The Rainforest Man & the
Hands That Dealt His Fate
At 6:45pm, 25 years ago this Sunday, Chico Mendes headed to his backyard to take a shower, in Xapuri, at the heart of Brazil’s Amazon state Acre. As he opened the door, he was shot point blank and met the fate that he’d already been telling everyone it’d be his.
He’d turned 44 a week before, and still envisioned a bright future for the mythical land where he was born, became a community leader, and ultimately fell as the most recognizable face of the forest and its native peoples’ struggle. He also knew who was coming to kill him.
“I always survive,” said a 78-year old man after being run over by a car in nearby Rio Branco just this past Dec. 5. No one would have paid much attention to him, though, if he wasn’t Darly Alves da Silva, found guilty of having ordered the hit on Chico, executed by his son. And that, yes, he’s been free for years now.
He could be referring to the fact that he made it to such an advanced age in a region where life expectancy is officially set at 72 years old. Or for surviving the accident itself. But he could as well be bragging about the botched criminal process that failed to keep him and son in jail for more than half of their 19 years sentence.
DISMANTLING A LEGACY
Chico is gone, although many say his cause continues to thrive. It’s hard to say: according to even the most conservatives stats, deforestation of the Amazon, although diminishing at a steady rate, is still hovering just below 15 thousand square kilometers in annual average, since the time he, unlike Darly, still walked among us.
As with most dead leaders, the growth of his global stature increases as more time passes since his demise, and much of the essence of his struggle tends to be glossed over in favor of a more benign, heroic but virtually impossible to attain, public image. That’s how the system works to undermine those who challenge it.
By sanitizing his accomplishments as a combative labor activist, who dedicated his life not so much to preserve the forest per se but to defend the people who live in it, and who he represented politically, the coverage about the 25 years of his death will be probably dominated by rousing but empty speeches by those who failed him.
For one of the saddest things about Chico’s tragedy was that in Dec. 9, 1988, he named his assassins in an interview to Jornal do Brasil, and even give the reasons Darly and his brother, who was never convicted, would invoke to have a contract on his life. Sad also because the interview wasn’t published until the ill deed was done.
STARING DOWN BULLDOZERS
Despite his serious accusations against them, for being responsible for some 30 killings of rural workers, no action was taken until a global outcry ignited by his death practically forced the Brazilian justice system to seek and try the two, who were then already hiding from the law due to previous charges.
The same day Chico was shot, a state representative, and lawyer for the workers’ union, was also killed in an ambush. They were both supposedly part of a short list of leaders marked to death by powerful landowners, who saw a threat in the increasingly organized labor movement and fight for more equitable land distribution in the region.
Darly, for instance, father of 21 other children, still owns three thousand hectares, something that the surviving Mendeses, and most Amazon dwellers for that matter, will never never achieve. For despite all political grandstanding, even the ascendance to power of Chico’s Workers’ Party in Brazil has not been enough to change the fate of the Amazon forest.
“From March 1976 till now, we’ve had 45 ties, we suffered 30 defeats and had 15 wins,” Chico told the newspaper, using a terminology dear to soccer-crazy Brazil. A tie means that an attempt at deforestation was stopped by workers and his families who literally stood in front of the bulldozers, a tactic developed during his lifetime.
A defeat is when, despite all evidence to the contrary, a local or statewide judicial decision gives the rancher the go ahead to clear a patch of forest. And a win means that even the attempt had to be scratched either by judicial order, ever so preciously rare, or for saving face, as when a celebrity such as Sting is visiting the area.
Since Chico was killed on that rainy Thursday, hundreds of community leaders, labor activists, ecologists and countless workers have also been assassinated, many with absolute impunity, including his friends José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and wife Maria do Espírito Santo, who were executed in 2011, and even American-born nun Dorothy Stang, in 2005.
Common among all these murders is the fact that they all represented a threat to encroached and corrupted power in the Amazon, where local police, politicians and landowners conspire to eliminate those who opposed their multimillion dollar contracts with big corporations to illegally explore the land, and then to cover up their acts. Often, an impoverished peon is picked to do time on their behalf.
Justice may come to José Cláudio e Maria, and Stang, high profile cases that attracted international scrutiny over Brazil’s archaic judicial system. Family and friends of the great majority, however, will probably never get vindication against the brutality of what befell their loved ones, and the impunity protecting those who ordered and/or executed them.
NO ONE NEEDED ANOTHER MARTYR
But it’d be unfair to end this rant about yet another fallen idealist if we didn’t mention his legacy for the conservation movement in the Amazon. As mentioned before, the rate of deforestation did slow down since his death, and some 48 “extractive reserves” have been created, directly benefiting rubber tapers like him, and their families.
Other conservation projects can be also credited to, or at least have been inspired by, the uphill battle to save the forest to its peoples which he championed and paid for with his life. As for the Brazilian government, it did approve a much controversial new forest code, which if it isn’t exactly something to cheer about, does offer a new set of environmental protection rules, at least on paper.
A “public act and a crowded burial won’t save the Amazon. I want to live,” Chico said to Jornal do Brasil, as if he was already struggling with the idea that he didn’t have much time left to see his lifelong efforts coming to fruition. His clear-eyed pragmatism, and little interest in becoming a martyr, though, never hid his unabated optimist about the future.
“Xapuri started leading all our resistance efforts, and let’s say, peaceful resistance, but still resistance,’ he said, talking about the role his city played in the early days of the preservation movement in the Amazon. “When we took our families to the tie, we made it clear that the movement was peaceful. No one takes wife and kids to war.”
* Damned Project
* Forest Stumps
* Rain Check