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Francisco “Chico” Mendes was a Brazilian rubber tapper, union organizer, and environmental activist who became an international symbol of the struggle to preserve livelihoods and the environment in the world’s rapidly diminishing rain forests. Chico Mendes was born in Brazil’s western Amazonian state of Acre to a rubber tapping family. He began working in the forest at a young age, combining small-scale subsistence farming with the harvest of rubber and Brazil nuts.
As the surrounding forests became increasingly threatened by deforestation by ranchers expanding their pasture holdings, often illegally, Chico Mendes became involved in local labor union and land rights issues. Elected secretary of his local rural workers union in 1975, Chico Mendes began organizing resistance to deforestation through a series of stand-offs (empates) in which local rubber tappers blocked ranch employees from clearing disputed forest areas.
In 1985 Mendes presided over the First National Rubber Tappers Conference in Brasilia, resulting in the creation of the National Council of Rubber Tappers (Conselho Nacional dos Seringueiros). The formation of this entity propelled the rubber tappers’ struggle to preserve their working and natural environment onto the national and international stage. The rubber tappers produced a declaration at the 1985 meeting entitled “Unity Among Forest Peoples” which consolidated the demands of indigenous and other local communities for the creation of extractive reserves that would combine forest protection with community economic survival. A key element of the declaration was the linkage between preservation of the natural environment and the protection of human rights, as evidenced in the opening statement of the declaration: “We demand a development policy for Amazonia that meets the interests of rubber tappers and respects our rights. We do not accept an Amazon development policy that favors large enterprises which exploit and massacre rural workers and destroy nature.”
Chico Mendes also worked to publicize how international development projects including roads, ranching, mining, and other large infrastructure activities were linked to landscape conversion and deforestation within the Brazilian rain forest. In 1987, after traveling to Washington, D.C., Mendes worked with international environmental organizations to successfully pressure the InterAmerican Development Bank to withdraw funding for a controversial road project that would have bisected his region.
Subsequently, legislation was passed in 1988 by the Brazilian federal government that would lead to the first extractive reserve in Brazil, officially demarcated in 1990 on land expropriated from ranchers in the municipality of Xapuri, Chico Mendes’s organizing base and home. Named in his honor, the reserve today covers almost 2,500,000 acres and provides a forest-based livelihood for more than 6,000 families. By 2000, Brazil had created 12 extractive reserves on more than 8,000,000 acres. Economic activities on the reserves include rubber tapping, fishing, and the harvest of Brazil nuts, palm and other essential oils, and other forest products. Over 22,000 families live and work on the reserves.
For Brazilian and international audiences, the Chico Mendes story humanized the struggle to preserve the world’s rain forests. Global discourse around forest preservation came to mean more than protecting biodiversity and addressing the problem of global warming by reducing deforestation, and to include discussion of the rights and roles of local peoples in combining conservation with social and economic development. Issues of social justice and political and economic empowerment became increasingly incorporated into international environmentalist discourse about ecological protection.
The story of Chico Mendes and the rubber tappers in Acre also highlights the evolving alliances between international nongovernmental and environmental organizations and grassroots groups around the world. Through such alliances local groups such as the rubber tappers of Acre learned the art and politics of international negotiation and the power of fostering a global discourse of solidarity that could bolster their local struggles. International environmental organizations learned the importance of valuing local knowledge about forest preservation and to recognize and protect the right of local peoples to sustainably utilize their local environments.
Local ranchers who felt threatened by the increasing political success of the rubber tappers’ movement orchestrated the assassination of Chico Mendes in his home in Xapuri, Acre, Brazil on December 22, 1988. Darli Alves da Silva and Darci Alves Pereira were convicted of the crime in 1990 and sentenced to 19 years in prison. He was survived by his wife and two young children.
- Katrina Brown and Sergio Rosendo, “Environmentalists, Rubber Tappers, and Empowerment: The Politics and Economics of Extractive Reserves,” Development and Change (v.31/3, 2000);
- Margaret Keck, “Social Equity and Environmental Politics in Brazil: Lessons from the Rubber Tappers of Acre,” Comparative Politics (v.27/4, 1995);
- Chico Mendes, Fight for the Forest: Chico Mendes in His Own Words (Latin American Bureau, 1989).