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The life and legacy of Chico Mendes

A deforested area in Brazil
Deforestation of the Amazon is as much an issue now as in the late 1980s

Twenty years ago Amazon environmentalist Chico Mendes was shot dead in front of his home in the remote Brazilian state of Acre. He had campaigned for years to stop the slashing and burning of the rainforest.

Brazil specialist Sue Branford, who met him, reflects on his life and legacy:

I will never forget the death of Chico Mendes. A friend in Brazil phoned early in the morning to tell me that he had been shot dead outside his home.

I felt not surprise but anger and sadness that the Amazon forest, already in 1988 under serious threat from loggers and farmers, had lost such a powerful ally.

I had met Chico some two years earlier, on a visit to his home town of Xapuri in the state of Acre in the west of the Amazon basin.

Sitting on a bench in the town's square, he told me that his parents, like hundreds of others, had been brought from the dry, impoverished north-east of Brazil to Acre so they could collect rubber for the Allies during the World War II.

Social justice

When the war ended, demand for natural rubber plummeted but few of the families could afford the journey back home of some 2,000 miles (3,200 km).

Francisco "Chico" Mendes in 1988
In 1990 a local rancher was convicted of ordering his murder

Most had stayed in Acre, scratching out a living in the forest. Chico himself had been collecting rubber since he was 11 years old and he had only learned to read and write when he was 20.

When I met him Chico was already a legend, at least in the Amazon basin.

In the 1970s, cattle ranchers had begun to move in from southern Brazil and were slashing and burning the forest.

Faced with eviction and loss of livelihood, the rubber-tappers had organised themselves.

Gathering in large groups, they had confronted the teams of men sent in to fell the forest and had persuaded them to lay down their chain-saws.

As mad about football as other Brazilians, the rubber-tappers had dubbed this tactic the "empate", the equaliser.

By the time I met Chico, they had already used empates to prevent hundreds of acres of land from being cut down.

I had expected someone tough and militant but Chico was surprisingly modest and unpretentious. Yet it was also clear that he was passionate in his political beliefs, driven by a burning sense of social justice.

Indeed, he was an active trade unionist and had helped set up the Amazon branch of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), the left-wing political party created in the early 1980s by Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (now the country's president) and other urban trade unionists.

Chico had a profound love of the tropical forest. As we walked at a fast pace through the trees to visit a community of rubber-tappers, he was constantly pointing out with delight parrots and other birds, though generally all I managed to see was a flash of colour.

Powerful alliance

Politically astute, he had realised that he could form a potentially powerful alliance with environmental activists throughout the world.

My dream is to see this entire forest conserved because we know it can guarantee the future of all the people who live in it
Chico Mendes

When I met him, Chico was already receiving death threats from cattle ranchers.

Whenever we were in a bar, he sat with his back to the wall so he could keep a constant eye on people coming in.

He complained of stomach ulcers and said that his wife wanted him to pull out of the struggle because of his responsibility to her and their two small children.

Yet this was one sacrifice that Chico could not make. He carried on with his work and the threats increased.

Chico realised that he was going to be killed. Shortly before his assassination, he wrote a letter in which he said:

"My dream is to see this entire forest conserved because we know it can guarantee the future of all the people who live in it...If a messenger from heaven came down and guaranteed that my death would help to strengthen the struggle, it could even be worth it. But experience teaches us the opposite... I want to live."

But it was not to be. In the event, Chico's murder caused a furore at home and abroad.

Partly as a result, 20 reserves were eventually created for rubber-tappers and other local communities.

Yet the relentless destruction of virgin Amazon forest has continued.

One cannot help but share Chico's belief that perhaps he would have achieved more alive than dead.

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