Mendes Filho, Francisco ("Chico") Alves (1944–1988)

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Mendes Filho, Francisco ("Chico") Alves (1944–1988)

The Brazilian environmental activist and labor leader Chico Mendes was born in inland Acre on December 15, 1944. The son of rubber tappers, he went to work at age eleven with his father harvesting rubber. Rubber tappers cut trees to gather latex, the raw material for rubber. Tapping is a sustainable method that does not harm the trees, much less the forest.

In the early 1970s the Amazon rain forest was invaded by cattle ranchers who cleared trees to make room for their herds. The Rural Workers' Union of Brasiléia formed in 1975 and Mendes was chosen as its secretary-general. Leading a group of fellow rubber tappers who depended on the forest for their livelihood, Mendes decided to fight against deforestation. His approach, known as "the impasse," consisted of hugging the trees, using one's body to prevent them from being cut down. This peaceful form of protest earned him the nickname "Gandhi of the Rain Forest."

In 1977 he became a councilor in his native town of Xapuri. His increasingly high profile led to death threats, and his term in office was very nearly suspended. Because of infighting among the Council members, Mendes was able to take over as Council president. Between June and September 1979 he turned the Council into a major forum for debates among union, grassroots, and religious leaders. The reaction of the foes within the Council was strong. Accused of subversion, he was subjected to harsh interrogation by authorities: Brazil was under a dictatorship so Chico was arrested and tortured without a warrant. Under heavy political pressure, he resigned as Council president in October 1979. He founded the Workers Party in Acre in 1980 and ran unsuccessfully for state representative (1982) and mayor of Xapuri (1985).

Following a period of heightened conflict in which both trade unionists and ranchers were killed, Mendes was interrogated again. Under the National Security Act he was ultimately charged with inciting landowners to violence. The trial was held in 1981 in the Manaus Military Tribunal. With no money for a lawyer, Mendes was defended with support from various organizations and released on probation. Another trial, three years later, cleared him because of lack of evidence.

In 1981 he became the director of the Xapuri Workers' Union. His struggle began to draw national attention, with support from civil rights workers. Four years later he chaired the first national conference of rubber tappers, held in Brasilia, resulting in the creation of the National Rubber Tappers' Council He also helped create the Forest Peoples Alliance for the benefit of the natives and rubber tappers and to defend the Amazon rain forest.

American environmentalists and members of the United Nations Environment Programme visited Xapuri in 1987, and Mendes showed them the devastation wrought by projects financed by international banks. Later he went to the United States to participate in the Inter-American Development Bank's annual conference and to explain rain forest issues to the U.S. Congress. He managed to get the financing revoked, but ranchers and politicians accused him of hindering progress in the region. Internationally his actions won him various awards, including the UN's Global 500 Prize. In 1988 Mendes continued his fight amid an increasing number of death threats. He died in an ambush on December 22. Two of the suspects were arrested, while one remains at large.

On the same day of Mendes' death, the Chico Mendes Committee was created. It is an articulation of non-governmental, unions' and students' organizations that fights for the punishment of the murderers and to keep Mendes' struggle and his memory alive. As Mendes once said, "At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rain forest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity."

See alsoBrazil: Since 1889; Forests.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Comitê Chico Mendes. "O homem da floresta." Available from http://www.chicomendes.org/chicomendes01.php.

Souza, Marcio. O empate contra Chico Mendes. São Paulo: Marco Zero, 1988.

Additional Bibliography

Martins, Edilson. Chico Mendes: Um povo da floresta. Rio de Janeiro: Garamond, 1998.

Souza, Márcio. Chico Mendes. São Paulo, Brazil: Callis Editora, 2005.

Ventura, Zuenir. Chico Mendes, crime e castigo: Quinze anos depois, o autor volta ao Acre para concluir a mais premiada reportagem sobre o heroói dos Povos da Floresta. São Paulo, Brazil: Companhia das Letras, 2003.

                             Carmen Lucia de Azevedo

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