Murder at the Margins of the World

September 25, 2007

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."
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
'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.
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)
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-
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
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.
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-
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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