Chico and his family

Today marks the 25th anniversary of death of Chico Mendes, a union leader and environmental activist who fought for the protection of the Amazon and pioneered the use of extractive reserves. In a tale that is familiar today, Mendez fought for sustainable use of the forest while cattle ranchers sought to clear the land. As The Guardian reports:

Mendes was an obvious target. As well as lobbying successfully to end international financing for Amazon clearance, he organised the rubber tappers in non-violent resistance. Men, women and children would form human barricades known as “empates” to prevent the bulldozers from tearing down trees. His success made him many enemies and he knew he was a marked man.

His killer was from a family of cattle ranchers, whose efforts to expand their pastures was held up by the empates. Darcy Alves, 22, and his father Darly were convicted in 1990 and jailed for 19 years. Although they are now free, former associates of Mendes said the assassination backfired. “Those who killed Chico got it wrong. They thought by killing him, the tappers’ movement would be demobilised, but they made him immortal. His ideas still have a huge influence,” said Gomercindo Rodriquez, who came to Xapuri as a young agronomist in 1986, and later became Mendes’s trusted adviser.

Mendes wanted the forest to be used sustainably rather than cut off from economic activity (as some environmentalists wanted) or cut down (as the farmers wanted). He proposed the establishment of extractive reserves for tappers, Brazil nut collectors and others who harvested nature in a balanced way. After his death the first of many such reserves in Brazil, the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, was created, covering 1m hectares of forest around Xapuri.

After years of decline, the demand for latex from a local condom factory has boosted the price of rubber, and many tappers, who had turned to raising cattle, have returned to the forest. “This is Chico’s legacy,” said Gomercindo. “The extractive reserves have meant the preservation of the forest – all around it has been destroyed for cattle pasture. They have become an example, they now exist in other areas of Brazil.”

A day to remember and reflect on those who fight for the voiceless forest and her downtrodden people. Read more at The Guardian.

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