With help from Vox Media, we explain how Chico Mendes began what is now a long-standing battle to protect the Amazon rainforest. A local rubber tapper from the state of Acre, in Brazil, who campaigned and blockaded parts of the forest from loggers wishing to deforest in the 1970s and 80s. Chico Mendes’s voice and work helped protect the amazon rainforest, making it a global issue. He paid a price for that publicity, assassinated soon after his 44th birthday. . .
Chico Mendes was murdered in December 1988, following his fight over a number of years to protect the Amazon rainforest. For many years, the Amazon basin has offered an opportunity, rich in rubber which men like Chico and rubber tappers like him have been farming naturally to produce latex. It was exclusive to the forest. First used for mass scale purposes by European nations entering their industrial revolutions., for things such as motorcars and rubber tires. It lost it’s exclusively in the 1870s, following 70K rubber tree plant seeds being secretly exported and planted elsewhere. Once production was up, demand for the Brazilian rubber tappers balanced out, until the 20th century. Then the demand for rubber and other resources grew as the world went to war.
And with that demand, began deforestation in the Amazon, rubber barons recruiting tens of thousands and forcing them to extract rubber in harsh conditions. At the same time not only was rubber needed by the world but also iron and mineral deposits to help construct weapons. Then following the wars, it occurred to make land available to grow cattle and soy as world populations increased. Though the wider forest was under threat, the rubber barons eventually moved on leaving rubber tappers to be able to farm on their own terms.
Chico Mendes was a rubber tapper who secured his goods using renewable methods of extraction. Having worked for the rubber barons, and living in the state of Acre, he realised that the forest was an important natural resource that needed protecting. And so, in the 1970s and 1980’s he campaigned to protect the Amazon rainforest, blockading loggers trying to enter the forest, and publically speaking out when given the opportunity to do so.
The forest and Chico eventually secured global attention, international organisations withdrawing tens of millions of dollars from the development of the Amazon. Extraction reserves were created for the rubber tappers, but at great cost. Cattle ranchers, who felt the land should not be protected, took the law into their own hands, with 89 environmental activists killed in the year the first reserves were created, including Chico Mendes.
A Chico Mendes Extraction Reserve was created in his honour following his/their deaths, as were over 100 similar reserves. Progress was made within the next couple of decades to reduce deforestation and protect the forests. Recently, this progress was undone, the long-standing battle waging once more following the election of a new Brazilian government. One supporting the agenda of cattle ranchers and industrialists with commercial interests in and around the forest. Despite this though there is still hope and a new way to stop them once and for all if we act now.
Here Vox Media tells the incredible story of how a rubber tapper called Chico Mendes started in the 1970s and credibly fought what is now a long-standing battle to protect the Amazon rainforest. Below, we have shared the transcript of their original video ‘The war for the Amazon’s most valuable trees’.
New reader – ‘Old City in the Amazon. Mr Mendez was shot dead outside his home in Northwestern Brazil on Thursday.’
Deep in the Amazon in December of 1988, the fate of the rainforest was changed by a murder. In the small town of Sheppard II, Chico Mendes was shot and killed.
New reader – ‘The victim was devoted to serving Brazil’s irreplaceable rainforests and he paid for that apparently with his life.’
Two armed guards have been hired to protect him but they were inside his house when Chico was hit by a bullet in his backyard. Chico had led the fight to protect the largest rainforest on the planet. It was a fight that alerted the world to the exploitation of the Amazon and changed the makeup of the rainforest for decades to come.
The Amazon basin is rich in rubber trees that produce latex and for a long time they were exclusive to this rainforest. Native people had collected latex or liquid rubber for centuries. But in the late 1800s, after the Europeans turned their attention to it, people started extracting latex on a mass scale. It became a valuable material in rapidly industrialized nations where motorcars with rubber tires started hitting the road. The Amazon quickly turned into a very profitable global resource, especially in Brazil where businessmen started moving into the rainforest to keep up with the high demand.
Wealthy rubber barons forced indigenous people to work for them as rubber stoppers and they directed waves of migrants from the coast to the rainforest. River Stoppers were forced to work in exchange for the use of the land tools or food so the more they worked the more they were in debt to their bosses. However, the rubber boom wouldn’t last long. in the 1870s an English colonist (Henry Wickham) smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of the Amazon. The seeds went from Brazil to British colonies in Southeast Asia where they began harvesting rubber at a lower cost.
Over the years as rubber from these plantations flooded the market, prices fell and the rubber boom in the Amazon collapsed.
Demand did spike again though during the Second World War when rubber became critical to making weapons and vehicles.
FDR – “We are going to see to it that there is enough rubber to build the planes to bomb Tokyo and Berlin. Enough rubber to build the tank to crush the enemy wherever we find him. Enough rubber to win this war.”
The Brazilian government recruited tens of thousands and forced them to extract latex under harsh conditions. After the war demand collapsed again and most rubber barons moved on to other businesses, leaving many rubber tappers in the rainforest where they settled and were now free to harvest rubber on their own terms.
Among those allowed to stay and work on their own terms was Chico Mendes, a young rubber tapper who started out working under rubber bosses.
“Chico was a born leader. At 15 years old, he already cared about the way the bosses treated the rubber tappers. From a young age, he showed he could be the leader that he became.” Ramundo Mendes De Barros, Chico’s cousin.
Chico’s time to lead would come in the 70s and 80s when the Amazon began seeing deforestation at an unprecedented rate. Chico Mendes and the rubber tappers lived freely in the state of Acre for about a decade. They harvested rubber and collected Brazil nuts sustainably without damaging the forests and made a living selling what they gathered to travelling merchants. But there was a problem on the horizon.
At the time Brazil was led by a military regime that wanted to use the Amazon for economic development. So they opened it up to ranchers for business. They took over large estates. typically occupied by rubber stoppers, and cleared the forest to make room for their cattle.
“The politics of land speculation and the large-scale deforestation that have as their objectives the substitution of man by cattle. It would be a disaster if this process were allowed to continue in our region” Chico Mendes
The ranchers used intimidation tactics to expel rubber tappers. They hired gunmen and set fires to tear down the trees. But the rubber tappers got together and fought back. They organized in blockades or they’d sit in front of trees or block the path to the rubber reserves to prevent loggers and bulldozers from coming through. Chico and Raimundo were both on the front lines.
“The blockades were our way to kick out workers who were cutting down the trees. We brought together men, women and even children when the fight got tough to go to the deforestation frontlines.” Ramundo
Protecting the rubber tappers way of life was at the heart of the struggle led by Chico. However, over the years it turned into a much bigger fight for survival. The government, backed by international organizations, built roads in the Amazon which brought deforestation to different corners of the rainforest.
As a result, by 1987 nearly 300,000 square kilometres of the rainforest had been torn down. The fight to prevent deforestation extended throughout the Amazon and Chico became its spokesperson on a global stage.
“The Amazon is the greatest biological resource in the world. Together we can preserve the forest and make it productive. Securing this immense treasure for the future of all our children.” Chico
And the world began to pay attention.
International organizations withdrew tens of millions of dollars from the development of the Amazon. A small extraction reserve was created for rubber tappers in Acer in 1988. The first of its kind in Brazil. The land would be owned by the state but rubber tappers like Raimundo would have the right to live and work on it.
“Not only do we make a living out of it, but we preserve it. We don’t destroy it.” Ramundo.
The reserve would keep everyone else out, especially cattle ranchers, making this entire reserve legally protected from deforestation. But in 1988 protecting the rainforest came at a deadly cost. 89 environmental activists were killed that year alone.
“I’ve already escaped six attempts on my life from the enemy. Still, I have a moral commitment to myself. I cannot abandon the struggle even if one day I should be struck by an assassin’s bullet.” Chico
Cattle ranchers looking to expand their business in the Amazon saw Chico as a threat. He was given armed guards for protection but just days after his 44th birthday he was shot in his backyard. His killers were cattle ranchers. A father and a son whose land had just become a protected area.
“I found out around 3 am. It’s still something that makes me sad. Chico was simply fighting for the rights of people who up until then, had no rights recognized by the state. He shouldn’t have been brutally killed like he was. “ Ramundo
Chico’s death pushed changes forward in the Amazon. A larger Chico Mendes extractive reserve was created in 1990. Today it is still the biggest in the Amazon and has protected more than 2 million acres of rainforest from a lot of the deforestation that surrounds it. It’s home to about ten thousand people who can freely maintain their traditions and livelihoods.
Since Chico’s death, many extractive reserves have been created. There are more than a hundred spread throughout the Amazon. However, the fight isn’t over. Brazil’s current government has pushed for more economic development in the Amazon while downplaying Chico’s struggle.
They’ve also scaled back efforts to preserve the Amazon leaving protected areas at risk all over again. Nearly half of the deforestation is taking place in protected areas, including the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, where ranchers are reportedly persuading rubber tappers to clear their land for money. Sustainable development is now a major issue in the region.
“Some of the rubber tappers who fought alongside us are now cutting down trees to raise cattle.“ Ramundo
Some, like Ramundo’s son, are committed to keeping Chico’s legacy alive.
“We will keep fighting to protect what our family and their friends fought for. We need to defend their cause.” Ramundo’s son
“At first, he believed he was protecting the rubber tappers and the forest. But then he realized, he was protecting the Amazon and the world .” Ramundo
“My dear great grandfather Chico Mendes,
“His legacy is an example that should guide all of us in keeping nature in our minds as a solution and a means to constructing a better world for all”, said Claudio Maretti, head of WWF’s Amazon Initiative.
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.” Chico Mendes
Chico Mendes represented the collective voice of millions who responded to the call to protect the Amazon rainforest, resulting in over 100 reserves being created. For a time, not long into this century, there was an incredible period of hope for the forest, with Brazil’s government and leaders like Marina Silva investing in environmental protection, expanding the reserve territories. and significantly slowing down the rate of deforestation.
Sadly, commercial interests have allowed these efforts to be thwarted, the election of Bolsanaro in Brazil in 2019 now threatening all that has been achieved, befouling Chico Mendes legacy and the many that supported him. We can still restore and honour it, provided enough resources and support is given to those now on the ground in the Amazon. We can purchase the land the forest sits within, conserving what is currently left. And we can also work with local non-profits and businesses to fund the on-going conservation and legal protection of these lands. The Amazon rainforest and forests like it can be made safe for generations.
Thank you to Vox Media for their amazing journalism. Thank you to our many partners and supporters who continue the battle to protect our Amazon Rainforest. And thank you to Chico Mendes and to the many first activists and conservationists who had the courage to protest and blockade the first loggers many decades before us.
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