Chico Mendes & His Legacy

In the mid-1970s an ambitious military-government plan to tame the Amazon attracted a flood of developers, ranchers, logging companies and settlers into Acre, who clear-cut rubber and Brazil trees to make room for ranches. Francisco Alves Mendes Filho, better known as Chico Mendes, was a 30-something rubber-tapper, but one of the few who could read and write, and had long taken an interest in improving the lives of fellow seringueiros (rubber-tappers). In 1977, he cofounded the Sindicato dos Trabalhadores Rurais de Xapuri (Xapuri Rural Workers’ Union) to defy the violent intimidation and dispossession practiced by the newcomers.

Mendes organized empates (stoppages), nonviolent human blockades to stop the clear-cutting. But Mendes was not initially an environmentalist – his motivation was to help rubber-tappers, whose livelihood happened to depend on a healthy, intact forest. Likewise, the environmental movement (largely based in the US at the time) was focused on preserving ‘virgin’ forest, which it assumed to be empty of humans save for a few indigenous tribes.

The joining of those groups – rubber-tappers and American environmentalists – was one of Mendes’ key accomplishments. He convinced rubber-tappers to see themselves as stewards of the forest and allies of indigenous peoples. And he helped conceive of ‘extractive reserves,’ to this day an important means of protecting land and people there. He won numerous international awards in the process, including election to the UN Environment Organization’s Global 500 Honor Roll in 1987.

Mendes’ fame abroad made life increasingly dangerous at home. Killings of rural workers and activists, including priests and lawyers, jumped from single digits in the 1960s, to over a hundred in 1980, to nearly 500 between 1985 and 1987, according to Amnesty International.

In December 1988 Mendes moved to establish his birthplace, Seringal Cachoeira, as an extractive reserve, defying a local rancher and strongman, Darly Alves da Silva, who claimed the land. Mendes had already denounced Silva to the police for threatening his life and for the murder of a union representative earlier that year. Mendes received numerous death threats, but resisted the urging of colleagues to flee Acre state. On December 22, 1988, Mendes stepped onto the back porch of his home in Xapuri and was shot at close range by men hiding in the bushes. He staggered into the house, where his wife and children were watching TV, and bled to death.

Mendes’ murder was the first of hundreds to be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted, owing to the massive international reaction to his killing. Darly Alves da Silva and his son Darci Pereira da Silva were sentenced to 19 years in prison for ordering and committing the crime. Both da Silvas escaped from jail in 1993, apparently just walking free, suggesting complicity among the guards, but were recaptured in 1996, after another outcry, and returned to jail. The men completed their sentences in 2009; Darci reportedly lives in the Pantanal region, but Darly has remained in the area, and can be seen around Xapuri to this day.

Mendes’ life and death brought unprecedented international attention to the environmental crisis in the Amazon – read Andrew Revkin's excellent The Burning Season (1990) for a fine overview of Mendes' life and death.

But activism on behalf of the forest and people who live there remains a dangerous undertaking. On February 12, 2005, a US-born nun named Dorothy Stang was gunned down in the small town of Anapú, in the soy and cattle country of Pará state, by two men reportedly acting on the orders of rancher Vitalmiro Bastos de Moura, who Stang had accused of illegally clearing land. The gunmen were quickly caught and convicted, but holding Bastos de Moura accountable has proved difficult. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison three times, and all three times his conviction was overturned and he was released. A second rancher was convicted of the crime in 2010, but released in 2012. Bastos de Moura was re-tried and re-convicted in 2013, and is in prison again – for now. The prospects of finding justice for scores of other murder victims, whose deaths will never attract the international attention that Mendes' and Stang's did, are decidedly bleak.