Martyred activist Chico Mendes (1944-1988) devoted much of his life to bring literacy to the natives of the Amazon jungle, and was the guiding force behind the movement to organize the laborers of the rubber plantations in the South American rainforest. He alerted the world to the danger of ongoing deforestation in the Amazon jungle.
Francisco "Chico" Mendes was a native of the Amazon rubber plantations and a rubber tapper by trade. As an adolescent he developed a keen awareness of the injustice imposed on his family and his community by wealthy rubber barons who owned the rainforest lands. Despite a stringent ban against education for the rubber workers, Mendes learned to read and spent much of his life in sharing that knowledge with other members of his community. He organized the plantation workers into labor unions, and brought their cause to the attention of the entire world when cattle ranchers-at the invitation of the Amazonian government-began a systematic deforestation of the precious rainforest lands that contribute a critical function in stabilizing the world climate.
Tapped the Rubber Trees
Chico Mendes was born Francisco Alves Mendes on December 15, 1944, in the Brazilian village of Porto Rico. Mendes was the eldest of 17 siblings of whom only six survived into adulthood. The Mendes family lived in the state of Acre in Amazonia, the forest surrounding the Amazon River. They earned their living as rubber tappers, workers who extract latex from rubber trees and cure the substance for sale in the production of rubber. The Mendes family lived in extreme poverty; both parents and children worked to contribute to the support of the family. His father suffered from clubbed feet, a painful ailment that caused serious discomfort. By the age of eight Chico Mendes accompanied his father into the forest every day to assist in the latex tapping. The pair regularly left home before sunrise. During a typical day they walked 8 to 11 miles of trail. Along the path they made incisions in the bark of the rubber trees and attached cups to the trunks to collect the oozing latex (rubber sap). Deep in the forest the pair hunted tapir, peccary, armadillo, rat porcupine, and monkey to feed the family. In the afternoon they retraced their steps and collected the latex. In the rainforest there were no schools, and Mendes harvested latex full time by the time he was eleven years old. After the harvest they collected nuts to subsidize their income, and between the nut and rubber harvests they grew subsistence crops. Mendes was 17 when his mother died in childbirth. In order to survive, his father tended the family crops, while Mendes cared for the children and harvested rubber six days a week.
Life in the rainforest was both difficult and dangerous. Health services were non-existent. Although the natives treated themselves with healing plants from the forest, the tappers habitually contracted lung diseases from the irritating fumes of the fires used to cure the latex. The wildlife and the terrain were equally treacherous-deadly plants and animals lurked in the foliage. The rubber barons who owned the plantations feared an uprising over the inhumane working conditions and prohibited the workers from learning to read, in order to perpetuate ignorance. Mendes's father was among the few tappers who could read, and he passed the knowledge on to his son. When Mendes was 12 years old he made the acquaintance of an escaped political prisoner, a communist revolutionary named Euclides Fernandes Tavora. Mendes frequented Tavora's residence for five years and learned about the teachings of Marx and Lenin, and the political history of Brazil. Before Tavora left the jungle he gave Mendes a radio, so that the boy could listen to Radio Moscow, and advised Mendes that the tappers should organize a labor union.
Initially, Mendes attempted to bring about change through a direct appeal. He sent a series of letters to the president of Brazil, describing the subhuman conditions imposed upon the rubber tappers. He denounced the bosses, who robbed the workers and charged inflated prices for goods-a practice that kept the workers in debt. Mendes complained that tappers were forbidden from attending school. Although his letters were largely ignored, Mendes was able to bring an end to the rent assessments paid by tappers for the use of forest trails among the rubber trees.
The 1970s and late 1980s were characterized by sporadic union violence in the regions of the rainforest, a situation that developed as the popularity of synthetic rubber surged and world demand for latex decreased. Consequently, the latex industry failed and the economy declined. In an effort to invigorate the economy the regional government offered incentives to cattle ranchers, to take over the rainforest lands previously allocated to the cultivation of rubber trees. Cattle ranchers responded and purchased the rainforest land from the rubber barons. The ranchers cleared the terrain for grazing. They cut and burned rainforest land and displaced rubber workers and other natives. Local priests responded by attempting to organize the displaced natives. They created "base communities" to provide education and political indoctrination. Mendes became involved in an effort to educate adults at a school near Xapuri in 1971. In his free time he harvested rubber for other tappers to earn extra money.
By the mid-1970s, the concepts of unionism began to take hold and an organized movement pervaded the area. Mendes abandoned his job as a teacher and moved to the city of Xapuri, where he worked as a clerk and devoted more of his time to organizing the unions. He also ran for and won a seat on the city council. In 1978, the unions of several towns in the state of Acre successfully formed an alliance and created an association of unions. In time the association's enrollment grew to 30,000 members.
As the unions gained strength, the workers sought to prevent the destruction of the rainforest. To accomplish this they embraced a tactic called empate, or blockade. Empate was a system devised by martyred union organizer Wilson Pinheiro, to prevent the destruction of the trees. It involved large bands of tappers who traveled to the forest areas that were scheduled for imminent destruction. They occupied the forest, wrecked the shacks of the cutting crews, and forced the crews out of the area. The ranchers retaliated and hired police to strong-arm the tappers. In one of his last interviews Mendes said: "We organized 45 empates. About 400 of us were arrested and about 40 tortured, and a few were killed, but we succeeded in keeping more than three million hectares of the forest from being destroyed. Thirty of our blockades failed and 15 worked, but it was worth it." Although few were killed during the empates, the ranchers singled out activist priests, lawyers, union presidents, and certain squatters, who were murdered by hired gunmen. In 1980, Mendes' lost his good friend and fellow union organizer, empate originator Wilson Pinheiro, who was slain in the turmoil. Mendes cautioned the protesters to remain nonviolent, but some tappers sought vengeance and murdered a rancher in retaliation for the death of Pinheiro. In response, the police rounded up and tortured over 100 tappers.
Activist Horizons Expanded
In 1981, Mendes became president of the rural workers' union in Xapuri. He persuaded the tappers to form cooperative businesses, to sell the latex direct and eliminate the bosses and other middlemen who kept most of the profit. This system proved to be quite successful. Mendes established the Nazare School on a rubber plantation to train teachers who, in turn, started other schools. In 1984, at the national rural workers' organization convention in Brasilia, Mendes proposed a land system that would create rural land modules for the tappers, but the proposals were rejected. In 1985, Mendes and a colleague, Maria Allegretti, spent five months organizing a national meeting of the Rubber Tappers of Amazonia, which included seminars, cultural events, and strategy meetings. One hundred and twenty rubber tappers attended the affair in Brasilia, many of whom had never been more than a few miles from their homes. Mendes, Allegretti, and the tappers embraced a new approach that focused world attention on their plight. Mendes influenced the rubber workers to position themselves as defenders of the rainforest: to forego the issue of declining rubber production-to politicize instead for the preservation of the rainforest environment; and to stress to the world the value of other forest products including oils, nuts, and cocoa. At the Brasilia meeting the tappers established a national council and called for a system of land reform based on Mendes's earlier proposal of rural land modules. The system created extractive reserves, and allocated areas of the rainforest for rubber and nut harvesting.
An Untimely Death
Mendes left Brasilia and returned to Acre to publicize the system of extractive reserves and to solicit support for the ecology measures discussed at the convention. He continued his work, built more schools, and supported the empate offensives until December 22, 1988, when he stepped from his house in the Brazilian town of Xapuri and into the path of a bullet.
The murder of Chico Mendes drew international attention, and over 1,000 mourners attended his funeral. The Brazilian government was compelled by the worldwide publicity to seek out the killer. After two years of stalling, the gunman, Darci Alves da Silva, went to trial. He was convicted of the murder along with his father, Darly, who was convicted for his role in plotting the murder.
Mendes died one week after his 44th birthday, leaving a wife and children. His first marriage to Maria Eunice Feitosa in 1969, ended in divorce. The couple had two daughters of whom only Angela, the eldest, survived past infancy. This marriage lasted a brief two years because his devotion to the cause of the tappers kept Mendes away from his family. In the 1980s, Mendes married a woman named Ilzamar, whom he had taught as a young girl on one of the rubber plantations. They had two children: Elenira, and Sandino.
Before his death, in 1987, Mendes traveled to the United States, where he spoke in Miami and in Washington, D.C. He explained that cattle ranchers systematically destroyed the rainforest and created hardship for the natives and rubber tappers. Mendes won two awards in 1987 for his efforts to preserve the environment: the Global 500 Award and Protection of the Environment Medal. His untimely death served to focus greater attention on the plight of the rainforest and, in 1989, a contingency of U.S. senators flew to Acre to discuss the issue. Brazil passed laws to protect the rainforest and approved a plan to replant 2.5 million acres of forest that had been destroyed. The government further agreed to create extractive reserves in the Amazon region. The first was named the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, and served as a home and refuge to 3,000 families of tappers and farmers.
Further Reading on Chico Mendes
Burch, Joann J., Chico Mendes, Defender of the Rainforest, The Millbrook Press, 1994.
DeStefano, Susan, Chico Mendes: Fight for the Forest, Twenty-First Century, 1991.
Revkin, Andrew, The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for the Amazon Rainforest, Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Shoumatoff, Alex, The World is Burning: Murder in the Rainforest, Avon Books, 1991.
Audubon, Jan-Feb 1992.
Humanist, March-April 1996.