On the night of December 22, 1988, Chico Mendes was shot to death by a single shotgun blast outside his family’s house. He was the nineteenth environmental activist to be killed in Brazil that year.
Chico Mendes was born on December 15, 1944 in the small Brazilian village of Seringal Santa Fé, outside of Xapuri. His was a family of rubber tappers, people who make their living sustainably by tapping the sap of local rubber trees. Like many rural people, his family also supplemented their income by harvesting nuts and fruits from the rainforest.
Mendes started working when he was nine years old, and never received any formal schooling until late in life; he learned to read until he was about 20 years old.
During the 1970s, Brazil’s rubber tappers began to organise, he was soon elected president of the Xapuri Rubber Tappers’ Union. Mendes was also instrumental in organizing Brazil’s National Council of Rubber Tappers in the mid-1980s, an alliance of rubber tappers, river dwellers, and indigenous people that became known as the “Peoples of the Forest,” to advocate for the rights of poor people and against deforestation. He was soon elected leader of the group.
Once he said: “At first I thought I was fighting to save the rubber trees; then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity.”
Chico’s roots in the Amazonian region made him a different leader, one who sought new ways to move forward. He was close to environmentalists, scientists, anthropologists, and educators to help improve life in the forest. Initially, his movement resisted expulsion and fought for land tenure. What he sought was not a plot of land to farm, but a broader collective commitment to the land that included the forest, rivers, streams, and animals.
Chico began the practice of the human chain in the Amazon, known as an “empate,” They stood in front of chainsaws and blocked bulldozers.
As President of the National Council of Rubber Tappers, he partnered with the international conservation movement, and pioneered the idea of “extractive reserves” as a way for forest people to make a living while preserving the forest.
There was (and still is) immense economic pressure, however, to clear the rainforest for cattle grazing. Despite evidence that harvesting the forest’s rubber, fruits, nuts and other commodities is a more sustainable practice that creates more income over a longer period of time, clear-cutting the rainforest was occurring at an accelerating rate in the 1980s.
When 130 ranchers expelled some 100,000 tappers from the rainforest, Mendes and his laborers fought back, rallying whole families to stand in front of chainsaws and block bulldozers. Their efforts met with some success and attracted the attention of the international environmental community.
In 1987 the Environmental Defence Fund and the National Wildlife Federation invited Mendes to attend the annual conference of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Washington, D.C., here he spoke to members of Congress about an IDB-funded road project in Acre that threatened the rainforest and its inhabitants. Both the IDB and the World Bank subsequently endorsed the idea of establishing extractive reserves. Bowing to international pressure, the Brazilian government created the first extractive reserve in 1988.
Among many other honours, Mendes was the 1987 recipient of the Global 500 Award of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for environmental activism in the face of immense social, political, and logistical obstacles. In December 1988 he was shot and killed in front of his house in Xapuri. Chico Mendes in his own words: “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for our humanity.”