Chico Mendes was elected to the Fellowship in November 1988. On December 23 of that year, this gentle, extraordinary colleague of ours was murdered outside his home by gunmen hired by a local cattle rancher. Ashoka wrote the following profile in November. Chico has been mourned across the globe for who he was, what he has done, and what he symbolized. But because his chief focus was on what he was setting out to do, we have left his profile as it was written when he was elected. Set apart by his gentle, courageous way, Chico Mendes is easily perceived as a Gandhi of the Amazon. He is (and for twenty-five years has been) a rubbertapper. Seeing that both the Amazon and its several million people are at risk, he has set himself the difficult, dangerous task of organizing the region's peoples.
The New Idea
The Amazon is most likely to survive if the people who depend on it survive, and vice versa. The Brazilian nut gatherer will have to become a favela (slum)squatter if Brazil's trees are burned down to make way for cattle grazing. However, if the rubber tappers, the gatherers of Brazil nuts and medicines, and the hunters and fishermen can organize to argue for their interests and those of the rain forest on which they depend, they may be able to prevail. They should prevail because, at least for much of the Amazon, theirs is the most sustainable economic use of the land. Once the rain forest's shallow, fragile soil is exposed, it generally will not sustain even ranching for long. If those who live from the forest can stop the on rush of thoughtless development long enough for a coherent debate, at least in these vast areas they should win the argument.
Chico Mendes started organizing his neighbors in Xapuri, Acre, near the Bolivian border. Over the last decade he has experimented with different approaches and been guided by as many emotions. He has been outraged and angry. He tried politics briefly after the return of democracy but discovered that its divisions weakened his work. He has now found both his approach and his style. After years of building in his home area, he is now reaching out to the other chief regions of the Amazon.
Ashoka Fellow Mary Allegretti crystallized the idea of "extractive reserves" in meetings with Mendes and other Amazon grassroots leaders. He has made it a central part of his work, and several of the first such functioning reserves are in Acre, his home state. In these reserves, no one person owns the land. Instead the people responsible for the myriad specialized uses of the forest from honey gathering to rubber tapping are given long-term leases subject to environmental safeguards and the requirement that each actively works his or her lease. This lease gives the "extractivists" the stability to invest to improve productivity and to build strong communities.
So far there are only a few small reserves. It will take a determined effort to extend the idea from these few islands (almost suggestive of U.S. Indian reservations) to the dominant form of land tenure in much of the Amazon. That is one of Chico Mendes's central objectives as he now turns his effort beyond Acre to the region as a whole.
Mendes is also trying to build the economic strength of his constituents. They must prosper economically to have a long-term future in the region. He has worked to develop new products they can harvest from the forest and to improvethe distribution and marketing system on which they must depend. In early 1988, he established a cooperative that helps its rubber tapper members sell theirproduce relatively directly to the end markets, cutting out several expensive middlemen.
Mendes believes that economic organization is the key to improving the rubbertappers' standard of living and unifying communities throughout the region. The people of Xapuri (Acre) were able to set up schools and health posts (staffedby trained locals) thanks to the community spirit that grew out of economic cooperation. With the founding of the cooperative, and as a result of Mendes' strenuous network-building throughout Brazil, the Xapuri rubber tappers have begun to forge links with other communities that will permit them to diversify production.
For example, Mendes has already made contact with Ashoka Fellow Jose Carlos Brito, president of the Sao Bernardo do Campo Community Association in Sao Paulostate, to sell Brazil nuts harvested by the rubber tappers through Brito's highly successful, low-cost community food distribution center. Brito is enthusiastic about the proposed exchange, since the nuts will introduce a high-protein dietarysupplement to Sao Bernardo consumers. Their sale will provide additional income to the rubber tappers and decrease their dependence on a single commodity. Mendes has already contacted the truckers' organization, which agreed to transport the nuts 2,000 miles at very little cost, since many trucks return to Sao Paulo virtually empty.
These ideas and achievements are some of the fruits of organizing the heretofore scattered, silent, isolated residents of the Amazon. Helping them come together,set their own objectives, and speak out for their interests is Mendes's prime objective. He will be travelling up the Amazon's rivers month after month to help catalyze this development. His is lonely work. And, in some of the violence-prone frontier areas where his constituents' interests will conflict with other powerful forces, it is dangerous work.
The Amazon and its people are threatened. One of the chief sources of carbon creating the world's greenhouse effect are the fires being used to "clear" the rainforest. And the loss of the forest is destroying one of the globe's chief carbon-sinks as well. Even in remote Acre, a large proportion of the rubber tappers have lost the source of their livelihood. The arrival of cattle ranchers in Acre valley from the south signaled the change. Between 1970 and 1975 ten thousand families were displaced leading to the birth of the first organization of the local residents.
Over the years, Chico Mendes has learned that only the organized resistance of politically aware rubber tappers and their neighbors can stop the devastation of the forest and their subsequent expulsion. Government officials have been ill-informed and unhelpful but are beginning to respond. Mendes believes that the slower rate of forest loss in Acre (10%) as versus Rondonia (25%) reflects not only the fact that Rondonia is farther east but that Acre's people are organized and Rondonia's, so far, are not. Mendes's strategy is to help the Amazon's peoples organize, building on what he has learned in Acre and the personal credibility he has gained at all levels. In coming years he will be out travelling to and working with the region's widely scattered communities building awareness, facilitating organization,presenting ideas and successful experiences, and helping with representation.
Among the powerful arguments he brings with him are the successes of his Acrework, including the promising results of the Xapuri Cooperative. He plans to spread the word about the Cooperative by holding municipal and regional level meetings at which the Xapuri rubber tappers can share their organizational experiences with others.
The success of the Xapuri Cooperative is important in part because it demonstrates organizational mechanisms that help overcome the barriers which havein the past caused many would-be co-ops in the region to fail. Previous groups have been impeded by the vastness of the area, the isolation of the people, the lack of communication with customers or markets, and the difficulty of obtaining technical help. One key to success is the very organizational linkage Mendesis building the local level.
Chico Mendes has gradually built respect locally and beyond in the environmental, labor, private voluntary, and even governmental sectors. His personal qualities of purpose and balance will continue to help him with newallies at all levels.
Chico Mendes' personal and professional development mirrors the evolution ofthe rubber tappers' movement itself. From the age of 9 to 35, he worked as a rubber tapper in Acre, where he directly witnessed the process of deforestation and expulsion unleashed by the arrival of the cattle ranchers from the south. The rubber tappers' plight mobilized him to join the rural labor movement in the early 1970s, despite the risk to his personal safety that such activism entailed. Although essentially a grassroots worker, he has dedicated a greatdeal of energy travelling to build the movement and necessary outside support. In a recent trip outside Brazil, Mendes spoke before the United Nations (whichawarded him a special award), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and the United States Senate.
Now 44 years old, Chico is treasurer of the National Council of Rubber Tappersand president of the Rural Workers Union of Xapuri.