Chico Mendes

December 15, 1944 – December 22, 1988

“If a messenger from the sky came down and guaranteed that my death would strengthen our struggle, it would be worth it.  But experience teaches us the contrary.  It’s not with big funerals and motions of support that we’re going to save the Amazon.  I want to live.”

Chico Mendes, was a Brazilian rubber tapper, trade union leader and environmentalist. He fought to preserve the Amazon rain forest, and advocated for the human rights of Brazilian peasants and indigenous peoples. He was assassinated by a rancher on December 22, 1988.

Born in Brazil, Chico grew up in a family of rubber tappers (also known as seringueiros.) Rubber tapping has been practiced by families in the Amazon for generations.  It is a process whereby one harmlessly extracts sap from rubber trees, which is then used in such products as car tires and pencil erasers.  Rubber tapping is one of the many ways in which the resources of the Amazon are exploited without permanently damaging the ecosystem.  It is a sustainable agricultural system, and Chico Mendes followed in his father’s footsteps in becoming a segingueiro.

To save the rain forest, Chico Mendes and the rubber workers union asked the government to set up reserves as they wanted people to use the forest without damaging it. They also used a very effective technique they called the ’empate’ where rubber tappers blocked the way into rubber reserves, preventing their destruction.

For the cattle ranchers and mining interests in Brazil, “sustainable agriculture” impedes profit-making.  Much money can be made by tearing down the forest as fast as possible and replacing it with pastureland and strip mines.  What the ranchers and miners leave behind is a shattered wasteland, a ruined desert where once stood a forest more than 180 million years old.

Nor surprisingly, Mendes encountered a great deal of opposition from industrialists and corrupt government officials when he fought to stop the slash and burn of the forest for pasture and strip mines.  He was jailed, fined and threatened, but nothing could deter him from his mission to save his beloved jungle. He advocated a return to sustainable agricultural systems and urged his fellow Brazilians to protest nonviolently against corporations that would rob them of their livelihoods.  On December 22, 1988, Chico was shot to death outside his home in Xapuri just before dark.

Chico Mendes’ death legitimized the struggle for conservation and unionization in the Amazon for a global audience, and support for the movements poured in immediately following his death. The strides forward made by activists in the wake of Mendes’ death are multifaceted, encompassing Indigenous sovereignty and alliance, the formation of extractive reserves, and government support for Mendes’ activism.

Following his death, the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve was created in March 12, 1990 with the intention of maintaining sustainability of resources within the Amazon forests. The Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve is the largest extractive reserve within the Amazon, covering nearly one million hectares of land. Its creation marked a shift for reserves within the Amazon, after which many other extractive reserves were established. They now account for approximately 13% of the Amazon’s total area.

Mendes won several awards for his work, including the United Nations Environmental Program Global 500 Roll of Honor Award in 1987, and the National Wildlife Federation’s National Conservation Achievement Award in 1988. (Extracts from Wikipedia)

“At first I thought I was fight to save the rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rain forest, now I realize I am fighting to save humanity.”

This picture is a needlepoint portrait from my “Persons of Interest” series.  The title is a play on the phrase because the subjects of these portraits are people who have drawn the negative attention of governments and others who felt threatened by them, as well as being of particular interest to me because of how much they inspire me to be a better person and to dedicate myself to help other people.  Portraits are approximate three feet square with 130,000 stitches and require 160 hours to complete.

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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