The inspiring story of courageous labor and environmental activist Chico Mendes, who led Brazil’s rubber tappers until his assassination in 1988.
A close associate of Chico Mendes, Gomercindo Rodrigues witnessed the struggle between Brazil's rubber tappers and local ranchers—a struggle that led to the murder of Mendes. Rodrigues's memoir of his years with Mendes has never before been translated into English from the Portuguese. Now, Walking the Forest with Chico Mendes makes this important work available to new audiences, capturing the events and trends that shaped the lives of both men and the fragile system of public security and justice within which they lived and worked.
In a rare primary account of the celebrated labor organizer, Rodrigues chronicles Mendes's innovative proposals as the Amazon faced wholesale deforestation. As a labor unionist and an environmentalist, Mendes believed that rain forests could be preserved without ruining the lives of workers, and that destroying forests to make way for cattle pastures threatened humanity in the long run. Walking the Forest with Chico Mendes also brings to light the unexplained and uninvestigated events surrounding Mendes's murder.
Although many historians have written about the plantation systems of nineteenth-century Brazil, few eyewitnesses have captured the rich rural history of the twentieth century with such an intricate knowledge of history and folklore as Rodrigues.
- List of Abbreviations
- Foreword, by Marina Silva
- Introduction to the English Edition, by Biorn Maybury-Lewis
- Chapter 1. I Was There!
- Chapter 2. A Very Difficult Beginning
- Chapter 3. Rubber Tappers: A Century's Struggle
- Chapter 4. A Genocidal Occupation
- Chapter 5. "Our Victory Depends on Our Organization and Discipline"
- Chapter 6. A Little about My Friend Chico Mendes
- Chapter 7. An Interview with Chico Mendes
- Afterword: Chico's Dream, by Linda Rabben
- Author's and Editor's Notes
- Editor's Bibliography
by Biorn Maybury-Lewis
David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University
Gomercindo Rodrigues is one of thousands of agronomists, lawyers, priests, health workers, students, teachers, professors, small-business people, government functionaries, and others who invested precious time and energy while often risking their lives to help build Brazil's rural union movement. He conducted his early years of organizing work, in the 1980s, with the great slain rubber tapper leader, Chico Mendes. Hence the evocative title of Linda Rabben's excellent translation of Rodrigues's memoir: Walking the Forest with Chico Mendes. Guma walked the forest all right, for many thousands of kilometers, helping to organize the rubber tappers in the western Brazilian Amazon state of Acre. But he also walked side by side with Chico Mendes through a lethal struggle over land, resources, and the Amazon. Ultimately, like many ordinary people around the world, Chico Mendes and his comrades faced the critical practical and philosophical question of our time: how to wisely confront narrow-minded interests pursuing socially and environmentally catastrophic policies?
This struggle culminated in Mendes's cowardly assassination by gunmen in the employ of Amazonian rural elites on a fateful evening in late December 1988. The battle in which he found himself goes on in the Amazon and thousands of other places around the world wherever people are grappling with the problem of the appropriate attitude to take toward one another and the natural environment.
Gomercindo Rodrigues served as an adviser (assessor) to the rubber tappers and their Rural Workers' Union in Xapuri, Acre, a small town near the Bolivian-Brazilian frontier on the far western edge of the Brazilian Amazon. It is the seat of a municipality of the same name, comprising a large swath of Amazonian forest. Most of the rural workers in Xapuri were, and for the most part remain, rubber tappers—extractivists and sellers of natural latex from the rubber trees indigenous to the region. At the time of Chico Mendes's assassination on December 22, 1988, Gomercindo Rodrigues was a Brazilian agronomist, a man from outside the state of Acre and the region who was on his way to becoming a man of the Amazon. During the decade following Mendes's death, Rodrigues changed professions, first attending the law school in Rio Branco, Acre's capital, and then becoming a lawyer, defending to this day the workers in the rubber tappers' movement that Chico Mendes led until his untimely death.
Chico Mendes's assassination reverberates still in his beloved Amazon region and far beyond. Yet those uninitiated in Brazilian or Amazonian studies, much less the history of the rubber tappers' and the Brazilian rural workers' movement, might fairly pose a number of questions. Obviously Mendes's passing was tragic and premature. He died relatively young, at the age of forty-four, leaving a wife, three children, and many friends and comrades, as well as his life's work unfinished. But what is the broader significance of his death? What difference did the life of this man from a remote corner of the Amazon make to the rest of us—particularly those who are neither Brazilians nor familiar with the Amazon?
It turns out that an objective answer to these questions is far from straightforward. In the aftermath of Chico Mendes's assassination, a fascinating intellectual struggle occurred immediately and continues until the present regarding the meaning of his life and death. It has real practical implications for the region, Brazil, and the world in which we now live. European, North American, and Brazilian environmentalists who had allied themselves to Mendes in their efforts to do something about the catastrophic pace of deforestation of the Amazonian environment—a process lamentably still unfolding at this writing in 2006—hailed him as a fellow environmentalist par excellence. Claiming him as one of their own, they remembered him as a man who paid with his life for his tenacious and creative defense of the rainforest.
Irritated by this interpretation, representatives of the Brazilian rural workers' union movement and their allies around the world maintain that people are killed in analogous circumstances in contemporary Brazil, not for their belief in protecting the environment, but for organizing the poor in trade unions, social movements, and political parties. For Brazilian unionists, Mendes's environmentalism—though clearly of great importance—was nowhere near as important as his role as a leader in the rural workers' movement of Brazil. They argue that no rural worker is killed for saving trees but for having the audacity to confront large interests on behalf of ordinary people. The unionists and their international socialist allies maintain by and large that we must remember Mendes as another victim of class warfare.
What I propose to argue in this introduction to Gomercindo Rodrigues's important memoir is that although both of these broad interpretations of Chico Mendes's life work have significant elements of truth, neither of these ideal-types—"Mendes as environmentalist," "Mendes as radical unionist"—quite encapsulates the complexity and contradictions of the man and his work. The work embodied in this remarkable man's life reflects the central dilemmas of our times. He was more than the champion of one cause or another.
One cannot understand the crisis Chico Mendes, Gomercindo Rodrigues, and the rubber tappers' movement of the Brazilian Amazon faced in the late 1980s without beginning with a brief description of the Brazilian rural workers' movement as it emerged in the 1970s, during the right-wing military dictatorship that took over Brazil from 1964 to 1985. The long dictatorship had as its centerpiece its desire to eradicate, or at least keep under control, Brazil's social movements. When the dictatorship finally ended, Brazil entered a five-year period (1985-1990) of extraordinary tension and violence in the countryside, as both sides—the various categories of rural workers versus the landlords and their allies—anticipated some form of agrarian reform. They jockeyed for position either to promote or to defend against it. Chico Mendes and the rubber tappers' movement were directly caught up in this rising rural tension, culminating in Mendes's 1988 assassination.
The 1964-1985 military dictatorship ruled through what political scientists call a bureaucratic-authoritarian state. It was not a state that simply plundered the public treasury for the enrichment of the generals who ran it. Rather, it was a military-led, expanding bureaucracy whose agenda included the elimination of progressive, sometimes quite radical, leftist social movements and guerrilla organizations (in both the urban and rural areas) and the advance of Brazil's capitalist development trajectory. Moreover, it intended to foster this capitalist development while keeping tight control of unions and political parties, which, as the dictatorship grew more rigidly authoritarian after December 1968, were allowed only if they were state sanctioned and subject to close government regulation. This was an extraordinarily repressive time, a dark period in Brazilian history. Although the Brazilian state actors could be lethally violent—especially in their campaigns to eradicate urban and rural guerrilla movements in the 1960s and 1970s—the Brazilian regime was not as murderous as its fellow bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes of the time in neighboring countries, in particular those of Argentina and Chile. The Argentine and Chilean police and military murdered many thousands. But the Brazilian version of this form of military state lasted by far the longest, twenty-one years.
The military regime began its tenure by eradicating three rural drives to organize the rural poor: the peasant league movement in Brazil's Northeast, centered in the state of Pernambuco; the incipient, Communist Party-led rural workers' movement in and around the then-capital city of Rio de Janeiro, in a rich, tropical-agriculture zone known as the Baixada Fluminense, as well as in parts of the interiors of the states of São Paulo and Bahia; and the small family farmer movement, known as MASTER, organized by President João Goulart's brother-in-law, Leonel Brizola, in the far southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. (Goulart was the civilian president the military unseated in its April 1, 1964, coup d'état.) The military killed, disappeared, or forced into exile many of the leaders and rank and file of these three movements because it feared some kind of revolutionary success inspired by Fidel Castro's recent and phenomenal victory in the Cuban Revolution.
As is now well known, peasants in Cuba's Sierra Maestre played an important role in keeping Castro and his closest followers alive when they were nearly annihilated following the disastrous battle at the beginning of their revolutionary struggle, in which the troops of the Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, eliminated nearly all of Castro's small band of revolutionaries. The Brazilian generals were not going to allow a repeat, in their country, of the survival of any revolutionary movement in rural areas. Given that the generals embraced the Cold War mentality of the time, the Brazilian military physically eliminated the peasant and rural worker movements that had sprung up in the countryside, especially in Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco, and Rio Grande do Sul.
If one analyzes the character of the Brazilian military regime (right-wing, antipopular, developmentalist, closely allied with the U.S. Cold War effort, initially fearful of Castroism), one logically could have expected no rural organizing to take place in the countryside following this early campaign of rural repression. Indeed, nothing of significance did happen in the Brazilian countryside until the late 1960s, when a guerrilla campaign against the regime, led by the Communist Party of Brazil (Partido Comunista do Brasil, PC do B), began to operate in north central Brazil, in the Bico de Papagaio region of the southeastern Amazon. A major counterinsurgency campaign ensued, involving regular army units, secret police, and gross violations of the human rights of the area's peasant populations. The military wiped out the PC do B forces in the first years of the 1970s.
Meanwhile, defying the logic of these closely related historical events, a new form of unionism began to emerge once again in the northeastern state of Pernambuco. This was no revolutionary unionism. On the contrary, the unionists essentially took advantage of state structures designed to encapsulate, regulate, and control unionists, to lead the unions to ends other than those intended by the state. But they did so over the course of many, many years of careful, slow, "two steps forward, one step backward" union activity.
They embraced the military state's effort to extend some basic social welfare to rural workers beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many unions were founded with welfare, medical, and dental services in mind. The union movement was divided internally among those who simply were walking hand in hand with the military government's effort to control the countryside, those who wanted to do somewhat more—essentially to make their unions into health facilities—and those who wanted to use the political space the state was providing to truly organize workers. Under cover of such state-sanctioned health care-dispensing activities, this latter third of the union movement raised the consciousness of rural workers, gave them a critical perspective on the dictatorship, and left the rank and file poised to enter democratic politics once the military relinquished power to civilians in a gradual process that ended with the launch of the New Republic in 1985.
These unionists engaged in the "politics of the possible": They took over available political space and resources to use to the best of their creative ability for a variety of progressive projects (land rights struggles, wage struggles, denunciations of abuses). At the same time, they were careful to avoid provoking state actors or rural elites to react lethally. Acre unionists associated with Chico Mendes and his predecessor, Wilson Pinheiro, took part in this progressive wing of the national rural workers' union movement beginning in the early 1970s.
The attempt to avoid trouble did not always succeed, as literally hundreds of rural workers and their leaders were murdered, maimed, tortured, and disappeared during this trying and lengthy denouement of the military dictatorship. Struggles within the national union organization also slowed the march of the union movement. Although the national organization, the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers (CONTAG), was in the hands of progressive unionists from northeastern Brazil, many state federations across Brazil were controlled by right-wing unionists. These unionists either were not really rural workers themselves or were workers interested in taking advantage of alliances with military state actors at the expense of their fellow workers. It was a long, hard struggle, with mixed results for those who wanted to do something for the rural workers.
Much needed to be done, because the state was far from a passive actor, maintaining at the top of its agenda its desire to push ahead Brazil's capitalist development. It played an important role in speeding a disorderly form of developmentalism in the countryside. Massive and costly road and railway building efforts in the interior, for example, served to strengthen landlords whose territories were "improved" by new proximity to means of transportation. Dams were built to electrify the countryside and supply power to mining and other industrial operations. They often flooded immense areas of land where rural workers and indigenous peoples lived, with indemnities coming, if at all, only years after destitute people or tribes had been scattered. The military government offered cheap credit and other fiscal incentives that invariably benefited large interests and not smallholders and small-scale homesteaders (the latter on Brazil's vast stock of poorly regulated public lands).
These developmentalist policies had in common a clear pattern: They fomented an inexorable redistribution of land to fewer and fewer and increasingly large landowners. Already unequal, Brazil became the nation with one of the most unequal distributions of arable land in the world. Furthermore, a huge proportion of this territory was left barely used or completely unused—a scandalous circumstance in land-hungry and impoverished Brazil. In addition to harming ordinary people in the countryside, these policies accelerated an extraordinary urbanization process already under way. People left the countryside for the large and medium-sized cities, creating the contemporary panorama of Brazil's urban areas: immense shantytowns with the pathologies of gangs, drug trafficking, violence, and despair so familiar to contemporary observers.
The rural workers' union movement—internally divided, always closely watched, and often intimidated or attacked—had its hands full. Yet by the time the military dictatorship ended in 1985, just under 10 million workers were organized into more than 2,850 unions throughout Brazil's immense interior, and CONTAG was widely respected as a combative, if necessarily careful and bureaucratic, organization. By the mid-1980s there was an air of expectancy in Brazil: Would the long-overdue agrarian reform finally come about? And if so, how might it come about?
As the Brazilian generals had promised, the "long, slow, secure" transition from military dictatorship came to pass under civilian rule in 1985. Tancredo Neves, a centrist and astute politician from Minas Gerais, was to take over from the outgoing military, becoming president of the republic at the climax of an immensely complicated transition process. In the negotiations for the transition, Neves had made commitments to implement some sort of agrarian reform, for no other reason than to defuse the pent-up frustrations of the rural masses. However, in a major tragedy for Brazil and in particular for rural Brazil, Neves became ill and died before taking office. His vice president to be, José Sarney, a politician from the state of Maranhão who had led the military's civilian elite allies, took office in Neves's stead. He had none of the deft political skills of Neves under the tense circumstances of negotiating the end of a long dictatorship that had perpetrated numerous crimes against its own people. Moreover, Sarney, a member of Maranhão's rural elite and a man of deeply conservative political inclinations, had aligned himself with the military throughout his political career. With Neves's death and Sarney's ascension to power at this critical moment, fortune, it seemed, smiled on the military.
In the confusion and uncertainty reigning in Brazil in the first year of the Sarney administration (1985-1986), many observers thought that Sarney, despite his past, could not avoid some sort of serious agrarian reform in the countryside, given Neves's prestige and promises to do something about rural inequities. Indeed, Sarney's initial rhetoric suggested that he would go ahead with reform. Lines were drawn. The landlords of Brazil—truculent under the best of circumstances—held large auctions of cattle to raise a war chest to buy arms for the defense of their property; or so they maintained. They founded the União Democrática Ruralista (Rural Proprietors' Democratic Union) under the leadership of the inflammatory Ronaldo Caiado, a large-scale rancher from the midwestern state of Goiás. Meanwhile, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra (Landless Rural Workers' Movement) began to emerge in its home state of Rio Grande do Sul, right at the time the New Republic began. Before the emergence of the MST, only CONTAG and the officially sanctioned rural workers' movement could exist without suffering immediate annihilation by the military or gunmen in the employ of landlords. Now, the MST, a social movement entirely independent of the state and tired of the slow but steady approach that CONTAG had painstakingly developed under the dictatorship, began to push for rapid, radical change in the more open circumstances of the New Republic. CONTAG's star began to fade, and the MST began to rise to eventually become what it is today: a nationwide social movement with a radical land reform agenda and socialist ideology.
Yet CONTAG, the MST, and the rural workers' movement were under UDR assault, it seemed, everywhere. Shots were fired. Rural workers fell. Casualties in this unequal struggle were virtually always among the poor and not among their class enemies. Impunity prevailed. The state and the Brazilian legal system invariably found ways to ignore the persecution of and crimes against rural workers. In fact, the first person whose murder, in a land conflict zone, was to be fully investigated—with indictments handed down, a trial of the accused, and the perpetrators sentenced to prison—was none other than Chico Mendes. And in his case, the investigation only happened—to the surprise, no doubt, of Mendes's UDR enemies—because of his worldwide fame, which embarrassed the legal system into doing its job. Caught up in these dangerous times in rural Brazil of the early New Republic, Mendes lamentably paid with his life.
Following an interesting opening description of the way of life of the rubber tapper and the history of rubber in the region, Gomercindo Rodrigues's memoir turns to the circumstances in Acre of the late 1970s and 1980s. The owners of the rubber estates, who ruled the countryside from the rubber emporiums of Manaus and Belém, thousands of miles downstream on the Amazon River, had, in many cases, abandoned their claims to rubber estate zones in areas such as Xapuri in the western Amazon. Although it had had its booms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and again during World War II, as part of the Allies' efforts to maintain a reliable supply of natural rubber, the rubber business was in a protracted decline. It was essentially moribund by the early 1970s. Rubber workers were left to their own devices: hunting, gathering, planting subsistence plots, and tapping rubber and gathering other forest products for autonomous sale.
As Gomercindo Rodrigues documents, the military state decided that as a part of its Amazon road-building campaign, designed to provide "land without men" (its perception of the Amazon) to "men without land" in other areas of the country, it would lay out and pave the BR-317 highway. The BR-317 would link eastern Acre to BR-364, crossing Rondônia, which in turn connects the western Amazon to central Brazil and from there to the country's southeastern industrial zones. In my conversations with him shortly after Chico Mendes's death, Gomercindo Rodrigues remarked (and reiterates in the memoir that follows) that to characterize the Amazon as "without men" was a terrible lie the military used to justify two policies. The first was its desire to defuse land conflicts in other regions of Brazil by giving workers a means to travel north and west to the Amazon to seek "unoccupied" land via the new roads. The second was to offer rural capitalists, particularly in the ranching sector, opportunities in the western Amazon to establish large properties near where roads were projected, so they might reap the windfall profits that road building invariably brings to those whose lands lie nearby. This, the military maintained, would constitute "development" of the western Amazon.
Beginning in the 1970s, these two processes precipitated the movement of small- and large-scale interests into Rondônia and Acre. Rubber tappers in Acre—facing well-heeled southern ranchers who typically appeared with armed farmhands, foremen, and, when necessary, pistoleiros (professional gunmen)—were expelled by the thousands from the jungle areas where they had gone about earning their modest living. When pushed out of their traditional areas, many rubber tapper families went over the border to try their luck in Bolivia. Others crowded into the urban periphery of the Acre state capital, Rio Branco, transforming it in a short period from a sleepy provincial town into a bustling, medium-sized city made up mainly of shantytowns (favelas). Still others, usually younger, single, and male, traveled to the mining camps springing up around the Amazon.
The small and large property holders entering the region not only devastated the local rubber tappers' way of life; they also destroyed indigenous peoples' lands, infected them with diseases for which they had no immunity, and effectively ended the tribal life of innumerable Indians. Meanwhile, the swidden (slash and burn) agricultural techniques of smallholders and the pasture formation (burning and grass planting) of the ranchers caused the monumental deforestation that brought the Amazon to the world's attention in the late 1980s, when the fires started appearing prominently in satellite photographs of the region.
In an effort to staunch the flow of workers out of the old rubber tapping areas into Bolivia and the Rio Branco urban periphery, CONTAG and the national rural workers' movement came to Acre and organized the first rural workers' unions and the state union federation in the 1970s. Wilson Pinheiro became the leader of the Sindicato dos Trabalhadores Rurais (Rural Workers' Union) of Brasiléia, a municipality near Xapuri, and emerged as the de facto leader of the rubber tappers in the region.
But the devastation of the rubber tappers, the indigenous peoples, and the Amazon forest continued during the last years of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship. The government intended to lengthen, improve, and pave the BR-317, despite common knowledge that this developmentalism caused havoc in the countryside. The dominant ideology was that burning the forest, farm and pasture formation, and defusing extraregional tensions as a result of "opening up this frontier" were signs of Progress. It was at this time that Chico Mendes entered the rubber tappers' movement, joining Pinheiro as a close ally. He emerged as Pinheiro's comrade in his effort to denounce developmentalism and protect the remaining rubber tappers.
In the late 1970s, in a plot consistent with the approach large landowners throughout Brazil had established during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, the Acre rural elites decided to take matters into their own hands regarding Pinheiro, a leader they felt they could no longer tolerate. They were incensed that he and the Acre rural unionists had begun to organize themselves and make known the catastrophic consequences of the region's developmentalism. Landlords ordered and successfully carried out the murder of Wilson Pinheiro in 1980. Enraged, the rubber tapper unionists took their violent revenge on the alleged perpetrators.
In a facile display of how the Brazilian legal system is almost never impartial in its dealings with the rural poor, the police leapt into action to find and prosecute those accused of killing Pinheiro's murderers, using torture and intimidation to push forward the investigation. It was at this moment, when Chico Mendes was under attack from the authorities and was being prosecuted himself for killing Pinheiro's murderers—a revenge killing for which he was later acquitted—that Mendes took over as the de facto leader of the rubber tappers' movement.
This is where Gomercindo Rodrigues's memoir begins in earnest, with his firsthand account of his slain friend's struggle to lead the movement.
To reiterate my original questions: What is the broader significance of Mendes's death? What difference did the life of this man from a remote corner of the Amazon make to the rest of us—particularly those who are neither Brazilians nor familiar with the Amazon? To answer, I must point out three parts of Mendes's legacy: his views on the role of violence in the rubber tappers' struggle, his views on development as opposed to developmentalism, and his efforts to build alliances. Together, they serve to render Chico Mendes, and the people like Gomercindo Rodrigues who struggled and continue to struggle along with him, into figures of importance to contemporary world history far beyond the Amazon.
Mendes sympathized with the despair and catharsis of the rubber tappers' violent reaction against Pinheiro's murderers; indeed, he suffered with them the arbitrary investigative techniques of torture normally involved in Brazilian legal "inquiries" involving interclass crimes. But he would develop with his fellows an approach to dealing with the deforestation that would eschew violence: a nonviolent, confrontational technique the rubber tappers termed the empate. Gomercindo Rodrigues's memoir highlights the empate as an innovative method the rubber tappers used to face the rural peons in the employ of landlords, sent to cut down trees and brush before burning them to create pastures for the ranchers.
Men, women, and children of rubber tapper communities would simply stand unarmed in the way of tree cutters and their equipment, blocking the destruction and appealing personally to the peons as people of the same social class. While facing the peons, they would explain to them the folly of destroying the forest, pleading with them not to ruin an entire way of life for the pittance the landlords were paying them. It was arduous, tension-filled, tenacious work, requiring persistence and courage, day after day, week after week, at great cost to people always trying to keep a step ahead of a bare subsistence living. But it worked in some, though by no means all, cases. As a result of the successful empates, the peons would withdraw, infuriating the truculent landlords. Fundamentally, it was a nonviolent, communitarian, educational, and consciousness-raising approach to struggle, where all involved on both sides went away thinking that "this is different, this is special."
The most powerful scene, in my view, of Rodrigues's memoir is his description of an entire rubber tapper community at an empate, confronting fellow rural workers cutting down the forest at the behest of landlords. The peons were working under guard by armed state police, sent by a local judge who sided (as is the norm) with the landlord and ordered the police "to protect" the wood cutters. At a certain point, the rubber tappers broke into a rendition of the Brazilian national anthem. And as if on the command of a higher authority, all stood there together in the forest—police, rubber tappers, and wood cutters—and listened or sang together. I can imagine that not a few shed tears—even among the police, poor Amazonians themselves, in formation and at attention—as they sang one of the stanzas: Nossos bosques, têm mais vida (Our woods have more life). This was something out of the ordinary for Brazil, following humbly in the footsteps of luminaries in the history of nonviolent resistance such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the great Mahatma Gandhi himself.
Mendes maintained that through 1985 forty-five empates had occurred, with fifteen partial victories. These guaranteed the preservation of 1.2 million hectares of forest. Meanwhile, Chico Mendes and his followers were under attack for questioning the basic premises of developmentalism. They were accused of wanting Brazil to remain "in the Stone Age." Mendes's opponents asked typically, in denunciatory tones, in the regional media they dominated: What alternatives did the rubber tappers offer? Were Chico and the tappers against Progress?
The ideologues of modernization—ranging from World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank economists in Washington to their military government allies around Latin America—claimed that creating a strong capitalist economy would resolve the problems of all social classes. With a bigger infrastructure of roads, dams, electrification, and communication networks, along with a range of economic incentives (tax holidays, cheap credit, price subsidies for inputs) for those possessing capital, governments could foment capitalist development, and eventually the poor would have more jobs and better lives: a classic version of the "trickle down" theory. In Brazil, officials of both the military government and the subsequent civilian regimes of the New Republic defended a world order in which possessors of capital would play the essential role in national development. They would accuse the rubber tappers' movement of being in favor of keeping Brazil in the darkness of the premodern period. They went so far as to suggest that efforts such as the rubber tappers' endangered the Brazilian nation because competitors around the world, who embraced the ideological vision favoring world capitalism, would overtake and threaten Brazil.
To understand Mendes's response to this powerful regional, national, and international attack on him and his followers, it is helpful to cite his own reflections on how developmentalism had devastated his people and the countryside where they lived:
When I speak of our resistance against large-scale deforestation, I would like to keep in mind the fact that this deforestation was the result of government propaganda . . . that said that we needed to bring development and progress to our region. And with all this came the opening up of the road known as highway BR-317. The moment that this highway was put into service, the rubber tappers who found themselves living alongside of it were suddenly in the areas of easiest access, and it was in the accessible areas that most of the expulsions of rubber tappers occurred. Large landowners forcibly took over the road-front areas.
Just to give you an idea: From 1970 to 1975, in the period during which the large landowners occupied the areas alongside the road and began widespread deforestation, in my municipality of Xapuri alone the fires and earth movers destroyed 180,000 rubber trees, 80,000 Brazil nut trees, and more than 1.2 million trees of other species, including wood ostensibly safeguarded by the law, and thousands of trees of medicinal value that are so important for us. Various animal species disappeared too as they were burned out. From this point on began the violent [attacks] against us.
And all this happened because of the false propaganda of development and progress. The progress of the opening of the highway only brought ruin upon us.
Mendes and his followers knew, however, that denouncing the destruction and organizing empates would not be sufficient. They had to put their minds to inventing an alternative ideological approach to Amazonian development that would halt the destruction and integrate the dwellers of the forest into the regional development process, ending, once and for all, the developmentalist lie that Progress was destined for "men without land for land without men." They could not afford to accept passively the accusation that they offered no alternatives to the Amazon and Brazil. For that work, Chico Mendes, as well as his fellow rubber tappers and assessores like Gomercindo, turned to social scientists and non-Amazonian activists who also were deeply disturbed by trends under way in the Amazon—principally Mendes's friend from the southern state of Paraná, the anthropologist Mary Alegretti. Together they invented the notion of the extractive reserve. Again, Chico Mendes describes this process:
There was a very serious problem. We were in a very big struggle in defense of the forest, but we did not have in our minds an alternative idea, a proposal, or an argument.
Well, someone would ask, "You are fighting to defend the forest, but what is it that you want to do with the forest?" And many times we would become a little taken aback, encountering difficulty making a response.
At the end of 1984, beginning of 1985, an idea came up at the union of rubber tappers of Xapuri—our idea, to organize the first national meeting of rubber tappers in Brasília. Why Brasília? Because Brasília serves as the forum for decisions at the national level. And because in Brasília the authorities had, until that moment, considered Amazonia a vacuum with nobody living there. We wanted to prove [to them] and the rest of the world that Amazonia had people living there and that it was not deserted.
And so with the support of a few organizations . . . including a person who played an especially important role in the setting up of this meeting, Mary Alegretti[,] . . . [w]e succeeded in making the arrangements for a national conference. . . . By and by, commissions of rubber tappers left for various parts of Amazonia to bring this news to the other comrades, our brothers. In October of 1985, with a great deal of success, we held in Brasília the First National Meeting of Rubber Tappers. Throughout all the history of the occupation of Amazonia by rubber tappers there had never occurred such an event. This was a historic meeting. We got together in Brasília 130 leaders of rubber tappers from all over Amazonia [as well as] observers from Brazil and from other countries too.
Beginning from this point we discovered the idea of creating extractive reserves in the Amazon. This would be the real agrarian reform for Amazonia that we wanted, because we rubber tappers never fought to be the owners or property holders of land. What we want is that the state own the land while the rubber tappers maintain usufruct rights over it. And so this very good idea emerged.
After the meeting, government agencies released this idea all over Brazil and even to environmental organizations overseas.
The extractive reserve, combining state ownership and usufruct rights of the forest dwellers inhabiting it, was an original approach to the problem of Amazonian agrarian reform. For the first time a proposal emerged from, and involved, those who already lived there. The rubber tappers' idea took into consideration the nature of the Amazonian ecosystem, where the "wealth" of the region is not in the soils—all too often quite thin and susceptible to rapid erosion as soon as the protective forest canopy above them is removed—but in the forest canopy itself. Rubber and Brazil nuts are only the most obvious forest products that can be and are sustainably harvested. With further research, innumerable chemicals, medicines, oils, and other products could also be harvested while maintaining the forest in a manner approximating its "original" state. Furthermore, this approach would safeguard the rubber tappers and their families while offering them the economic means to integrate, on their own terms and at a reasonable pace, into the modernizing world around them. Given the enormous bundles of debt, fiscal incentives, infrastructure development, and environmental destruction that the alternative version of trickle-down "progress" entailed, it would also probably be cheaper for Brazil. Mendes made it clear when he promulgated this idea that he was not against development but rather developmentalism that insisted on classism, dismantling of the rubber tappers' communities, genocide of the indigenous people, debt to foreign banks, and environmental degradation as "the only way." He and his allies effectively reframed the problem: No longer was it a matter of if but of how there was to be development.
Intellectual and political creativity as well as realism were the cornerstones of his agrarian reform proposal for the people of the Amazon. As the rubber tappers eschewed control over the land, fighting instead for control over the resources contained on the extractive reserves, they combined the need for cooperation with scientist allies around Brazil and the world (to research and discover more Amazonian secrets for potentially rational commercialization), the embracing of communitarian values, promotion of entrepreneurialism, and increasingly sophisticated education for their sons and daughters to carry forward this challenging new vision. In telling fashion—since the idea applied in equal measure to the indigenous peoples of Amazonia who were guardians of enormous, untapped quantities of knowledge of the forests' potential contributions to the world— Mendes and his new National Council of Rubber Tappers reached out to their traditional rivals or enemies. With indigenous leaders they successfully forged the Alliance of the Peoples of the Forest to pursue the newly articulated ideology and practical plan of creating extractive reserves across the Amazon.
This set of alliances constitutes the third and crucial reason why Chico Mendes did not die a martyr only for the Amazonian causes he defended but also for like-minded peoples around the globe. While he organized the rubber tappers into effective alliances, Mendes worked as a local politician in the military government's legal opposition party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB). Later, as the military regime waned, he was one of the national founders of the Workers' Party (PT), personally allying with the urban union leader, now president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. He, Lula, and the PT in turn allied themselves with the cause of democratic socialism around the world. Meanwhile, Mendes's National Council of Rubber Tappers, his Alliance of the Peoples of the Forest (bringing together rubber tappers and Brazil's Indians), and his increasing national stature as a man defending not only his people but also the Amazon forest, drew the attention of the international environmentalist movement, which was increasingly horrified by the burning and destruction going on in the Amazon in the 1980s. Mendes of course met and began to collaborate with them also. He was to receive prestigious prizes from the Better World Society and the United Nations, recognizing his work on behalf of the environmental cause. Although it might seem trite in the context of assassination, massive destruction, dislocation, genocide, and ethnocide in which he worked, Chico Mendes embodied the adage emerging in liberal corners across the planet, "Think globally, act locally." He had gone beyond the Amazon and Brazil to become a world figure.
But in the western Amazon, regional logics of the frontier went on undisturbed. Chico Mendes's enemies did not read the environmentalist debates in prominent international newspapers. Nor were they impressed with Mendes's international prizes. On the contrary, the prizes and Mendes's growing ability to influence international bankers and U.S. senators considering support for the developmentalism under way in the Amazon infuriated his enemies. Moreover, these same regional elites—in the landlord class and in media, politics, police, and military circles—were accustomed to the reign of impunity in cases of the murder of leaders from Brazil's rural lower classes.
Chico Mendes was surrounded. However much he organized and forged alliances, he was still at the mercy of the lawlessness and murderous impulses of class warfare in Brazil's rural peripheral frontier areas, where political violence and impunity remained the effective currency. Eventually, a minor landlord stalked and killed Mendes in front of his children and wife. As Gomercindo Rodrigues's memoir recounts, the murderers, from the Alves family, were condemned and served some prison time, but the legal system limited the inquiry regarding the motive for Chico Mendes's dispute with the Alves family over a piece of territory in Xapuri. The allies of these violent individuals and their family live free to this day, still tormenting rubber tappers and indigenous people and burning the forest. There is a widely held belief—and there is little doubt that it is true—that the intellectual authors of Chico Mendes's murder were never questioned.
Given the importance Chico Mendes has attained, it is no wonder that his work has been adopted as "our work" by both the socialist and environmentalist camps. Because of his socialist utterances and writings, his socialist speeches as a city councilman, his strong unionism and status as a founder of the PT—all well documented in Gomercindo Rodrigues's memoir and elsewhere—the international socialist movement claimed him as their martyr. Meanwhile, the environmentalists—many of whom remained quite conservative politically but were insisting on finding ways to conserve the environment, particularly in the unique Amazonian biome—adopted Mendes as their martyr. Many of them would have been shocked at his socialist and communist friends and speeches.
What renders both these camps' claims problematic is that Mendes advocated a premodern lifestyle—extractivism, hunting, fishing, subsistence farming—with a postmodern twist—entrepreneurialism, communitarianism, multiethnicity—all within an internationalist framework. Socialists are notoriously impatient with the peasant worldview, which, in many ways, could be found among the tappers. Karl Marx himself famously denigrated the "idiocy" of rural life in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Leftists, from the Lula government to the FARC guerrillas in Colombia, show little understanding of or mercy for the tribal peoples of the Amazon or other regions of Latin America and the premodern production systems involving caboclos (descendants of Portuguese and indigenous people) of the Amazon. Yet Chico Mendes was creating his Alliance of the Peoples of the Forest with caboclo rubber tappers and indigenous groups. Environmentalists around the world may love the pristine, but many are preservationist and would have little understanding of or sympathy for a proposal for managing the environment, especially if the managers were in a social formation easily identified as preindustrial and uttering rhetoric—as Mendes did—that could only be characterized as socialist.
Table 1 breaks down, albeit simplistically, the complexities of Chico Mendes the leader, as described by his friend Gomercindo in his memoir and in the literature on the western Amazonian rubber tappers' movement.
As the schematic suggests, Chico Mendes and the movement he led are not easily classified. Mendes was neither exclusively a conservationist environmentalist nor a socialist. He certainly was not a preservationist environmentalist. Nor was he completely a nonviolent pacifist, as he sympathized at one point, early in his political career, with the inchoate rage of his peers when they went after the murderers of Wilson Pinheiro. Nor was he simply the subject of his story: a premodern rubber tapper, focused ethnocentrically on himself and his world. He was self-consciously a protagonist in his people's struggle, with sophisticated, arguably postmodern ideas. Mendes was attempting to reconcile potentially conflicting ideas of great consequence to his people, and his efforts serve to instruct observers dealing with analogous intellectual and practical problems around the world. He remained deeply rooted in a past social formation, so much so that he was desperate to find a way to "ease" it, almost intact, and as much as possible under the control of his rubber tapper peers, into the modern world through an innovative, very much present-day approach to agrarian reform: the extractive reserve. And in this important way, he was a man of the future and of the broader world.
He, better than any of us, understood intuitively how these sometimes contradictory ideas held together in a coherent whole. Belying the crisis of paradigms that besets the current moment in history, he fought for the tolerant, democratic society, the rural society interested in the best that urban civilization may offer, the communitarian society, the environmentalist society, the multiethnic society, the educated society, the demilitarized society, the entrepreneurial and socialist society, the preindustrial society, the postmodern society, the independent society, the egalitarian society. His was not a pastiche but a workable amalgam, where the forest, the woman, the man, the child, and the creatures might all be noble in their place, with an umbilical cord linking them to the past, present, future, and, above all, one another.