Born in Brazil on December 15, 1944, Chico Mendes 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, pencil erasers, and even
Tupperware. Rubber tapping is one of the many ways in which the resources of
the Amazon are exploited without permanently harming the ecosystem. It is a
sustainable agricultural system, and Chico Mendes followed in his father's
footsteps in becoming a seringueiro.
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 pasture
land 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
Not surprisingly, Mendes encountered a great deal of opposition from
industrialists and corrupt government officials who were profiting from the
tearing down of the Amazon. He was jailed, fined and threatened, but
nothing could deter him from his mission to save his beloved jungle. When, in 1988,
a rancher named Alves de Silva ordered Mendes killed, the
power of his grassroots movement only increased.
Mendes fought courageously to oppose the destructive practices of such
large companies and individuals. He advocated a return to sustainable
agricultural systems and urged his fellow Brazilians to nonviolent protest
against corporations that would rob them of their livelihoods.
The outcry following Chico Mendes' murder was deafening. It marked a turning point in the fight to save the Amazon. A human
face could be connected to the cause: money and support
from all over the world poured in to help complete Mendes' work. The
plight of the Seringueiro has become an international, cause célèbre and many
far reaching reforms have been inacted since his death to insure the future
of this eco-friendly industry.
Chico Mendes is not just a hero of the Amazon, he is a hero of the entire
planet. The burning of the Amazon is a burning that impacts every forest and
city and village on Earth. The fires that Chico Mendes fought to put out
threatened more than just a few strange and exotic locations thousands of
On a planet where the giant chain of life stretches from
continent to continent, the flames of their endless
burning continue to lick at the very edges of our own homes and backyards.
For more information:
The World is Burning: Murder in the Rain Forest
by Alex Shoumatoff.
- The Burning Season: HBO films
- Rubber Jungle