Chico Mendes

Chico Mendes was born December 15, 1944 in Xapuri, Acre, Brazil. He was assassinated 44 years later in the same place. He is survived by his wife, Ilzamar Gadelha Mendes, and his three children, Angela, Elenira, and Sandino. Mendes was originally known as Francisco Alves Mendes Filho and was famously recognized for being a trade union leader and environmentalist, activist, as well as a rubber tapper. Mendes fought to save the Amazon rainforest and stood up for human rights of peasants and indigenous people of Brazil.


Official Positions To Further His Activism

Chico Mendes learned the skill of a rubber tapper from his father and this is where he became aware of all the injustices surrounding him. In Acre, where Mendes is from, 130 ranchers banished over 100,000 rubber tappers from the region and, aforementioned, Mendes fought back encouraging people to stand with him in front of their equipment. In order to further his cause, in 1975, he became a trade union leader as the secretary of “Sindicato dos trabalhadores Rurais de Brasiléia,” which translates to “Union of Rural workers of Brazil.” The jungle was facing deforestation and this would take a major blow at the rubber tapping profession. Starting in 1976, he began to participate in social and protest movements in hopes of ending the deforestation. These movements called for people to protect the trees with their bodies and guard the land that belonged to the natives. In the midst of this, Mendes was elected town councilor in 1977. This is the same year that he started to receive death threats for fighting against major corporations wanting to exploit the Amazon rainforest.

In 1979, Chico Mendes was accused of subversion by the state. This resulted in harsh interrogations and torture. Shortly after, Mendes becomes president of the “Sindicato de Xapuri”. In that position, he hosted the first ever National Rubber Gatherers Meeting. The Naçoes Unidas no Brasil (UNO) visited Chico Mendes in 1987 so they could investigate and see for themselves the devastation that had come to the rainforest. Three months after their visit, the financing of major logging projects was suspended and Mendes was accused once again (ChicoMendes.com).

Life After Death

In 1988, Chico Mendes became known as an eco-martyr. On December 22, Mendes stepped outside of his home and was met with a shotgun. His murderer ran away into the woods expecting to be forgotten, but Mendes story had been shared around the world. Earlier in the year, Americans and Europeans had turned their attention to the deforestation of the Amazon rain forest and its impact on global warming. Some scientists argued “a living pharmacy was going up in smoke before even 1 percent of the Amazon’s plants had been studied.” This devastation would have lasting consequences for the global environment. Even after death, Mendes was a catalyst for a popular outlook that “the wealth of the Amazon resides in its profusion of plants and animal life, not in its thin, sandy soil.” (Brooke, 1990).

Conflicting Views of Mendes on the Big Screen

After Mendes’ death, he became an icon of the environmental movement. But how he is remembered is sometimes subject to controversy as well. In 1994, a movie called “The Burning Season” was released and caused a lot of mixed emotions and reactions. Before being released on HBO, the film was aired at the Rio de Janeiro film festival in Brazil. Some were ashamed that an American film company made the film, some felt the story was exaggerated, some felt that Chico Mendes was portrayed wrongly, many were bothered that the issues Mendes fought and died for are still happening, and some felt pride. Because the validity of the story came into question, Zuenir Ventura, a respected Brazilian reporter noted his frustration that the film began with saying that this was a true story, not based on a true story, when this was not how Brazilians remember it.

For example, many had said that Mendes strongly opposed the building of a road into the rainforest, but many pointed out that Mendes had never been against the construction of the road, but unfair distribution of land and that the road would encourage burning and clearing. Jorge Antonio Alves, a rubber tapper who worked with Chico Mendes said, “we need roads, we want roads”. Alves, at the time, was president of the workers’ cooperative in Xapuri. The movie also depicts a child being shot in the midst of demonstrators. Alves argued that no children were ever killed. There is also discussion of the representation of the actual personality of Chico Mendes. The movie presents him as a peaceful man, but Ventura said, “he was a militant of the 90s, not an activist of the 60s” and continued that “Mendes was an aggressive communist whose activism was rooted in class struggle.” This view is incredibly different from others who compared him to Ghandi. So, who is right? (Harris, 1994).

The Shaping of Chico Mendes

Who he is depends on who you are. Something that can be agreed upon is that he fought for preservation of the rainforest and human rights. This caused him to be viewed as either a “life-saving hero” or a troublemaker. Abovementioned, he worked as a rubber tapper like his father and the rest of his family. The people who owned the land did not want the workers to have an education so they would not realize how poor of treatment they were receiving. While most children born on the plantation did not survive, Chico did and was required to work at the age of 9. He could never understand why him and the other workers were in debt and this inspired him to learn as much as he could. In 1960, Euclides Fernando Távora, an educated tapper came to work and became a mentor who would shape Chico Mendes to be the strong willed activist. In order to understand whom a person is, it is important to know where they came from (Kile, 2015). “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

Tessa Meeks

Bibliography

Brooke, James. “Why They Killed Chico Mendes.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 18 Aug. 1990. Web. 20 Sept. 2016.

“CHICO MENDES AND THE RUBBER TAPPERS OF BRAZIL. FREE MOVIE.” CHICO MENDES AND THE RUBBER TAPPERS OF BRAZIL. FREE MOVIE. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

Harris, Ron. “‘The Burning Season’ Fires Up Audience : Television: The Brazilian Premiere of HBO’s Story of Murdered Rubber Tapper Chico Mendes, Starring Raul Julia, Elicits Boos, Cheers and Tears.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 05 Sept. 1994. Web. 20 Sept. 2016.

Kile, James. “Chico Mendes.” Moral Heroes. N.p., 14 Dec. 2015. Web.

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