Slain Brazilian Becomes Symbol : Battle for Huge Amazon Forest Is Turning Deadly

Times Staff Writer

Francisco Mendes, 44, grew up in the forest and spent most of his life plying its shaded paths, gathering natural latex and Brazil nuts to earn a meager living.

Like thousands of other rubber tappers in the Amazon basin, Mendes loved the peace and tranquillity of forest life. His conservation efforts earned him an international reputation--and perhaps caused his death.

When a 20-gauge shotgun blast killed Mendes last Dec. 22, Xapuri rubber tappers lost their leader--and the Amazon conservation movement lost one of its most effective spokesmen. But here in Mendes’ native state of Acre, rubber tappers and conservationists have much cause for hope.

Contrary to what is happening in some other parts of the Amazon, where the forest is being slashed and burned at an alarming rate, those who want to save Acre’s forest seem to be winning.


In the 3,000 square miles of Xapuri township, for example, only 133 acres of forest were destroyed last year. In some cases, demonstrations organized by Mendes’ Rural Workers Union stopped chain-saw crews before they could start cutting.

Statewide, the rate of deforestation has declined sharply in recent years, and the state government has adopted a policy that strongly discourages the conversion of forest into ranchland. Some officials in Rio Branco, the state capital, say that increasingly successful conservation efforts in Acre could serve as a model for the rest of the Amazon basin.

The basin is drained by the biggest river system in the world and is blanketed by the Earth’s largest tropical rain forest. Scientists say the forest plays a vital role in atmospheric and climatic conditions around the globe.

In Brazil, the Amazon basin covers 2 million square miles, a region 12 times as large as California. According to rough estimates based on satellite surveys, as much as 30,000 square miles of virgin Amazon forest are being destroyed in Brazil every year as roadways, cattle ranching, farming, logging, mining and hydroelectric projects spread through the region.

Isolated Area

Acre, remote and isolated in Brazil’s far west, has lost only 6% of its forest, which once virtually covered the state’s 59,000 square miles. Most of Acre’s deforestation has been on the eastern wing-tip of the butterfly-shaped state, around Rio Branco and along the road to Xapuri and Brasileia near the Bolivian border. A road network that was planned to lace the rest of Acre has not been built because of lack of funds.

About 80% of the state’s territory is privately owned, and pressure is strong for spreading pastureland into the wilderness. It was this kind of pressure that Francisco Mendes was resisting.

Known by the nickname Chico, Mendes was the son of a rubber tapper and began tapping rubber trees himself at age 9. He never went beyond fourth grade in school but received an informal education from a Communist and one-time army lieutenant who had participated in a ragtag rebel army’s long march through Brazil’s hinterlands in the 1920s.

“He had a very good ideological base from that guy,” said Gumersindo Rodrigues, 29, who worked closely with Mendes in the union. Mendes helped found the union and served on the Xapuri municipal council in the late 1970s. He also founded a local branch of the Marxist-oriented Workers’ Party. For Mendes, the causes of socialism, unionism and ecology all placed him in direct opposition to the big landowners and ranchers.

When the Rural Workers Union heard that a landowner had sent a crew to clear a piece of forest, the union would muster its members and their families to create an empate , or standoff. Dozens, even hundreds, of men, women and children would gather around the cutting crew and prevent it from starting the job.

Killing Threatened

In one such action last year, the union prevented brothers Alvarino and Darly Alves da Silva from starting work on a road into their isolated ranch outside the town of Xapuri. The ranchers had threatened to kill the union leader, Xapuri residents say.

Mendes did not take it as an idle threat. He and Rodrigues, his friend and union associate, had learned of an outstanding warrant in the southern state of Parana charging the Alves da Silva brothers with ordering the killing of two rural workers there. Mendes and Rodrigues had the warrant transferred to Xapuri, and the brothers went into hiding. Mendes was put under police protection.

Two police guards were eating a fish dinner in Mendes’ rustic Xapuri home Dec. 22 when Mendes opened the door on his way to take a shower in an outbuilding. Mendes was shot in the chest; he staggered back into the house and died.

The police began looking for members of the Alves da Silva family. Darly and two of his sons turned themselves in. One of them, Darcy, confessed to pulling the trigger. The police are still searching the jungle for Alvarino Alves da Silva and three hired pistoleiros said to be with him.

Brazil Nut Trees Survive

Xapuri is about 50 miles from the border by the BR-317, a rutted, red-dirt road that becomes impassable after heavy rains. Most of the road from Xapuri to Rio Branco, a stretch of about 110 miles, is paved. It is flanked by ranches on rolling land, grassy pastures dotted with stumps and, occasionally, a green-topped castanheira , a Brazil nut tree.

The castanheiras were left standing because government regulations prohibit their being cut down. But in isolation from the forest they are usually sterile--towering but useless reminders of an ineffectual official gesture.

Xapuri (pronounced shah-poo-REE) was once the capital of Acre, long before the territory became a state. Its brick and asphalt streets are lined with wood houses, many of them on stilts. One of the biggest buildings in town has been preserved as a landmark. It was the headquarters of the Bolivian provincial government before Brazil bought Acre in 1903.

Rubber Barons

That was at the time of the rubber boom, when Amazon latex fed burgeoning tire industries in the United States and Europe. Rubber barons made huge fortunes from the sticky sap that jungle workers painstakingly tapped from the trees, cutting groove after groove in a slanting pattern down the stout trunks.

Tappers made their rounds on forest paths just as they do today. During the rainy season, they gather pods of Brazil nuts, and between seasons they cultivate corn, beans and cassava in small jungle clearings. Most tappers still live in thatch-roofed shacks deep in the forest, far from civilization.

After the BR-317 came to Xapuri and cattle ranches began spreading out from the road, hundreds of rubber tappers were forced to abandon their source of livelihood, the forest. Others sold their tapping rights, discouraged by depressed rubber prices. Today, many former tappers live in the slums of Rio Branco, trying to make a living as unskilled laborers, but an estimated 120,000 of the state’s 380,000 people are still rubber tappers and their dependents.

Resisting Ranchers

The Rural Workers Union of Xapuri was formed to resist the encroachment of cattle ranching and to improve the lot of rubber tappers as well as ranch hands. Many of the tappers have little opportunity to participate in union activities.

“The most distant ones stay out years and years without coming into town,” Rodrigues said. But he said 600 of the estimated 3,000 rubber tappers in Xapuri township are active union members, dedicated to preserving the forest.

“Between death from hunger in the city and death from fighting for the forest, we will die fighting for the forest,” he said.

Rodrigues and others who lived and worked with Mendes are clear about who their enemies are: the ranchers.

“They meant to finish off the forest, and Chico defended it,” said Mendes’ widow, Ilzamar. “They didn’t accept that.”

Gilson Pescador, a Xapuri labor organizer and former priest, said that Mendes’ killing was planned as an attack on the conservation movement.

A Tree in the Cause

“That was the motive, to end the movement, to end the resistance,” Pescador told a visitor in the offices of the Workers’ Party.

Pescador wore a new T-shirt that said, “They cut down one of the leafiest trees in the Amazon cause and the union movement. Chico Mendes, from your example other bold plants will spring, until the entire Earth is green.”

In Rio Branco, landowner Sergio Figueiredo argued that there can be forest conservation in Acre along with the development of ranching and farming.

“There is room for everyone here,” he said.

The law limits landowners to clearing the forest from no more than 50% of their property, but Figueiredo said that an average of only about 20% of large ranches have been deforested.

Figueiredo, 36, said that most Acre residents want new roads and increased food production, which would reduce the remote state’s high cost of living and provide new jobs.

People ‘Need to Be Fed’

“We believe that Acre, one of the most fertile parts of Brazil, cannot be kept just to be admired when there are residents who need to be fed,” he said.

According to Figueiredo, the slaying of Mendes was the result of a “strictly personal” dispute between Mendes and the Alves da Silva family. Mendes’ friends and associates say it was part of a violent conflict between rubber tappers and others who want to preserve the forest and ranchers who want to destroy it. The struggle has cost several other lives in Acre, they say.

But Figueiredo said that when a rubber tapper is killed in a personal quarrel, “ranchers are always seen as the guilty ones. . . . There is a political interest in throwing the working class up against the landowner class.”

The ranchers’ point of view was supported by the Acre state government until 1986, when Flaviano Melo was elected governor. Melo, a member of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, is the first governor in the Amazon region to adopt a clearly conservationist policy. His main adviser on economic development, Gilberto Siqueira, heads the Acre State Technological Foundation, which has drawn up a plan for exploiting the forest while preserving it.

22 Research Projects

The foundation is conducting 22 research projects on forest management, use of forest products and technology for extraction. In addition to latex and Brazil nuts, Siqueira said, Acre’s forests abound with valuable woods, oils, resins, fruits and medicinal plants.

Despite the ranchers’ contention that Acre’s soil is fertile, Siqueira said studies have shown that it is weak and not suitable for agriculture. He said much pastureland cleared in the 1970s will no longer support grass and is being taken over by weeds.

The key to preserving the forest, according to Siqueira, is to make it economically productive. The state has recently created four “extractive reserves” totaling more than 700,000 acres that cannot be deforested. More reserves will be set aside, he said. At the same time, Siqueira’s foundation is trying to bring about the creation of industries in Rio Branco that will use rubber, selected hardwoods and other forest products for manufacturing.

“I don’t believe in any ecological proposal that doesn’t translate into an economic answer,” he said in an interview. “You cannot preserve the forest and let it sit static.”