The destruction of Acre, in the Western Brazilian Amazon began in 1877, with the arrival of peasants from Brasil's Northeast, escaping from drought and misery. They were brought to the forest as cheap labour to exploit rubber for the benefit of the so called “seringalistas”, composed by powerful Brazilian and foreign economic groups. They were even forced to fight against the indigenous peoples that inhabited that land: only ten out of the sixty indigenous nations that lived in the Jurua valley, in Acre, survived and their population decreased dramatically. As time went by, the “seringueiros” –workers in rubber production- had to adapt to that new environment, learning from the ancestral traditions of indigenous peoples how to live in the forest.
Francisco (Chico) Mendes, as well as his own father, was one of them. He was born in 1944 at Pote Seco in the Porto Rico “seringal”. He was able to overcome the environment of misery and illiteracy were he lived thanks to Euclides Fernandes Tavora, a political refugee that lived in the Amazon, who tought him to read at the age of nine in a land without schools. By that time, after the Second World War, Brazilian rubber production was suffering a severe crisis due to the competition of the South Asian production. The worse for the Amazon was still to come.
In 1965, the Brazilian Government began to promote the “development” of the Amazonian region, trying to attract investors from the industrialized Southern Brazil through colonization programmes. The propaganda stated that in Acre land was abundant and cheap. At the beginning of the seventies the Transamazonic highway started to be constructed and with it the desintegration of the whole region accelerated. Between 1970 and 1975 the “fazendeiros” –big landowners- purchased 6 million hectares of land in Acre, with support from the state. They imposed terror to intimidate the one thousand families of seringueiros that lived there: their houses were set on fire, their cattled was killed, their women abused. At the same time, the forests were rapidly destroyed. By 1975, 180.000 rubber trees (“seringueiras”) and 80.000 chestnut trees (“castanheiras”) disappeared because of logging and fires, to clear up land for commercial agriculture and cattle raising. Newcomers received illegal land titles on the territories occupied by the seringueiros or ancestrally inhabited by indigenous peoples.
The serigueiros began to organize resistance against this depredation. The famous “empate” movements were created and Chico Mendes was one of the people’s leaders. They consisted of groups of seringueiros and their families that moved into the different places where logging or fires were to take place, opposing peaceful resistance. Considering their material forces, they achived great success, since 15 out of 45 “empates” carried out from 1977 to 1987 resulted in victory and in those places the forest was saved. However, their greatest impact was at the international level. What seemed to be only a local fight for survival began to be perceived as a broad environmental movement, involving political, social and economic aspects. The policy of the Brazilian government, promoting an unsustainable development model based upon the destruction of the forest and the misery of the poorer, as well as the support from the multilateral banks, that financed the opening of roads in the region, –for example the BR 364 Porto Velho–Rio Branco, built with money lent by the Inter-American Development Bank- were publically denounced.
Chico Mendes and the seringueiros promoted the idea of the so-called extractivist reserves. These are areas where the production of rubber is complemented by the gathering of native fruits, herbs and other products. “We, the seringueiros, don’t want to transform the Amazon in a sanctuary; we just want the forest not to be destroyed. To the question of what our proposal is, we answer that, besides discussing about our fight to stop destruction, we have started to think of an alternative proposal for the conservation of the Amazon forest. This proposal is based on the creation of extractivist reserves. The seringueiros are not interested in or want property rights, we don’t want to be owners of the land . . . We present an economically feasible alternative, that gives priority to the extractivist products that exist in the Amazon, which are nowadays menaced and were never taken into account by the Brazilian Government” said Chico in 1990.
In the meantime, violence in Acre increased. After the murder of a leader of the seringueiros in 1988, the Federal Government established the first extractivist reserves at Cachoeira and Sao Luis do Remanso. The rage of the fazendeiros reached a climax and on December 22nd 1998 Chico Mendes was murdered by one of them, while at home in Xapiru. During a speech a few days before his murder Chico already knew what awaited him. He said: “I only want that my death contributes to halt the impunity of the killers, who count on the protection of the police of Acre, and which have already killed 50 persons like me, seringueiro leaders, committed to save the Amazon forest and to show that progress without destruction is possible.”
Ten years after that tragic day some things have changed. Jorge Viana, who worked very closely with Chico, has been recently elected as governor of Acre. But the international price of rubber has continued to drop, thus destimulating its production. Some of the seringueiros have therefore been forced to clear the land for planting rice, corn or beans. The destruction of the Amazon forests not only continues but has even accelerated: in 1978, 13 million hectares were deforested, but the figure reached 37 million in 1988 and 41 million in 1990. Nevertheless the new government of Acre is thinking of promoting the diversification of production at the extractivist reserves, as a way of making them viable to save the forest and the seringueiros. That is what Chico lived and died for.
Sources: Chico Mendes, “A luta dos Povos da Floresta”, Geografia, Pesquisa e Pratica Social, Terra Livre 7, 1990; Rodrigo França Taves, “O Acre dez anos depois da morte de Chico Mendes”, O Globo, 29/11/1998; Fundacion Proteger, “¿Quien era chico Mendes?”, 4/12/98.