Today marks 33 years since the death of one of the most iconic environmental activists of the 20th Century. Chico Mendes was a labourer turned environmentalist who advocated for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest, as well as the rights of local and indigenous communities. Murdered for his efforts, he embodies the struggles of the many people who fight to protect their homelands from exploitation.
A lifetime of activism
Mendes was born in Xapuri in the western state of Acre, Brazil. From childhood he worked, like his family before him, in rubber-tapping, and only learned to read at around 20. This gave him a new awareness of the environmental and social exploitation affecting his home. Together with his fellow rubber-tappers, he founded the Rural Workers’ Union and the Xapuri Rubber Tappers Union. They advocated for peaceful resistance against deforestation, which involved forming a human chain in front of bulldozers to prevent logging. A national council created in 1985 attracted rubber-tappers from across Brazil and brought their issues into the spotlight.
One of Chico Mendes’ most important achievements was the idea of extractive reserves. In these areas, local people could sustainably harvest natural resources including rubber without fear of exploitation. In 1980 he helped create the Forest Peoples Alliance, which called for the creation of these reserves as well as inclusive land use policies to benefit indigenous peoples and the wider ecosystem. Mendes’ radical activism made him a spokesperson for environmentalists all over Brazil.
Although celebrated by various environmental organisations for his efforts, Mendes’ activism made him many enemies among landowners. He constantly received death threats, and tragically, he was shot in 1988 outside his home by a cattle rancher who had claimed an area Mendes turned into a reserve. The murder sparked outrage and shone a light on the struggles faced by environmental activists around the world. Since 1988, around 1000 have been killed in Brazil alone.
Chico Mendes’ legacy
Unfortunately for the world, Chico Mendes only became well-known internationally after his assassination. But his contributions to the protection of the Amazon live on. After his death, the Brazilian government established 8 million acres of nature and extraction reserves, including one named after him in his home state. Thanks to Mendes’ committed lobbying work, the World Bank moved from endorsing rainforest exploitation to financing the reserves.
Sadly, climate-change-denying President Jair Bolsonaro’s government is undermining Mendes’ achievements by weakening protective legislation. They are encouraging cattle ranching, responsible for most deforestation in Brazil, undercutting the ban on subsidising operations which followed the murder. As of 2019, the Chico Mendes Extraction Reserve has lost 7.5% of its forested area, and deforestation increased by over 200% in the first year of Bolsonaro’s presidency. Locals are also moving away from rubber tapping into the better-paid livestock industry, weakening worker’s unions.
Although the current state of environmental protection in Brazil is dire, it does not take away from Chico Mendes’ legacy. He brought global attention to the plight of the rainforest and its communities, and his tireless campaigning set a precedent for future environmental activism and legislation.
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.