On December 22, 1988, the Brazilian rubber worker, union leader, and environmental activist Chico Mendes was murdered by a rancher named Darcy Alves who wished to clear the Amazon rainforest where Mendes and his fellow rubber tappers worked, lived, and tried to preserve from exploitation and destruction. His assassination showed both the power Brazilian developmentalists have over those who try to conserve forests but also the connections between labor and environmental movements that exist around the world.
Rubber is a South American native crop, but it cannot grow in plantations there due to disease called South American leaf blight that wipes it out when it is too concentrated. Despite attempts by Henry Ford and other to develop plantation agriculture in the Amazon rainforest, it failed and the world’s key rubber production moved to southeast Asia where rubber could grow without its natural predators. With the exception of Ford’s failure, this was basically fine by the U.S. and industrial users of rubber like tire companies until World War II, when Japan overran most of the world’s rubber supplies. This led to a renewed effort to spur production in nations like Brazil, as well as investments in synthetic rubber that eventually did much more to solve the Americans’ rubber needs. But the Brazilian rubber tappers maintained a reasonable market share for natural rubber, which they could only continue with a relatively undisturbed forest. Families began to create traditions of multiple generation rubber tappers. One of them was Chico Mendes. Born in 1944, he followed his father into the forests to work the rubber trees from the age of 9, in 1953. He couldn’t read until he was 18 as the rubber plantation owners did not want schools or an educated workforce. But Mendes eventually received a rudimentary education and became a fighter for his fellow rubber workers.
But the Amazon became desirable for people far more powerful than poor rubber tappers. Cattle ranchers saw this forest as waste that could be cut down and turned into pasture for the vast South American (and to some extent North American) beef market. The dictatorship that came to power in Brazil in 1964 encouraged this investment as a way to bring more money into the nation’s coffers, reward supporters, and pull a region far away from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo into the nation’s orbit. This investment began in earnest in the 1970s. The dictatorship ended in 1985, but the ranchers sought to use extralegal violence to defend their investments, creating the ironically named Rural Democratic Union to fight against any land reform and to use violence against both worker and environmental activists.
These cattle ranchers and the violence inherent to them was disastrous to Mendes, his fellow rubber tappers, and the forest in which they worked and lived. So he and his rubber tappers’ union, founded in 1975 with Wilson Pinheiro as president and Mendes as secretary, sought to defend the forest and their own livelihood from these ranchers. In this case, the work environment and forest environment were one and the same, with the rubber tappers and rubber trees needing an non-industrial forest to survive. Mendes began organizing his fellow rubber tappers to fight for their future. Using nonviolent tactics, the tappers and their families created human barricades to machines trying to log the forest. He called for large forest reserves, not fully preserved, but there for traditional harvesting techniques for workers, including rubber tappers and nut gatherers. In 1985, with the Brazilian dictatorship finally over, Mendes founded a new union, the National Council for Rubber Tappers, that was a leftist union dedicated not to the modernist ideas of development that led to so many terrible environmental policies from communist governments, but to a politics of both ecological and labor stability. At the National Council’s first meeting, rubber tappers from around Brazil’s forests arrived and came to common agreement about their major problems, including deforestation for cattle and the roads that cut through the forest to make that happen.
This got the attention not so much of North American labor activists but of environmentalists, who saw Mendes’ cause as both a way to build alliances in South American to defend the rain forests they probably had not seen but loved in an abstract way and a way to push back against the commonly held belief by the 1980s that greens did not care about the plight of workers. In 1987, Mendes won the UN’s Global 500 Award for his work protecting the forest. He said, “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.”
Mendes’ activism in defense of his tappers and his forest was seen as a threat by the ranchers, who believed themselves above the law in a wild area far away from the big cities and administrative bureaucracies of the nation’s highly populated south. Darcy Alves and his father Darly were big ranchers in the forest. Mendes specifically targeted their ranch expansion plans as a major threat to the forest and to tappers’ livelihood because they had purchased land that was supposedly in a forest reserve near where Mendes’ own relatives worked as tappers. As was common for these ranchers, when local residents protests, Alves used intimidation tactics and violence to drive them away. Mendes also personally delivered an arrest warrant to the police in another state where Alves had killed someone in order to expand his holdings, but the police did nothing. When the tappers’ union continued resisting, it led the Alves family to decide to simply murder Mendes, despite his increased international fame. After Darcy killed Mendes while the two policemen supposed protecting him were busy playing dominoes, enough international outrage took place that both Alves men were arrested and sentenced to 19 years in prison. Yet the killings of environmental and labor activists continues in the Amazon, including to the American nun Dorothy Stang in 2005. And while deforestation rates did decline after Mendes’ death in 1988, the recent governments of Lula and Dilma in Brazil, while on the left, have significantly rolled back forest protection and deforestation rates have again risen.
Mendes has become something of an iconic figure in Brazil and there were celebrations and remembrances of him on the 25th anniversary of his death. But the ranchers and developmentalists hold as much sway today as they did in 1988 and violence on these frontiers is still endemic.
Gomercindo Rodrigues’ Walking the Forest with Chico Mendes is an excellent place to start if you want to read more.
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