Outside magazine, October 1997
After he was cut down, his ideas took root
By Kate Wheeler
Had the Brazilian ranchers who murdered Chico Mendes known what was coming, they might never have shot him that hot night in December 1988, just as he stepped out of his house. Back then, in those wild western precincts of Brazil near the Bolivian border, murder seemed a routine first step in the clearing of rainforest land, preparatory
to chainsawing, burning, and the ultimate conversion to cow pasture. In the year and a half leading up to the Mendes case, 458 land-related murders were committed in Brazil, nearly always with impunity. But within hours of Mendes’s death, international furor began to build. So many journalists, Hollywood emissaries, and government officials arrived in his hometown of
Xapuri that one bewildered resident was heard to inquire, “Who died here ù Jesus?”
No, but Mendes, through mild charisma and obstinate politicking, had worked miracles. At his command, swarms of rubber tappers would materialize out of the trees to stall and harass logging crews. He had forced two huge beef producers to quit the area for good. Working with the Environmental Defense Fund, he’d convinced international bankers to block the
construction of a new highway. And he’d accomplished these things with no formal education or stature to speak of. In fact, Mendes had been born into debt slavery. As a boy, he followed his tapper father through the forest’s dim vaults, etching tattoos on the bark of rubber trees, collecting the milky sap. Out of this upbringing came his simple, radical thesis: that
trees shouldn’t be left alone, that on the contrary they must be used by humans, that sustainable extraction offers an alternative to the rainforest’s steady annihilation.
Though the Mendes prosecution was botched, one of his killers, Darly Alves, is now in jail (reportedly the first murder conviction won in the state of Acre in 20 years). Mendes, meanwhile, has come to rest at the apex of our late century’s pantheon of ecological martyrs, along with Karen Silkwood and Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. The razing of the rainforest has
continued at an alarming pace, but it’s never returned to the peak seen during the year of Mendes’s death, when more than 7,500 square miles burned. Since then, millions of acres of preserves have been created, and government ranching subsidies have ceased. A tapper sits in the senate; another is mayor of Xapuri. And Mendes’s ideas about sustainable extraction have
become guiding principles for conservationists worldwide.
The whole rainforest vogue, the Sting concerts, the yuppie sacrament of Rainforest Crunch ù it all came too late to save Mendes. But the world’s resounding response has invalidated the prediction that Mendes often voiced during moments of despair: that his death would mean nothing, that the ranchers would prevail, that a man would fall in the forest and no
one would notice.