Este post também está disponível em: Portuguese (Brazil)
Chico Mendes was born on the 15th of December, 1944 in the seringal (rubber tapping fields) of Porto Rico, near Acre’s border with Bolivia, in the two of Xapuri, Acre state. Son of a rubbertapper himself, Chico’s childhood was spent next to his futher tapping the Seringal trees.
Life in the seringal instilled in the young rubbertapper a sense of revolt against injustice. The economic activity of extracting rubber, in the Amazon, has always been marked by unfair working relations. The system of trade of industrial merchandise for extracted materials created a culture of permanent debt and poverty. Rebellions were suffocated by the violence of police officers. The seringal land-owners, seeking to routinely keep the rubbertappers in subission, would punish any demonstrations of disrespect with physical violence.
Differently from other sergingueiros, Chico was taught how to read, write and think by Euclides Fernandes Távora, a political refugee that lived close to Chico’s settlement. This fact would become decisive in Chico’s life. When Acre’s first unions began to form, Chico was aware that this was the time to change reality in the seringal. In 1975 he joined the board of directors of Brasileia Rural Workers’ Union, the first created in Acre, presided by the combative leader Wilson Pinheiro.
The situation of Acre was critical in the 1970’s. Amazon economic policy set by the military regime led to serious conflicts over land issues. Economic activity began to switch rubber for the raising of cattle which resulted in predatory land practices and the deforestation of large swaths of land hindering the rubbertappers’ ability to remain living in the forest.
In 1976, under the leadership of Wison Pinheiro, the rubbertappers came up with the idea empates, manifestations against deforestation: they would get together their families and go to threatened areas, undid camps set up by loggers and stopped the chainsaws. Because of this movement of resistence, in 1980 Wilson Pinheiro was murdered inside Union offices, in Brasiléira.
In 1983 Chico was elected union President in Xapuri and the fight for rubbertapper rights intensified. The main issues vindicated were defense of the forest and worker’s rights, an affront to the military dictatorship of the time.
Chico’s life living in symbiosis with the forest stimulated his curiosity and led to a theory of this creation which, later in life, would be proved to be true: that benefits derived from keeping the forest standing were greater than taking it down.
It was this respect for the forest together his idealogy molded by his experience with unionism, the need for defending human rights, that marked Chico Mendes as a poltical leader that transcended his location and became a respected international figure.
In 1985 Chico spearheaded the organization of the First National Rubbertapper Assembly. More than 100 rubbertappers created the National Rubbertappers Council as an representative entity and elaborated a unique solution for Agrarian Reform: the Extractive Reserves.
After the National Assembly, the plight of the rubbertappers began to be known. Its international projection was the result of a documentary produced by Adrian Cowell, an English cinematogrpaher who filmed the National Assembly and decided to accompany Chico in his day to day activities. In 1987 he released around the world the documentary entitled “I Want to Live” which showcased Chico’s fight to protect the Forest and worker’s rights.
Between 1987 and 1988 Chico Mendes was awarded with the Global 500, a United Nations award, in England, as well as the Environment Medal by the Better World Society, in the United States. He was interviewed by the major news publications of the world and journalists and researchers alike visited the rubbertapping fields, divulging his ideas across the Globe.
The more Chico Mendes gained international acclaim, however, the more he became threatened back home in Xapuri. The empates were leading to prison time. Promised reforms to resolve land issues would not take place. The idea of creating Exctractive Reserves moved at a snail’s pace in Congress.
On December 22nd, 1988 Chico Mendes was ambushed in his own backyard and killed by a henchman hired by Darly Alves, a land invader with a history of violence all around Brasil.
Repercussion was immediate around the world. Revolt was strong and followed in Brasil. The Brazilian press, which up until this point ignored the plight of rubbertappers and would hardly ever mention Chico Mendes, looked to make up for lost time. The strong reaction and pressure of public opinion lead to the incarceration of the criminals who killed Chico, a fact unheard of in rural Brasil.
The first Extractive Reserves were created in March of 1990, eliminating conflicts, and cementing Chico Mendes’ dream of seeing the Forest valued and assuring a futurefor the children of rubbertappers and extractivists.
The main legacy of Chico Mendes are the Extractive Reserves, representing a first initiative towards reconciliation between the environment and social justice, antecipating the concept of sustainable developent arising with Rio 92.