Chico Mendes was leader of great courage and unyielding motivation. To many powerful people, he was trouble maker, but to millions of workers and Amazonian Indians, Chico was a life-saving hero. By standing up for his neighbors he helped change the course of a nation.
Francisco “Chico” Alves Mendes Filho was born in December 15, 1944 to a family of rubber tappers in Brazil. He grew up in a rural Amazonian regions of Xapuri and Acre. Most rubber tappers lived on the rubber estates and plantations. Estate owners prohibited their workers from receiving an education in fear that they would realize how badly they were being exploited. Most children born on the plantations did not survive childhood, so by the age of 9, Chico was required to begin working alongside his father.
After working hard for years Chico couldn’t understand why he and all of the workers were in debt to the company store. Chico determined to learn to read and write so he could read his own bills. His father taught him what little he could, but it wasn’t until 1960 when an educated rubber tapper named Euclides Fernando Távora came to the plantation that Chico found both a teacher and mentor.
Távora was from a higher class and formerly a member of the insurrection that had failed to overthrow the dictator. He was now evading capture by living in the rain forest working as a tapper. Though the rubber tappers could hardly understand his eloquent speech, they were inspired by his willingness to work alongside them, learn from them and share with them what he knew.
By the age of 18, Chico had learned to read and write by the newspaper clippings Távora would find and bring back. The newspaper articles would often bring up social and political issues, which Távora also used to encourage debate and understanding about political bias, unionization, and human rights. These lessons would become relevant in Chico’s future as the political and economic climates in Brazil began to shift.
The tappers and Amazon Indians had long faced exploitation from the once powerful estate owners who had gained impressive economic and political might from supplying rubber during WWII. Now the estates felt the pressure of international businesses who demanded large quantities of rubber at cut-rate prices.
“We cannot remain silent in the face of such a situation. We are unable to remain silent in the face of so much injustice.” – Chico Mendes
To add to their troubles, the global demand for beef prompted the Brazilian government to incentivize ranchers and loggers, who in turn began slashing and burning the rainforest to create land usable for livestock. In a few short years, deforestation had forced hundreds of thousands of tappers and Amazon Indians off their land, to be replaced by less than two hundred ranches.
Taking what he had learned Chico decided to become a literacy teacher in the Brazilian Literacy Movement (MOBRAL). He poured any extra time he had into educating his community. As more rubber tappers learned of their shared struggle, they decided to unite together and stand up for each other. They formed the Rural Worker’s Union in Brasiléia, and later expanded to five other regions. Chico became a president of the Xapuri Rubber Tappers Union, where he come up with the idea of organizing workers and their families to link arm-in-arm to block ranchers and loggers from cutting down trees.
Uniting the various organizations and unions became Chico’s next task. In 1977, at the age of 33, Chico was elected as city counselor and used his position to organize popular debates, encourage peaceful protests and political participation. He was labeled a “threat to national security”, arrested and tortured.
“I became an ecologist long before I had ever heard the word,” – Chico Mendes
A few years later Chico helped create the National Council of Rubber Tappers which united rubber tappers from all over the country. Together, they discussed the nation-wide problem of deforestation and exploitation. Chico wasn’t a great speaker, but he was skilled at negotiating and convincing opposing groups to collaborate. It wasn’t long before the formerly opposed tappers, Amazonian Indians and international environmental activists united together to pursue common goals.
The large corporations and wealthy ranchers fought back. Ranchers began buying estates so they could evict the workers. Others resorted to threatening, attacking and killing workers and activists. The government often made things worse by protecting the ranchers from prosecution. Federal police would often jail and torture protesters at the request of ranchers and land owners. In less than 25 years, nearly 1,000 activists were killed trying to protect the rainforest and those who lived there. Only eight convictions were made for the murders.
Despite the murder of activist leaders, including his friend Wilson Pinheiro, Chico courageously continued to help motivate and unite the movement. In March 1987, he flew to Washington D.C. to successfully convince the World Bank, U.S. Congress and others to change how they funded development in Brazil, and support the creation of extractive reserves. Extractive reserves were an idea to limit industrial use of parts of the forests to sustainable levels of harvesting, while still allowing jobs for all the different groups.
“At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity.” —Chico Mendes
In addition to the backing of the Environmental Defense Fund, Chico earned recognition from the United Nations Environmental Program and the National Wildlife Federation. He returned to Brazil to find his home plantation had been bought by a rancher named Darly Alves da Silva. Ranchers were upset at Chico’s success at cutting off their funding and Darly publicly threatened to kill Chico and later convinced his son to carry it out. Three nights before Christmas in 1998, Chico was shot and killed as he exited his home, his wife and children were just inside. Because of Chico’s international prominence, the Brazilian government took action and sentenced both Darly and his son Darci to 19 years in prison.
Chico’s death also became a turning point for his country’s environmental policies. Logging and ranching subsidizing were ended and The Chico Mendez Extractive Reserve was created in his honor. Soon 20 more reserves with more than 8 million acres of rainforest would become protected.
Chico recognized that protecting workers was more than simply protecting jobs, but also the environment that supports everyone within it. His heroic commitment and sacrifice for environmental activism and worker education changed the lives of many people.
[box type=”shadow”]More Resources:
[one_half]NY Times article on Chico
Walking the Forest with Chico Mendes by Gomercindo Rodrigues[/box]