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Brazil remembers slain activist

Chico Mendes - file photo
Chico Mendes became an icon of the environmental movement

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has led tributes to the Amazon rubber-tapper Chico Mendes on the 20th anniversary of his murder.

Mr Mendes is seen as a pioneer of the environmental movement who mobilised local forest communities to stop the advance of loggers and ranchers.

He was shot dead outside his home in the state of Acre on 22 December 1988.

His legacy was the creation of a network of reserves where people can make a living from the forest.

Mr Lula said that Brazil should give more recognition to people like Mendes, the Associated Press reports.

The country has "many Chico Mendes", who "need to be saved," the president said in a radio address.

The rubber-tappers' leader had spent years encouraging poor communities to protect the rubber trees that gave them their livelihood against large landowners who wanted to clear the forest for cattle ranching.

Pressures

After Mr Mendes's murder, the government began to set up extractive reserves, which now number 20 and where a limited number of local families can make a living from activities like rubber-tapping and nut-gathering.

But the union set up by Mr Mendes is now fighting action by federal environment officials against former rubber-tappers who have cleared areas of forest for cattle pasture in the reserve named after him.

Aerial shot showing land cleared for crops in the Amazon
Deforestation occurs to clear land for cattle and crops, and for timber

The union argues that the low price of natural rubber makes it impossible to earn a decent living from the forest - a reminder, says the BBC's Tim Hirsch in Sao Paulo, that 20 years on from the murder of Chico Mendes, pressures on the Amazon are as great as ever.

Earlier this month, the Brazilian government announced a plan to reduce deforestation rates in the Amazon region by 70% over the next 10 years.

This year, the rate of Amazon deforestation increased for the first time in four years.

The situation of environmental campaigners also remains difficult. Since the murder of Chico Mendes, more than 1,100 people, including rural workers, priests and judges have been killed in land disputes, according to the Pastoral Land Commission.

Very few of the murders have been solved or the perpetrators punished.

After a long and complicated trial, a local rancher and his son were jailed for 19 years in 1990 for Chico Mendes's but were freed after serving a third of their sentences.

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