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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.

 

Orlando_Leonardo_e_Cláudio

The inspirational and exemplary story of the Vilas-Boas brothers is not one has been told often. Their pioneering work between the 1940s and 1970s in Brazil with the native Xingu peoples  garnered them international recognition and acclaim and set in motion the wheel for the simultaneous preservation of the rights of indigenous people and their careful integration into modern society in that country.

In 1938 the Brazilian government led by Getúlio Vargas, a determined politician who set his sights on a highly industrialized Brazil launched a program known as the March To The West. Its goal was to expand European settlement further inland into the central and eastern parts of the country thereby taking control of extensive land endowed with natural resources. Up to this point much of the country’s development had centred on the coastal regions and accommodated its lucrative trade by sea. This project intended to reverse the country’s ailing economic fortunes with new business, introducing migrants from the World Wars and stretching the reach of the government into territory previously held by the indigenous populations. By the late 20th century the projects had been deemed to be a success by several successive governments.

As part of the many expeditions of the project, there was one which included the then still unknown Vilas-Boas brothers in 1943. Claudio, Orlando and Leonardo, brothers from a family of eleven children from the interior part of the state of São Paulo took part in the Roncadur-Xingu expedition. At first the brothers were turned away by the general who considered them educated – illiterates were the preferred candidates for exploring the virgin territories of the country. Unfortunately, the unjust and segregational attitudes of the day also meant that they expected to work long hours and with little reward. However the brothers persevered hoping they would secure a senior role with the expedition.

It was not long after the expedition had begun that the men made in-roads into the central and western parts of the country that first contact was made with Indians – the Xingu. Soon after political changes favoured the brothers and they became the principal leads of the expedition. With the support of Marechal Candido Rondan (a keen explorer and an advocate of the Indians), the nature of the expedition changed. Its original goal to expand European settlement and to acquire natural resources was complemented with the aspiration of preserving the life of the Indians.

If we think our goal in this short-lived passage on Earth, is to accumulate wealth, then we have nothing to learn from the Indians. But if we believe that man’s ideal rests in the equilibrium between his family and his community, then we have many extraordinary lessons to learn from the Indians

Leonardo died in 1961 but Orlando and Claudio had continued work setting up over thirty airstrips, establishing settlements for new towns and laying the groundwork for roads between them. Probably their most cherished accomplishment however was Xingu National Park. With the threat of the encroaching European industrialists and indifferent government officials, the brothers realised what could only amount to a direct threat to the Xingu way of life was imminent. Already the isolated tribe had suffered uncommon epidemics for which they knew no cure brought by the visiting explorers, it was only a matter of time before they would be enslaved, oppressed and forced to conform to a culture  too different from their own. The brothers scrambled to obtain the necessary land and moved thousands of Indians into the park, maintaing a space for each tribe so there would not be inter-tribal disputes or violence. In this context, the Indians would over the next thirty years come into contact with the world and taught skills advantageous for the modern economy.

Why was the goal of preserving the culture of the Indians important?
– Prevalent supremacist attitudes against non-Europeans would force them to change their culture while simultaneously insisting that the European system was ‘correct’
– Drive to acquire resources at all cost meant that they would become yet another underclass of peoples, subservient and part of a segregated society with few rights
– Lack of laws to protect individuals inhabiting a piece of land would force them to be in a constant  state of geographical flight

Was preservation the only goal?
– Objective was also to slowly introduce the Indians to the  modern world
– To do this at a rate that would not become harmful to Indians societal norms
– To instill a latent sense of curiosity about in Indians about worlds they had not yet seen

Why was integrating them into mainstream society important?
– All men are created equal and have basic rights which include education, health and shelter
– Accept that integration is inevitable and ultimately beneficial for mankind’s advancement
– Ensuring that Indians would be able to actively participate in the laws governing the country
– Changing perceptions in a country to include all its people and to avoid segregational laws