Brazil’s Elevation of Slain Activist to Hero Status Questioned

Times Staff Writer

In death as in life, Chico Mendes continues to provoke controversy.

Almost 16 years after his assassination here in the backwater town where he was born, the renowned rubber tapper-turned-environmentalist is once again at the center of a national debate, this time over what he achieved and how best to recognize his legacy.

Last month, the federal government bestowed on Mendes the country’s highest honor, declaring him a national hero and elevating him into its official pantheon. Only seven other Brazilians have been voted into the exclusive club, all of them dead for nearly a century or more.

But the decision to add Mendes has stirred criticism -- some of it from unexpected quarters, including his widow and the man in charge of the pantheon.

Few dispute Mendes’ contributions to defending the Amazon from destruction by standing up to wealthy landowners, ranchers and speculators. Many cite him as the single most important figure in drawing attention to the tropical rainforest and sparking a worldwide movement to save it and the livelihoods of thousands of men and women who depend on its survival.


For his efforts, Mendes was gunned down by his enemies Dec. 22, 1988, as he stepped onto his porch to take an evening bath in his backyard outhouse.

The problem now is how the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva went about its decision to enshrine Mendes. Some critics smell politics. Others sniff at what they call a disregard for tradition in naming someone so contemporary to an elite fraternity whose other members have withstood a far longer test of time.

“Chico Mendes was an environmental leader who was killed by an economic sector that had its interests challenged,” said Jarbas Silva Marques, director of the Historic and Artistic Patrimony of the Federal District of Brasilia, which administers the official pantheon. “But from that to national hero is a big difference.”

The other chosen few are either war heroes, men who were instrumental in Brazil’s long drive for independence or, in one case, a semilegendary 17th century rebel slave who led a revolt for freedom.

Their names are inscribed in a book made entirely of steel, on display in the Pantheon of Liberty and Democracy, a building designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer that resembles a bird in flight. The memorial is a stone’s throw from the presidential palace in the center of the capital, Brasilia.

Mendes, born Francisco Alves Mendes Filho in 1944, may well be a historic figure, but he is not quite historic enough -- at least not yet -- to be placed among the other worthies, Marques said. By standard practice, 50 years must elapse after someone’s death before he or she can be inducted into the club by act of Congress, a rule devised to avoid rash judgments or opportunistic political ploys to reward friends and allies.

But technically, there are no official criteria on who can be included and when. And in reality, the Brazilian pantheon is a relatively new creation, in existence only since 1989, despite its conscious modeling after the Pantheon in Paris, which is more than 200 years old.

Marina Silva, Brazil’s environment minister and chief proponent of Mendes’ entry, has found herself defending his inclusion in recent weeks just as she did four years ago when, as a senator, she first put forward his name for consideration.

“When I presented the proposal, the senators reacted ironically, saying that a nomination of this kind would take between 50 and 100 years,” Silva told the newspaper O Globo. “But I asked them why, if the name of Chico Mendes is already celebrated throughout the whole world?”

Critics point out that Silva and Mendes were close colleagues when both were young activists here in their native state of Acre. Mendes was also the founder of a local chapter of the left-leaning Workers’ Party, which happens to be Silva’s party and also that of Lula, the president, who signed the bill to elevate Mendes on Sept. 22 after it cleared Congress.

“Marina Silva got her start politically thanks to Chico Mendes. It’s a personal issue. It has nothing to do with the nation as a whole,” Marques said. “This is a dangerous precedent.”

The decision caused Mendes to leapfrog over a long line of other candidates awaiting consideration, among them Juscelino Kubitschek, a former president revered for his efforts to modernize Brazil; inventor Alberto Santos Dumont, who Brazilians contend pioneered human flight before the Wright brothers; and Heitor Villa-Lobos, the composer.

Mendes’ widow, Ilzamar, said she has no argument with the desire to honor her late husband, who “deserves the nomination -- and even more than that.”

But no one from Lula’s government has officially notified her about the decision nor bothered to offer congratulations.

“We are happy for his name to be included as a national hero, but we don’t agree with how it was done. There are people who use his name without respecting the family’s rights,” she said. Now 38, Ilzamar Mendes was left to raise their two children on her own after her husband was assassinated. She lives in Rio Branco, the capital of Acre.

She accused the government of paying lip service to Mendes and doing little to advance the cause he championed, improving the lot of rubber tappers and other rural workers.

“Chico Mendes’ name has always been used by the state and federal government, but the right of the rubber tappers to a better life -- [the government] hasn’t done much for them,” she said.

“Chico’s name has been used more for political than practical purposes.”

There’s also hope to exploit it for commercial reasons here in Mendes’ hometown, as a way to increase Xapuri’s tourist value.

More than an hour’s drive outside Rio Branco, this remains a quiet, bucolic place where some streets are paved with brick and an ox-pulled cart in the road can force traffic to a crawl. Time seems more languid, to go with the humid tropical weather.

For all the fame he won, Mendes is a modest presence. The unassuming wooden home where he lived and was fatally shot sits on a sleepy side street. Across the way, a foundation named for him displays a spartan collection of personal effects.

Friends and colleagues would like to see a statue of Mendes erected, his story told in textbooks and comic books, and more visible reminders of him throughout the city.

“Even dead, he can do a lot to help the development of Xapuri,” Mayor Julio Barbosa said of the town’s most famous native son.

Those who knew Mendes dismiss criticism of vaulting him into the national pantheon.

“Since it wasn’t possible to recognize him while he was alive, then recognizing him after his death is totally valid,” said Raimundo Mendes de Barros, 59, a cousin.

“Those who lived with him and who benefited from both his life and his death should be zealous to keep his memory alive for years to come.”