New & Noteworthy

January 11, 2009

WALKING THE FOREST WITH CHICO MENDES: STRUGGLE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE IN THE AMAZON by Gomercindo Rodrigues, edited and translated by Linda Robben, University of Texas Press, 2007, 224 pp., $22.95 (paperback)

Originally published in 2003, Gomercindo Rodrigues’s memoir of the Brazilian rubber tappers’ struggle and its world-famous leader, Francisco “Chico” Mendes, will be of interest to students of environmental politics and social movements alike. The author, formerly an adviser (assessor) to the rubber tappers’ union, opens his memoir, now available in English translation, with a vivid account of Mendes’s assassination in 1988 by gunmen hired by ranchers in Xapuri, a small town in Acre, the county’s westernmost state, where Mendes lived and worked. The story then moves back to 1986, when Rodrigues joined the Rubber Tapper Project, and moves forward, offering a series of memories and vignettes.

As the more than serviceable introduction by Biorn Maybury-Lewis argues, Mendes’s lifework as both an organizer in the rural union movement and as a defender of the Amazon cannot be neatly compartmentalized. The empate, the rubber tappers’ signature form of protest, highlights this: A contingent of them, including their families and children, would peacefully occupy a clear-cut and talk to the loggers, often former rubber tappers themselves, and convince them to stop working. “If not for the empates,” Rodrigues notes, “there certainly would be no more forest where the [more than 2 million-acre] Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve . . . is today.”

GREENING BRAZIL: ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISM IN STATE AND SOCIETY by Kathryn Hochstetler and Margaret E. Keck, Duke University Press, 2007, 283 pp., $23.95 (paperback)

This study of Brazil’s environmental movement, based on research begun in 1989, proposes to “tell the ‘inside’ story of Brazilian environmental politics.” Hochstetler and Keck admit this is an “audacious claim for a pair of foreigners” but stand by it, emphasizing the domestic roots of Brazil’s Amazonian and urban anti-pollution activism. Contesting what they call the “transnational narrative”—in which environmentalism supposedly arrived in a rabidly pro-developmentalist Brazil in the 1980s as a result of international uproar over Amazonian deforestation—the authors point out that like elsewhere, the “new environmentalism” was present in Brazil by the 1970s.

Tracing the movement’s development from 1972 to 1992, they identify three waves of Brazilian environmentalism, which evolved and adapted to the varying circumstances of military dictatorship, democratization, and globalization. The movement’s “emergence during the [democratic] transition period,” they note, “helped to shape an environmentalism that is more politicized and further to the left than one sees elsewhere, what Brazilians call socio-environmentalism.” Other factors considered include the impact of Brazilian federalism, informality in politics, and the multiple levels of environmental activism—state and nonstate actors, local and national, foreign and domestic.


The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) organization has seen the fortunes of its campaign for agrarian reform wax and wane. From the movement’s emergence in late 1970s and early 1980s, to its meteoric rise in mid-1990s, crisis in the early 2000s, and resurgence beginning in 2003, its trajectory has been anything but static. How should the MST’s successes and failures, and by extension, those of other social movements, best be explained? The answer, according to this study, lies in how the movement’s efforts have been constrained and facilitated by the broader national political environment.

Offering an account of the movement’s development over time during changing political circumstances, Ondetti uses the movement as a case study to test four varieties of social-movement theory. His study “strikes a strong blow for political opportunity theory,” though not without qualifications, like the “subjective factor” (two highly publicized rural massacres helped tip the balance of public opinion in the MST’s favor) and the movement’s own effect on the political context (the massacres wouldn’t have happened in the first place had it not been for the seeming threat posed to landowners by the movement’s militant land occupations). This book will be of particular interest to readers interested in social movement theory as well as Brazilianists.


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.