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Making a Difference : Chico Mendes . . .

The people who killed Francisco (Chico) Mendes last month probably thought that they were ridding themselves of a problem. Instead they created a world-renowed martyr to the cause that he championed--saving the vast and endangered rain forests of the Brazilian Amazon.

Mendes had worked to protect the Amazon forests and their indigenous people for the last 12 years as the leader of a union of rubber tappers in Brazil’s Acre state, an isolated region that borders on Peru and Bolivia. The tappers are forest dwellers who harvest natural latex from trees in the Amazon jungles to make rubber. Their work does not normally harm the forests, because the tappers give the trees enough time to replenish before the next harvest.

The organization that Mendes helped them create has fought for the establishment of forest reserves in the Amazon where the tappers are free to work without encroachment by ranchers, who prefer to burn down the trees to make room for cattle grazing. Without official reserves, many tappers have been subject to intimidation by ranchers and other would-be settlers of the Amazon. As in the Wild West days of the United States, there is sometimes violence between ranchers and tappers. Mendes was aware of this, and traveled with bodyguards as a result.

Authorities in Acre have arrested several suspects in Mendes’ shooting death, including a prominent rancher and his two sons. While some press reports from the isolated state have suggested that Mendes died as a result of a personal or family dispute, his fellow environmentalists in Brazil are convinced that he was murdered to stop his work. They are demanding that the Brazilian government thoroughly investigate the killing.

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Perhaps more important, Brazilian environmentalists are using Mendes’ death to galvanize public opinion in Brazil and to educate their fellow citizens about the danger that uncontrolled development poses to the Amazon--the last great rain forest on Earth and a resource for the entire planet. A Brazilian colleague of Mendes in the environmental movement said recently that Mendes’ death sparked “the first mass movement in defense of the Amazon.” If that movement prods the Brazilian government toward greater efforts to protect that region and its rain forests, Mendes will not have died in vain.


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