Who Killed Chico Mendes?

A rainforest activist, Chico Mendes gave his life for his homeland

chico mendes
Chico Mendes, 1944-1988. NY Times

Chico Mendes spent his entire life living in, and fighting for, the rainforests of his native Brazil and its inhabitants. But his commitment to preserving a sustainable way of life cost Mendes his own life. Who killed Chico Mendes?

Chico Mendes: Early Life

Chico Mendes was born Francisco Alves Mendes Filho on December 15, 1944 in the small Brazilian village of Seringal Santa Fé, outside of Xapuri. His was a family of rubber tappers, people who make their living sustainably by tapping the sap of local rubber trees.

Like many rural people, his family also supplemented their income by harvesting nuts and fruits from the rainforest.

Mendes started working when he was nine years old, and never received any formal schooling until late in life; by some accounts, Mendes never learned to read until he was about 20 years old. Some of his education was influenced by Euclides Fernandes Tavora, described as "a middle-class Communist who, in the 60's, was on the run from Brazil's military." Tavora introduced Mendes to books, newspapers and labor unions.

Mendes and Organized Labor

Mendes began to organize rubber tappers in the region, and he was soon elected president of the Xapuri Rubber Tappers' Union. Mendes was also instrumental in organizing Brazil's National Council of Rubber Tappers in the mid-1980s; he was soon elected leader of the group.

There was (and still is) immense economic pressure, however, to clear the rainforest for cattle grazing.

Despite evidence that harvesting the forest's rubber, fruits, nuts and other commodities is a more sustainable practice that creates more income over a longer period of time, clear-cutting the rainforest was occurring at an accelerating rate in the 1980s.

When 130 ranchers expelled some 100,000 tappers from the rainforest, Mendes and his laborers fought back, rallying whole families to stand in front of chainsaws and block bulldozers.

Their efforts met with some success, and attracted the attention of the international environmental community. Mendes was placed on the United Nations Environmental Program Global 500 Roll of Honor Award in 1987; he also won the National Wildlife Federation's National Conservation Achievement Award in 1988.

Mendes vs. Ranchers and Loggers

When rancher Darly Alves da Silva attempted to clear-cut an area of rainforest that was planned as a nature preserve in 1988, Mendes succeeded in stopping the planned logging and created the preserve. Mendes also gained a warrant for da Silva's arrest for a murder he had committed in another state.

For his efforts, Chico Mendes and his family received constant death threats -- in 1988, Mendes himself predicted he wouldn't live past Christmas. And on the night of December 22, 1988, Chico Mendes was shot to death by a single shotgun blast outside his family's house. Mendes was the 19th activist to be murdered in Brazil that year.

Mendes' murder sparked international outrage and massive protests in Brazil, eventually resulting in the arrest and conviction of Darly Alves da Silva, his son Darly Alves da Silva Jr., and a ranch hand, Jerdeir Pereia.

The Legacy of Chico Mendes

Partly as a result of Mendes' murder, the Brazilian government stopped subsidizing logging and ranching operations, and established many rubber preserves and nature reserves, including one named after the activist, Parque Chico Mendes. The World Bank, which once financed development in the rainforest, is now financing nature reserves that function as sustainable rubber plantations.

But all is not well in the Brazilian rainforest, by most accounts. Clear-cutting continues, and according to some reports, fighting development in the rainforests of Brazil has cost some 1,000 activists their lives since 1988. Much work remains to be done to honor the legacy of Chico Mendes.