Murder at the Margins of the World

September 25, 2007

IN THE AMAZON, WHEN TREES FALL PEO- ple die. Sometimes they die because their livelihood is destroyed. Other times because they put up a fight. Chico Mendes, the charismatic leader of rubber tappers, Brazil-nut gatherers and traders who live in the forests of the state of Acre, on Brazil's border with Peru and Bolivia, was assassinated on December 22, shot point blank in the head and heart.' Who he was, and why he ended his days the way he did, tells us a great deal about what deforestation means for the people of the Amazon. Chico Mendes fought to free landless rubber tappers from the relentless savagery of Amazonian debt peonage and to assure that the tap- pers, once free, would be protected from the ravages of late twentieth century "development." A CRE'S WHITE HISTORY BEGAN IN THE 1860s, when the industrial demand for natural rubber sent prices skyrocketing. The Acre river valley went from being a refuge for naturalists to the center of one of the most coercive forms of labor deployment imaginable. While debt peonage was in no way new to the region--along with slavery, it had been the primary means by which agricultural and extractive items such as dyes, quinine and rosewood oil were produced-the bondage of rubber was particularly violent. Indians and impoverished whites milked rubber trees for latex which they then had to sell to the local serin- galista (owner or lessee of rubber forest) at a monopolis- tic price. As debt peons they were forbidden to grow food and forced to buy their subsistence from the serin- galistas who thus made profits on all sides. In this labor- scarce part of Amaz6nia, compliance was enforced by personalized and capricious forms of brutality. Chico Mendes was a debt slave when he began his career as an organizer. He had witnessed several typi- cally vindictive murders of tappers who tried to sell small amounts of rubber, known as principios, to petty traders for goods unavailable at the company store, like medicine, or for cash. When caught, they would be tied with strings of principios, doused in gasoline and set afire. Mendes organized the households on the rubber estate where he was enslaved to sell princ[pios en masse so that such individual reprisals would be impossible. Mendes challenged more than debt peonage. Through collective action, Mendes and the tappers fought for the right to sell when and where they chose, to farm for their subsistence if they chose, and not to pay rent to the seringalistas whose ownership rested more on coercion and market control than on legality. By asserting the rights of labor and human dignity over the claims of property, he drew battle lines that assured the enmity of landowners and ultimately his own violent death. In the early part of this century, the rubber economy generated spectacular wealth. But the boom was fol- lowed by an equally impressive bust when pilfered seeds 306 REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 'r"O "rIl' IV'#"l'1 Ir%were transported to England and thence to Malaysia where the disease that limited dense planting in the Amazon was unknown. Efficient British and Dutch plan- tations soon eclipsed Amazonian production, which did little more than supply the protected national market. During World War II, when the Allies could not get Asian rubber, the United States financed the revitaliza- tion of Amazonian rubber estates to supply the airplane tires and condoms so necessary to the Allied effort. The export and sale of rubber became a government monop- oly and modem credit structures were introduced but funds were not invested to any great degree in improv- ing production. After the war, the tappers of Acre went about their tasks much as they had for a half century. By 1967, synthetic rubber had all but taken over. The rubber barons were in deep financial trouble and some even began to abandon their estates, leaving tappers and their families to grow food and sell rubber on their own. With this turn of events, a socially and ecologically viable land use began to emerge from the ruins of debt peonage, particularly near the village of Xapuri, where in the early 1970s the rural workers union began organ- izing the dispersed tapper population. Then a new threat came from Brasilia, where the generals had seized power in 1964. The Amazon be- came central to military geopolitical planning; it became the target of a vast project of "national integra- tion"--infrastructure development, fiscal incentives, colonization programs. I N WHAT WAS PROBABLY THE MOST IM- mense and rapid enclosure process in history, over 50 million hectares shifted from public to private hands in Amaz6nia in 20 years. Acre is a classic case. In 1971, 75% of the state's area was publicly owned; four years later, 80% of Acre was in private hands. From 1972-76, some five million hectares-more than a third of the entire state-changed hands. Of these, only 7,700 hec- tares-81 titles-were formally regulated by the state land agency. Violent disputes broke out between the new latifun- distas who held fraudulent titles to estates the size of kingdoms and the people who had occupied these sites for generations or, in the case of Indians, millennia. Impoverished migrants from southern Brazil, attracted by the dream of land, found themselves embroiled in these conflicts as they too attempted to claim land through the only means available: clearing the forest. Ranchers evicted the rubber tappers by burning their houses and crops or employing a more legalistic tactic: Individual tappers would be invited into the rubber serin- galista's rooms, convivially greeted by a lawyer, a rancher and of course the boss himself each with gun in hand, and encouraged to sign documents renouncing any claim to the lands they had worked all their lives. These evictions and the terror that accompanied them were a critical factor in the formation of the rubber Raimundo Mendes de Barros represented the rubber tappers at his cousin's memorial in Washington. V'Jl.II AAIII, Y~l L I flflJ'. IYoY) ,1 tappers union. Chico Mendes and other union members developed a technique, known as the empate, or stand- off. Tappers would go to areas that were being cut and, using a combination of intimidation and appeals to class solidarity, persuade the contract laborers to stop clear- ing. Sometimes unarmed women and children challenged gunslingers "riding shotgun" at deforestation sites. In addition, the union has pressed the Brazilian forest serv- ice to enforce laws that prohibit unlicensed clearing and the cutting of Brazil-nut and rubber trees. Chico Mendes estimated that between 1975 and 1985 more than 1.2 million hectares were saved; unfortunately, another 3 million fell. Since virtually all land titles were open to contest, the strategies of empate and legal harassment could not assure the tappers' survival. The resource itself had to be secured. After the first national meeting of the rubber tappers union in 1985, the union formed an alliance with environmental activists to lobby for the creation of ex- tractive reserves: areas where the use rights of the local population would be guaranteed through long-term leases from the state. Once tenure was assured, the ex- tractive reserves would also incorporate a healthcare and educational system, small-scale rubber processing facto- ries and eventually even some manufacturing. What was profoundly radical about the proposal was its negation of private ownership in favor of state leases-a means of controlling any tendency toward speculation on the part of the tappers, and a way of assuring sustainable man- agement. E XTRACTIVE RESERVES SOON CAUGHT THE imagination of environmentalists around the world. While some North American conservationists might have been horrified at the idea of supporting radical union organizing, all recognized it as a good way to VOJLUMEI -11, INU. I(1/ I M1'AMAZON preserve the habitat of those overwintering birds and large felines they prize so highly. The lobbying efforts of such groups as the Environmental Defense Fund, the World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlife Federation brought attention to Mendes and his union, and con- vinced multilateral development agencies to push for extractive reserves in Amazon project negotiations. When the United Nations honored Chico Mendes in 1987 as one of the Global 500, the most significant crusaders for world environment, it caused some con- sternation in Brazil, as virtually no journalists or estab- lishment scientists had any idea who he was. That same year the rubber tappers and Indians of Acre ended a century of conflict by forming the Forest Peoples Alli- ance to defend the forest and the land rights of those who live there. After two years of astute political lobbying-with the aid of an unusual non-governmental organization, the Institute for Amazon Studies-in July 1987 the min- ister of agrarian reform signed legislation to allow ex- tractive reserves to be set aside in areas that had been ex- propriated under agrarian reform laws. Since most of Acre is held under titles of extraordinarily tenuous legal status, the potential for massive expropriation and real change in the dynamic of Amazonian development-one that would favor the poor and conserve the resource base-was now more than a dream. Two weeks after signing the law, the minister died in a suspicious plane accident over the eastern Amazon. In February 1988, Governor Flaviano Melo of Acre announced the creation of the first extractive reserve at Sdo Luis de Remanso, a site that had already been ex- propriated and was not particularly well organized, but was well suited to the politicians' interest in keeping the political fallout to a minimum. The rubber tappers had called for the protection of areas under immediate threat of deforestation, such as Seringal Cachoeira, where bloodshed was likely to occur in the summer when the clearing season began. More than a third of the tappers in Cachoeira, near Xapuri, site of the union office, had fled violence elsewhere, many more than once. As summer approached, contracts for land clearing were signed, the gunslingers hired. From their ranch at Seringal Cachoeira, Sr. Darly Alves, his brother and his son, owners of Fazenda Parand and migrants from the state of Parand--which two decades earlier had also been the scene of bloody land conflicts--prepared to claim Cachoeira for their own. For their part, the tappers decided not to wait for the blessing of the state and declared Cachoeira an extrac- tive reserve. Sr. Darly's deforestation crews were met with an empate of several hundred tappers. Protected by a private army, Darly's men proceeded to cut down the rubber forest. Meanwhile, another 400 tappers invaded the forest service office in Xapuri, demanding that the agency block this flagrant violation of the law. In May, the sit-in was attacked and two tappers were wounded. z 33 U r r Ronaldo Caiado, presidential candidate of the Rural Dem- ocratic Union, a violent right-wing group of landowners As the conflict dragged on, Darly's men continued cut- ting. In July, the Governor expropriated Cachoeira as an extractive reserve. The Rural Democratic Union (UDR), a right-wing vigilante group of large landowners, which has been responsible for numerous assassinations in Amaz6nia, recognized the seriousness of the matter. Empates were one thing, expropriation another. Darly, who had made his fortune through violent land grabs, was certainly prepared to take on the rubber tappers. But when the union's advisers discovered that Darly was wanted for murder in ParanA, he went into hiding on a remote part of his ranch, letting it be known that he would surrender to the police only after he had taken care of Chico Mendes. On December 5, an odd little notice appeared in the Acre newspaper O Rio Branco, owned by Jodo Branco, the head of the local UDR chapter. It said that a 200- megaton bomb would soon explode with national and international repercussions. Mendes had been given po- lice protection but faced daily harassment. Finally on the night of December 22, he rose from the dinner table with his wife, children and body guards, stepped onto his porch and into an assassin's bullet. He was the 90th rural worker to fall in 1988, according to the bloody calculus of the Catholic Church. The head of the UDR chapter flew south in his private plane; Darly and his brother Alvorino dropped from sight; Darly's son con- fessed to the crime but asked for protective custody. In mid-January Darly turned himself in but Alvorino had fled to Bolivia. At the margins of the world, Acre has produced its share of revolutionaries. "If my death would advance our struggle," Mendes once said, "it would be worth it to die. But history teaches us otherwise. I want to live. A demonstration and a funeral will not save the Amazon." The empates will continue this summer. Murder at the Margins of the World 1. Another version of this article appeared in New Left Review (London), No. 173 (Jan/Feb 1989). The same issue features an interview with Susanna Hecht by Alexander Cockburn.

Tags: Brazil, Amazon, environmentalism, rubber, unions

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