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TV Reviews : ‘Murder in the Amazon’ Tracks Environmental Fight

Robert Redford, Ted Turner, David Puttnam and Paramount Pictures have all been reported vying for rights to make a film about Francisco (Chico) Mendes. Tonight’s “Frontline,” “Murder in the Amazon” (at 9 on Channels 28 and 15, and at 10 on Channel 50) shows why.

It’s a fairly good introduction to an environmental activist who gave his life in the fight against deforestation in western Brazil. One hopes, though, that the movie, when and if it’s produced, will fill in many of the gaps left by this well-made but incomplete documentary.

Mendes’ story is indeed an inspiring one. A seringuero (rubber-tree tapper) who organized other peasants to oppose devastation of the rain forests in his native state of Acre, the moustachioed, paunchy Mendes earned the ire of the cattle ranchers who wished to turn those forests into grassland. On Dec. 22, 1988, he was killed by a shotgun blast at his home in Xapuri. Two ranchers--a father and son--are currently being tried for the murder, though some suspect others may have been involved.

“Murder in the Amazon” at first describes the politics, spread and effects of deforestation in Brazil, and then recounts Mendes’ efforts to have sections of the forest set aside as preserves. Beginning with small, nonviolent local protests, he eventually traveled to the United States (sponsored by environmentalists) to speak to a U.S. senator and members of an international bank. Amazingly, his mild-mannered approach resulted in congressional action that forced the bank’s withdrawal of a loan to Brazil for a forest-threatening road project.

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The trouble with the hour is that it doesn’t provide enough information about Mendes’ background and leaves too many details of his murder unclear.

Despite its flaws, “Murder in the Amazon” is an important, moving portrayal of a man whose death may prove to be a significant sacrifice for the well-being of the entire globe.


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