Chico Mendes – The Amazon’s First Climate Change Activist

Dan Wood

Dan Wood

Chico Mendes and his wife, Ilsamar Mendes, at their home in Xapuri, Acre, Brazil
photo credit: Miranda Smith

Who was Chico Mendes? We are going to explain the trajectory of one of the most important environmentalists who defended the conservation of the Amazon rainforest. We’ll discuss the history of rubber tapping in the Amazonia, how Chico came to lead the protests to protect the Amazon in the ’70s and ’80s, and finally, we’ll discuss his legacies, raising awareness for the climate change cause.

Get our best content on Climate Action in your inbox every week

Chico Mendes drawing
photo credit: KERYMA LOURENÇO

Who was Chico Mendes?

Francisco Alves Mendes Filho (Xapuri/Acre 1944-1998), mostly known as Chico Mendes, was a labour leader, rubber tapper and environmentalist who fought for the protection of the Amazon rainforest, the indigenous peoples, the river-dwellers and the rubber tappers.

Mendes was a climate change activist for environmental reform and conservation of the environment. His struggle was mainly in favour of the rubber tappers, the Amazon rainforest and humanity. One week after he turned 44, on December 22nd,1988, Chico Mendes was assassinated by landowners who opposed his struggle. 

Education helped Chico Mendes to become a climate change activist

Chico Mendes was born on December 15th, 1944, in the municipality of Xapuri, located in the state of Acre, Brazil. Mendes was the son of Francisco Alves Mendes and Maria Rita Mendes, a northeastern couple who migrated to the state of Amazon to work as rubber tappers.

At the age of 11, Chico Mendes started to work with his father in the extraction of latex from rubber trees. At the age of 19, Mendes learned to read and write with the help of Fernando Euclides Távora. 

Education was a key point that made Chico Mendes become a climate change activist. It helped him raise awareness towards the climate change cause, and especially around the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and the exploitation of rubber tappers. Consequently, Mendes started his fight for the conservation of the Amazon forest and climate change.

Chico Mendes photo
photo credit: Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Image

Fernando Euclides Távora was more than a teacher to Chico Mendes

Távora was a communist who actively participated in the communist uprising in the city of Fortaleza, Brazil in 1935. He went to live in the municipality of Xapuri after the Bolivian Revolution that happened in 1952, and years later he became Chico Mendes’ teacher and also his political mentor. Mendes would never see Távora again after the military coup that happened in Brazil in 1964, the Brazilian dictatorship that would go on to endure for more than 20 years, from 1964 to 1985.

The relationship between landowners and rubber tappers

The extraction of latex as an economic activity in the Amazon forest has always generated conflicts between landowners and rubber tappers. Most of the time it was based on relationships of great exploitation. In many cases, the trade involved harsh labour, the trade of rubber exchanged for industrial goods. 

This system used to generate misery and constant indebtedness from the rubber tappers because most of the time they were not paid with money. Instead, the landowners used to provide only the necessary goods to the workers for their survival or a wage far below what we might consider a ‘minimum wage’ today. 

Brazilian men involved in the rubber trade around 1900, before Ford moved his operation into the Amazon
photo credit: Frederic Lewis/Getty Images

The history of rubber tapping and the Amazon rainforest

The history of rubber was an important part of Brazil’s economic and social history that started in the mid-19th century. The biggest commercial centre of rubber was the state of Amazonas. This promising market caused the expansion of colonization and attracted wealth to some cities located in the northern region of Brazil, such as the city of Belém, Manaus and Porto Velho. 

During the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th a great number of families, who lived in other regions of Brazil, migrated to the northern region of the country to work as rubber tappers. The number of rubber tappers increased considerably during the World War II period when a great demand for rubber was required to aid the allies with weapons manufacturing as they waged war with the Nazis.

1940's rubber tappers
photo credit: Collections of The Henry Ford

The Rubber Soldiers: an enlistment program created by the Brazilian government 

In 1943, the Brazilian government created a system of enlistment of people that would be sent to the Amazon rainforest to work as rubber tappers. The rubber soldier program originated in an agreement between the United States and Brazil. Thousands of people were sent to the northern part of Brazil, especially the states of Amazonas, Pará and Acre to work on the extraction of rubber. 

Due to the fact that a large-scale war was happening during the 1940s, many people had been recruited by the Brazilian government against their will, but with a broken promise that the U.S. government would pay Brazil $100 per tapper. A large portion of the enlisted people came from the northeastern region of Brazil, where the population suffered from drought and poverty every day. 

The Brazilian rubber market demand decreased over the 20th century

Below we can see a graph that shows the production and prices of rubber from 1900 to 1930. The graph displays how the rubber market in Brazil was out-competed by the market in Southeast Asia. This decline continued after World War II, mainly because of the rise of synthetic rubber production led by a program that originated in the U.S.

Indigenous people protest in defense of the Amazon in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday. Experts from the country's satellite monitoring agency say most of the fires are set by farmers or ranchers clearing existing farmland, but the same monitoring agency has reported a sharp increase in deforestation this year as well.
photo credit: Bruna Prado/AP

The syndicates and the movement that started the fight for the Amazon in the 1970s 

In 1975, Chico Mendes helped to create the first rural workers union in the state of Acre. Mendes realised that creating a syndicate would be important to change the reality of the rubber plantations, and consequently, the union of workers soon became a symbol of resistance against widespread deforestation. One of Mendes’ legacies first organized in 1976 was a political and pacific movement called empates.

The empates consisted of the gathering of men, women and children, under the leadership of Mendes and Pinheiro, to prevent the deforestation of the forest. Most of the time this practice was successful because the rubber tappers and their allies would form a human chain to physically block the path of bulldozers and loggers at the frontiers of deforestation. Eventually, this movement would become a symbol of the struggle of the rubber tappers. 

The importance of Chico Mendes toward the preservation of the Amazon Rainforest

The empates were important to consolidate the identity of rubber tappers and also to protect the Amazon forest. Chico Mendes’ efforts ended up calling the attention of important figures in Brazil and worldwide. Mendes received awards from the United Nations and profiles in international papers for his struggles as an environmentalist and climate change activist. 

25 years after the brutal crime that took Mendes’ life, the Brazilian government published a law declaring Chico Mendes Patron of the Brazilian Environment.

“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.” MENDES, Chico.

Indigenous communities of the Amazon rainforest
photo credit: Jerónimo Zúñiga / Amazon Frontlines/File Photo

The forest peoples alliance

In 1980, Chico Mendes, together with important indigenous leaders, rubber tapper and river-dwellers created the Forest Peoples Alliance in Brazil. It was a movement that demanded the demarcation of territories and called for the creation of extractive reserves. 

In addition, the alliance aimed for an agrarian reform that could benefit all those peoples. It was fundamental for the inclusion of the rights in defence of indigenous peoples and the protection of the environment in the Brazilian constitution. Finally, the alliance of the forest peoples has been helping the reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

The Chico Mendes extractive reserve

The Chico Mendes Extractive reserve is one the most important legacies that the climate change activist left after his death. As an example of respect over the conservation of the Amazon rainforest, the extractive reserve helps to empower local communities in land-use management sustainably.

Join the tribe!

Connect your business or place of work. No credit card needed.

Chico Mendes, important environmentalists, conservation, conservation of the amazon rainforest, rubber tapping, rubber tapping in the amazon, chico, protect the Amazon, climate change, climate change cause, protection of the amazon rainforest, climate change activist, Chico Mendes was assassinated, extraction of latex, climate change cause, deforestation, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, Brazilian dictatorship, amazon forest, the rubber soldiers, extraction of rubber, rubber market in brazil, synthetic rubber production, widespread deforestation, save the amazon rainforest, fighting for humanity, forest peoples alliance, forest peoples alliance in brazil, reduction of emissions, forest degradation, extractive reserves, protection of the environment, Chico Mendes extractive reserve.