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Chico Mendes

The 22nd of December marks a very special moment in the history of environmental conservation. In 1988 after nearly twelve years of concerted efforts to uphold the rights of impoverished and marginalized rubber tappers, Chico Mendes was brutally murdered in the small town of Xapuri in the north western region of Brazil.

The country is an interesting and sometimes lamentable example of a modern world economy. Now considered an influential member of the BRICS, headlong in the throes of a capitalistic embrace it is afflicted by several developmental stumbling blocks – a legacy of slavery, environmental destruction and tyranny.

Seeds of Oppression

Mass European immigration to Brazil began in the 1530s and hopefuls from the old continent, lured by fertile lands and plentiful rainfall established the fazendas – these were the farms that produced and processed primarily coffee and sugar. Soaring international demand for these goods drove ever increasing importation of African slaves from the Portuguese colonies of the time such as Angola and Mozambique. It was not long before slavery became institutionalised and sadly a fact of life many were resigned to.

Among the imported African slaves and the native Indians of the interior were the mesticos – a class of mixed race peoples that were the offspring of illegitimate relations between Europeans, Africans and Indians. Like everyone else, they occupied yet another strata of the Brazilian civil underclass. Many seringueiros – the men who would toil through the forests of the Amazon tapping the native Pará trees, collecting the rubber and selling it on more often than not for a pittance – traced their ancestral routes from the latter group, sent into the interior of the country during the rubber boom of the mid 1800s by rubber barons.

As a young child Chico began accompanying his father and siblings through the dense forests of the Amazon. The seringueiros sold the rubber exclusively to masters and it was the norm to be paid only the market value, it was even more common for the masters to undervalue the goods. Access to education was never considered and the majority of the seringueiros remained illiterate. This status made them unable to question or dispute claims made by the masters. Chico himself learned to read and write aged eighteen.

Their relative isolation and growing reliance on a cash crop style economy meant that they had to purchase essentials rather than produce it themselves. Staple food items such as sugar, salt, coffee and milk  had to be brought in by the masters. These were then sold at exorbitant prices for which seringueiros had to borrow. Heavy indebtedness was used as an instrument of enslavement and when attempts were made to sell the rubber elsewhere torture and death followed.

Resistance and Reform

By the late 1960s and 1970s rubber as a commodity dropped in value on the international market. The seringueiros earned less and equally horrified by the prospect of turning poor many masters opted out of the rubber industry focusing on cattle production instead. A change of government power and and heavy industry propaganda set the justification for the removal of vast areas of forested land to make way for cattle ranches. An untold number of seringueiros were devastated by the drastic decline in income. Some moved to neighbouring Bolivia in hopes of earning a living in a large city. Arriving with the clothes on their back and few usable skills, it was not long before they turned to crime.

At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.

The formation of a Rubber Tappers Syndicate as a response by Chico and several others was an  unpopular move that came into direct conflict with the interests of private businesses. The syndicate’s constitution called for the protection of the seringueiros and their means of living – the very trees that produced the rubber they sold. The popularity of the syndicate grew as Chico travelled far and wide bringing awareness to the plight of the seringueiros. Hundreds of threats were levelled against the members and some gladly gave their lives.

In the late 1980s and before his assassination, Chico had managed a nearly impossible feat: he had galvanised enough international pressure and support to force the Brazilian government to revise the concessions it had given to the heavy industries. An acknowledgment of the problem further led to the demarcation of special zones where removal of forests was prohibited. Plans for roads leading into and out of the areas were shelved. Chico also was a great proponent of merging the benefits of private business with sustainable sourcing and production of goods.

Can we develop economically without destroying nature?
It is a common modern-day misconception that to build one thing, we must use (remove or destroy) another. However, closer examination of the subject reveals that the relationship between man and the environment is far more complex and alludes to an interdependence that cannot be ignored.

What can we consider as true development?
Just as the limbs and organs work together to ensure the well-being of the human body, so too should our view of collaboration, aid and mutual benefit be. It would be a fallacy to suggest that one group might receive a significant gain while the other loses out.