Chico Mendes was born into extreme poverty in 1944 in the Acre state of western Brazil. Mendes’s people earned their living as seringeiros, or rubber tappers, workers who gather rubber from the forest’s seringeira trees owned by private owners. After World War II ended in 1945, the need for massive amounts of rubber slowed and rubber prices plunged. Landowners forced the seringeiros to sell their harvest for pennies. At the same time, ranchers squeezed the villagers into smaller pieces of viable land by slashing and burning the forests for conversion to cattle ranches. Stephan Schwartzman of the Environmental Defense Fund said, “For their part, the rubber tappers had no inkling that the forest had values and meanings in the outside world, beyond its rubber and Brazil nuts.” Within a decade of the conversion from rubber production to ranches, almost half of the rubber tapper communities died from malnutrition or lack of medical care.
Chico Mendes watched the smoke fill his homeland’s sky year after year. Into the 1970s, ancient forests burned and new ranches and farms took their place. Swindlers with counterfeit deeds took land from the few fortunate tappers who had owned their property for generations. Tappers who refused to sign over their land were killed at the hands of the scam artists. Mendes’s frustration grew as he watched his people fall deeper into trouble. “Don’t you sign anything,” he urged. “This land is ours. When you change it into money, you are losing the possibility of surviving. Land is life!” Still, the land burned, rain filled pools in the rutted ground and mosquitoes bred; malaria soon plagued the already suffering villages.
Between 1980 and 1983, a gold rush hit Brazil and highways carved through the remaining forests. Miners refined the gold with mercury, and tons of this metal began entering the ecosystem, as well as the native people’s bodies. Chico Mendes had few political skills but nevertheless led a workers’ union and fought on behalf of his people against illegal logging, the poisoning of forest ecosystems, and conditions that led to the villagers’ illness and threatened livelihoods. He taught them the value of the intact forest and at the same time informed environmentalists in other countries about the rubber tappers, a culture that most of the world never knew existed. Mendes persevered in alerting the world to the devastation that the Brazilian government and businesses had done to the Amazon Basin. International environmental groups listened; British film director Adrian Cowell released The Decade of Destruction, filmed in the Amazon, to show the world how the forests were being annihilated.
Mendes and other natives of the Amazon advocated the sensible use of tropical forests.
They tried to convince leaders that part of the forests could be conserved even while industries claimed other portions. For a half-century the seringeiros and ranchers continued a fierce battle over how the forests were to be used. Through the 1980s Mendes rallied the seringeiros into a national organization, found people in government willing to accept the idea of conservation, and helped environmentalists understand that the Brazilian forests had become an environmental emergency. The ranchers, however, did not easily retire from the forests. At the close of 1988, a rancher and his son shot Mendes to death at his home in the town where he had been born. After his death, the Brazilian government set up extractive reserves, or reserva extratìvìstas, which were forest preserves that Mendes had long advocated. The reserves now protect the seringeiros’ culture and the forest and its ecosystems. Schwartzman said, “What I wanted them [the press, policy makers, and the public] to know was that environmentalism in the Amazon . . . was what Chico was doing; that contrary to the received wisdom and common sense of the time, there were people in the forest interested in alternatives for the future—theirs and that of the forest.” Chico Mendes’s work may provide a lesson for the present and the future; local communities might hold the greatest power of anyone to save forests that are also part of their culture.
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