also turned up after Mendes’s death to lay claim to the Mendes legacy, much to the surprise of Mendes’s ecological colleagues from North America.
The most perplexing aspect about Chico Mendes was his relationship with Mauro Sposito, the head of the Federal Police in Acre. The Federal Police is one of the few police organizations in Brazil that are perceived to be fairly honest. (It was for this reason that President Collor appointed Romeu Tuma, head of the Federal Police, to be the chief Brazilian tax collector.) When criticized for his lack of response to the threats against Mendes, Sposito published a letter in A Gazeta of Rio Branco saying that Chico Mendes was a police informer—an accusation that no one apart from Augusta Dwyer, who categorically dismisses the idea, seems to want even to consider. In view of extensive surveillance to which the left was subjected by the Brazilian secret services, it seems unlikely that the Brazilian authorities would not know whether this was true.8 Mauro Sposito is now Chief Assistant to the head of the Federal Police in Brasília.
It is, in any case, impossible to find a clear and consistent account of Mendes’s political career in any of the books under review. That Mendes was a “forest ecologist” is an image rejected by Cockburn and Hecht, who see Mendes as “an extremely radical political militant” who had at the core of his program a demand “for popular control of the means of production and distribution of forest commodities, along with the provision of financial credits to producers rather than middlemen.” It is obviously no accident that Chico Mendes called his daughter Elenira, “in homage to another Elenira, a young woman of courage who gave up her life in an attempt to liberate the Brazilian people,” as Márcio Souza put it in his book, O Empate contra Chico Mendes. Elenira Rezende de Souza Nazareth was a Maoist guerrilla from the PCdoB, the splinter Communist party of Brazil, with which Mendes had been clandestinely affiliated in the late 1970s, and she was killed in the Tocantins-Araguaia combat zone in 1972. She was “famous for her marksmanship,” according to Revkin, who heard that “she invariably killed her target with a rifle shot between the eyes.”
Chico Mendes’s son was named Sandino after the Nicaraguan guerrilla leader. Alex Shoumatoff was apparently shocked to realize that Chico Mendes was no “Albert Schweitzer, which is how the Environmental Defense Fund…tried to portray him in one of their fund-raising letters…” but a “revolutionary, a warrior…. In the United States…Mendes would have been considered a pinko tree hugger and a radical labor leader.” His philosophy, according to Hecht and Cockburn, “had the concrete elements of a socialist ecology—the only ecology that can save the Amazon and its inhabitants.”
Andrew Revkin is the writer most taken by the idea of “extractive reserves,” and he depends mainly on Mary Allegretti, Adrian Cowell, and Stephen Schwartzman for his information. Márcio Souza has only contempt for what he calls “extractivism,” which he dismisses as a product of the “colonizing arrogance of those who say they are the defenders of the Amazon forest but pollute and destroy the environment in Alaska or corrode the forests of Europe with acid rain.” Yet here, too, the rhetoric is misleading. Souza sees the hand of the multinationals behind these disasters. So do Hecht and Cockburn. But as the Belém-based journalist Lucio Flavio Pinto points out, the recent history of American multinational investment in the economy of the Amazon is much more an example of the retreat of US enterprise before the new economic power of Europe and, most especially, Japan. 9 Anthony Hall, in his excellent book, Developing Amazonia, which I discussed in my earlier article, argues that the foreign and especially the US role in the Amazon economy has not been decisive.10
The emphasis of such writers as Cockburn and Hecht on the multinationals, not to mention the American government, seems somewhat misplaced when one considers the scale of the disasters the Brazilians create on their own. Hecht and Cockburn are so anxious to find American villains that they misidentify the former diplomat (and currently my colleague) Richard Murphy as the American diplomat allegedly present at the interrogation of a political prisoner who had been tortured in Recife in 1968. Murphy, in fact, has never set foot in Brazil. Hecht and Cockburn also claim that “US support for the generals remained constant,” but this will come as a considerable surprise to former President Jimmy Carter and Patricia Derian, Carter’s assistant secretary of state for human rights, who successfully brought pressure on the Brazilian military regime to release political prisoners.
Equally odd is a passage in Shoumatoff’s book quoting Robert Redford, who bought the film rights to Shoumatoff’s article on Mendes in Vanity Fair, to the effect that Redford “wanted to play the bad guy, the ruthless American manager of a multinational project.” If so, he has the wrong screenplay and would be better off speaking to Anthony Hall. In fact, the ecological and social crisis in Brazil was caused by some of the same factors that led to the ecological disasters in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: failed overcentralized planning, rigidly organized management, private greed and special privileges, corrupt and ineffective justice at the grass roots, as well as permeating, callous disregard by the rich for the poor. In some ways the Amazon might have been better off if the multinationals had been more heavily involved. International companies are vulnerable to pressure from environmental activists for some of the same reasons that the World Bank and Inter-American Bank are vulnerable. Brazilian corporations, especially state companies, are less subject to such pressure and because of the vast sums at stake from their involvement in road, railroad, and dam building, and in mining are notoriously involved in the corruption of political decision making.
The central point about the crisis in the Amazon is that it is a story where the heroes and the villains are Brazilians; the struggle is a Brazilian struggle, and it will be resolved, if it is to be resolved, by Brazilians. The key question about the members of the Alves da Silva family who killed Chico Mendes is not whether they were the assassins, it is whether they were hired to do the job and by whom. The Americas Watch report Rural Violence in Brazil provides a succinct list of many leads to wider involvement in the Mendes case that were not followed up by the police investigators.
If there was indeed an “authorized” contract to kill Chico Mendes, then it was probably his efforts to block funds for the Acre roadway that caused it. This was an action that affected large interests, the hope of the eventual link-up to the Pacific, the value of tens of thousands of acres accumulated as speculative investments. As Philip Fearnside, an ecologist and longtime resident in Amazonia, has pointed out, “Whenever a road is built or improved in Amazonia, the value of nearby land immediately multiplies by as much as a factor of 10, if not more.”11 Understandably, some of those who hoped to benefit from the new highway were among those who dismissed Mendes’s death as a “personal matter,” a local dispute in which neither large interests nor outsiders were involved. As Acre UDR president João Branco said, “Darly was backed into a corner; like a trapped animal. He had no choice but to kill Chico.” This in effect was the opinion of the court that convicted the Alves da Silvas in December 1990.
Zuenir Ventura, one of Brazil’s best journalists, visited the only witness to have heard the Alves da Silva family talk of plans to kill Mendes, a boy named Genésio, then thirteen years old, who was virtually unprotected when Ventura found him, although supposedly under police protection. “It seemed to me,” Ventura concluded, “that Xapuri was like the town in the movie Mississippi Burning but without the resources of the FBI, and a crazy idea occurred to me: why, instead of bringing in two environmentalists, not bring instead the two Federal agents?”12 Ventura in fact took upon himself the protection of the child until the trial took place. Genésio’s evidence was crucial to the guilty verdict.
Márcio Souza is right, however, when he insists on the need to see the Amazonia crisis in its wider Brazilian political and social setting. The international attention that Chico Mendes case has received grew in part from the links he had forged with the environmentalists. But the Chico Mendes story also leaped to international attention because his death coincided with the vast holocaust of 1988 throughout the Amazon basin, where the brutal burning season was graphically pictured by satellite photography at a time when the northern hemisphere was also experiencing forest fires on an unprecedented scale. The outcry brought results. The Brazilian government cut back on the credits that had fueled the vast conversion to pasture, and began to use the satellite images provided by the Brazilian Institute for Space Research (INPE) to pinpoint fires and fine those found to be burning illegally.
But these were palliatives. The forestry patrols had a handful of helicopters and aircraft, whereas the ranchers and garimpeiros had hundreds. Still it was a beginning. In 1989 Brazil held its first popular election for the presidency in almost thirty years and the campaign pitted the leader of the Workers’ Party, Lula, against a young governor of the northeastern state of Alagoas, Fernando Collor de Mello. Lula, backed by an alliance of unions, Church-based communities, and intellectuals, came close to victory, but he was defeated in the second round by Collor. The leader of the UDR, the ranchers organization, had come in tenth place, with fewer votes than the candidate of the Brazilian Communist party.
During his presidential campaign, Collor dismissed the ecological complaints against Brazil as outside interference, but on his European tour before his inauguration he was shocked by the depth and anger of world opinion on the question of the Amazon—criticism he ran into everywhere, including a public rebuke from Prince Charles two days before his visit to London. The ending of government loans and tax credits diminished the burn off, and climactic consideration may also have improved the situation since there seem to have been fewer fires after 1988. The latest figures from the Brazilian Institute for Space Research show a 25 percent drop in burning in the period July to September 1990 in comparison with the same period in 1989, though the diminution has been less impressive in Acre and in Rondônia, where the number of fires actually increased.13
Collor then appointed the most outspoken and famous of Brazil’s ecological activists, José Lutzenberger, to be the secretary of state for the environment. He also appointed another outspoken critic of Brazil’s development policies, the rector of the University of São Paulo, the Brazilian physicist José Goldemberg, to become secretary of state for science and technology. In this position, Goldemberg sent shock waves through the military establishment by publicly acknowledging. Brazil’s nuclear program and opening up to the press the deep pits at Cachimbo in the central Amazon, pits intended for testing nuclear weapons. These moves prompted Adrian Cowell, Lutzenberger’s good friend and promoter, to proclaim the 1990s to be “the decade of the environment in Brazil.” Cowell’s television series The Decade of Destruction, which was shown in Europe and North America in 1990, concluded on a very optimistic note portraying Collor as a born-again hero of the environment.
Brazil is to be the host of the World Environment Conference in 1992 and this certainly gives some incentive to environmental good behavior before then. But the decline in the rate of forest destruction may also be a result of a general economic downturn in Brazil. The Brazilian government is in the midst of bitter negotiations with private banks over Brazil’s vast foreign debt. The noises about the environment now coming from Brazilian officials who a year ago were attacking the environmentalists as foreign mercenaries could well be part of a deliberate policy to seek allies in the attempt to reach a more favorable settlement with foreign creditors.
There is a danger in romanticizing the idea of extractive reserves and the power of an alliance of “forest people.” The market for Brazilian forest-extracted rubber now depends entirely on government price supports. With the opening up of the Brazilian economy and the encouragement of plantation rubber elsewhere in Brazil, such subsidies will do no more than artificially prop up a system that until the last decade was universally condemned as highly exploitative of the workers involved.14 The key promoters of the idea are not unaware of this vulnerability. Mary Allegretti herself recognizes that “because long-term prospects of wild rubber in the Brazilian economy are not bright…the establishment of extractive reserves should be accompanied by policies aimed at…promoting exploitation of other rain forest products.”15 To concentrate exclusively on the reserves also diverts attention from the scale, complexity, and grave global consequences of the ecological disaster elsewhere in the region.
The Carajás region of the eastern Amazon, for example, absorbs vast sums of money, and huge construction companies and powerful political interests are determined to see it enlarged at great environmental cost. Armies of public relations professionals and lobbyists are deployed both within Brazil and outside it on behalf of these interests. Here the problems are less easily reduced to the primary colors of a “Chico Mendes story,” since they are the result of the vast expansion of a frontier that is no longer under government control and that is driven by the hunger for land and for gold, each of which promises opportunities to the landless and poverty stricken. These inescapable circumstances make solutions to the ecological problems of Amazonia all the more difficult.16
The Bishop of Acre is not hopeful.
Once the trial [of Mendes’s assassins] is over the issue will be seen by the public to be resolved and the attention will move on. The world must realize that there are thousands of Chico Mendeses.17
The Americas Watch report on rural violence is a sad reminder of how little has changed since the last Amnesty International report in 1988 which described how cheap life remains in the Brazilian backlands. The warnings of Amnesty preceded by three months Chico Mendes’s assassination. The Americas Watch report’s publication in January 1991 coincided with the killing of a union leader whose life Americas Watch had specifically warned was in danger.
Ironically, the road Mendes opposed has now been rerouted through Xapuri and Brasiléia and on to the Peruvian frontier, much to the delight of the rubber tappers who control much of the land in the region and hope to benefit from it. And Mendes’s widow has used some of the money she received for the film rights to The Chico Mendes Story to buy a small ranch, notwithstanding the criticism of ranching and its ecological effects by Mendes and his environmentalist allies.18 It is here, regrettably, that the mystification of the Mendes case, the view that the situation has improved as a result of his martyrdom, and the sordid squabbles over the Mendes legacy create a smoke screen that obstructs rather than encourages any resolution of the incalculable disaster that is unfolding inexorably in the Amazon.
This is the second of two articles.
March 28, 1991
David Cleary, Anatomy of the Brazilian Gold Rush (University of Iowa Press, 1990), p. 203. ↩
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. ↩
Zuenir Ventura, “O Acre de Chico Mendes,” Jornal do Brasil, July 5, 1989. ↩
Warren Dean, Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber: A Study in Environmental History (Cambridge University Press, 1987). ↩
Edwin McDowell, “After Amazon Slaying, Deals Abound,” The New York Times, July 10, 1989, p. D6. ↩
The Nation, September 18, 1989, p. 292. ↩
Parliamentary Investigating Committee for the Amazon, statement of João Alves Filho, Minister of the Interior, Department of Communications Publication No. 27/89, Brasília, 19 April 1989, especially pp. 16–17. ↩
The accusation is reprinted by Zuenir Ventura in Estado de São Paulo (July 5, 1989), p. 8. ↩
Jornal Pessoal, No. 64, July 1990. ↩
Manchester University Press, 1989. ↩
Philip M. Fearnside, “A Prescription for Slowing Deforestation in Amazonia,” The Environment, Vol. 31, No. 4 (May 1989), p. 18. ↩
Zuenir Ventura, “O Acre de Chico Mendes,” Estado de São Paulo, July 5, 1989, p. 8. ↩
“Chamas apagadas” Veja, January 9, 1991, pp. 44–45. ↩
See comments by Mac Margolis in “False Visions of the Amazon,” Journal of Commerce, July 28, 1990. ↩
Allegretti, in Anderson, ed., Alternatives to Deforestation (Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 259. ↩
An excellent listing of over a hundred organizations concerned with the ecology of the Amazon, describing their objectives, programs, special needs, resources, and giving addresses for them in both South and North America and in Europe, is provided by the recently published Amazonia: Voices from the Rainforest: A Resource and Action Guide, edited by Angela Gennino, for the Rainforest Action Network, 301 Broadway, Suite A, San Francisco, CA 94133 (415) 398–4404. ↩
Cited by Christina Lamb in “The Forest Martyr,” Weekend Financial Times, December 8/9, 1990. ↩
Jan Rocha, “Mendes and His Murderers,” TLS, January 11, 1991, p. 7. See also “A vida nova de Ilzamar” in Veja, December 12, 1990, p. 34. ↩