Hello, I hope you're all well!
The second issue of the Voice of Forest (yes, I forgot to actually publish the dispatch last month) is entitled "Death in the Amazon". It chronicles the efforts of pioneering conservationist Chico Mendes, who gave his life protecting the Amazon rainforest and its peoples. As always, please have a read (if you can spare a couple of minutes) and know that you're always welcome to discuss what you read either here or on the Forest RMB!
And yes, the August issue will be published later this month - I've already started researching the activist it will be focusing on. Here's a little hint: the activist in question rocked the zoological world and pushed the boundaries of what we thought was possible for humans to achieve.
The Voice of Forest - Issue II | July 2021 | Death in the Amazon
“At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save
the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”
Francisco Alves Mendes Filho (1944-1988), better known as Chico Mendes, was a Brazilian rubber tapper, trade union leader and activist. He is well known for his efforts to preserve the Amazon rainforest and defend the rights of Brazil’s poor and indigenous populations. Mendes’ assassination in 1988 brought the struggle for the conservation of the Amazon rainforest to the world stage with impacts including lasting changes in government policy and the emergence of multiple grassroots environmental movements.
Chico Mendes was born in the Brazilian state of Acre in 1944 to Francisco and Iracê Mendes; only six of Francisco and Iracê’s seventeen children survived into adulthood. Aged nine, Mendes began working alongside his father as a rubber tapper (“seringueiro” in Brazilian Portuguese) at a time when the rubber tapping industry was in decline. Swathes of the Amazon rainforest were frequently sold and burned to make way for cattle pastures, with cattle ranchers and the Brazilian government expelling many seringueiros from their land.
Schools were often made deliberately inaccessible to seringueiro communities as the landowners did not want their workers to be able to read or do arithmetic. Mendes was taught to read by activist-turned-seringueiro Euclides Fernando Távora at the age of 18; he would later describe how practising with newspaper clippings covering social and political issues opened his eyes to the injustices surrounding him. Inspired by his experiences, Mendes decided to become a literacy teacher to educate his community and so raise awareness of the seringueiros’ unjust treatment.
The Rural Workers Union Movement, founded during the political turmoil of 1960s Brazil, became the principal political representative of peasants, small farmers and rural labourers. Mendes himself played a central role in the creation of the Rubber Tappers’ Union in 1975 and served as its secretary, returning to his hometown of Xapuri to establish a union branch there with Marina Silva in 1977. In 1979, Mendes introduced a scheme to establish schools on rubber estates. Originally aimed at educating adults, the programme quickly expanded to include children, aiming to improve the living standards of the seringueiros which would, in turn, incentivise them to protect their land and way of life. Despite the overwhelming success of the initiative, all was not well for the union movement; in 1980, the president of the Rural Workers Union and a close colleague of Mendes, Wilson Pinheiro, was assassinated by ranchers who opposed the work of the Union. While the union movement continued to pick up speed in the following years, acts of police brutality against union members increased and several key union leaders were murdered by ranchers in targeted attacks.
In 1988, a rancher named Darly Alves da Silva bought part of a rubber reserve in Xapuri where members of Mendes’ family lived. Mendes clashed with da Silva in October of that year when he convinced the Brazilian government to declare a 61,000-acre tract of traditional seringueiro territory on da Silva's land to be off-limits to logging. This was the world’s first extractive reserve – an area of publicly-owned land where unsustainable land use is forbidden but local communities have the right to perform traditional extractive practices like fishing and rubber tapping. This major victory sparked a wave of murders of the union movement’s leaders.
In the last few years of his life, Mendes received a constant barrage of death threats. After months of being watched by gunmen hired by da Silva, Mendes predicted on his 44th birthday that he would not live to see Christmas. The gunmen disappeared completely following his birthday, leading to a feeling of impending doom within the seringueiro community. One week after his birthday, on the 22nd of December 1988, Mendes was shot dead in his Xapuri home by da Silva’s son. Mendes was the 90th rural activist murdered that year in Brazil.
Mendes was, in many ways, a pioneer of the conservation movement. His fight to protect the seringueiro way of life led him to organise peaceful protests called empates (“stand-offs”), human barricades that prevented those who planned to destroy seringueiro territory, including ranchers and loggers, from accessing the land. The tactic was not without its risks; participants faced severe beatings from military police who were often called by
Newspaper clipping from the Jornal do Brazil reporting the
assassination of Chico Mendes (1988).
ranchers, although the protesters retaliated peacefully (frequently by singing hymns). As the campaign evolved, so too did the empates, moving to encompass the entire seringueiro community. Women and children would move to the front of the group, discouraging the police from shooting into the crowd.
The formation of extractive reserves is perhaps the greatest testament to Mendes’ tireless efforts to protect the Amazon rainforest and its inhabitants. The reserve created on what was then da Silva’s land was the first of many - thanks to the efforts of Mendes’ contemporaries, including Marina Silva, 13% of the Amazon is now protected as extractive reserves. The reserves are funded in part by the World Bank, which had previously financed roads to make deforestation of the Amazon easier; this change of heart is directly attributed to Mendes’ personal lobbying of the organisation. The Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, created after Mendes’ death, continues to protect one million hectares of rainforest to this day.
Mendes' launch of the Alliance of Forest Peoples (representing the Amazon’s indigenous peoples and the Rural Workers’ Union) in 1986 signified a dramatic change in the fight to protect the rainforest. Both groups had historically been at odds with one another, so the fact that they were able to unite and work together to protect their cultures and way of life sent a powerful message to their opponents and the Brazilian government. Three months after Mendes’ death, 27 demands on environmental and human rights protection were released, along with the Declaration of the Peoples of the Forest, which concludes: “This Alliance of the Peoples of the Forest, bringing together Indians, rubber tappers, and riverbank communities, and founded here in Acre, embraces all efforts to protect and preserve this immense but fragile life-system that involves our forests, rivers, lakes and springs, the source of our wealth and the basis of our cultures and traditions.”
The idea that environmental protection was compatible with sustainable land use in a way that did not ignore thousands of years of indigenous land use within the Amazon changed the way the global environmental movement considered conservation. Of Mendes’ death, associate Gomercindo Rodriquez said: “Those who killed Chico got it wrong. They thought by killing him, the tappers' movement would be demobilised, but they made him immortal.” Thus, in life and in death, Chico Mendes lit the fires of the Amazon conservation movement; that fight continues to this day. Please, if you can, take a moment to recognise the sacrifices made by Mendes and activists like him to protect his people and our planet.
The Voice of Forest - Issue II - "Death in the Amazon"Thanks For Reading!
Published July 2021 - Written and Edited by Terrabod
Oh, and I also want to remind everyone that the submission period for the Forest Interregional Writing Contest closes on the 15th. Good luck to everyone involved, and happy writing!
Undivulged Principles and Ave lucifer