Tag Archives: Amazon

Chico Mendes

23 Dec

A little while ago I heard from a friend I hadn’t seen or heard from in about 20 years. He happened to send me an instant message on Facebook while I just happened to be online myself – Facebook is funny that way.

My friend, Gomercindo Rodriguez, was typing on his keyboard from Acre state in Brazil, just near the border with Bolivia, and I was in Ontario, Canada, trying to dredge up my long-unused Portuguese (battling autocorrect the whole time) on my iPad. But ever since then, we have been Facebook, and not just historical, friends. And yesterday he posted about an event that affected both us tremendously.

I’m talking about the shooting death of Francisco ‘Chico’ Mendes exactly 28 years ago.

I learned about it at a Christmas party, from someone who had heard it earlier that morning on CBC radio. Gomercindo was the first person to arrive at Chico’s tiny wooden shack in the town of Xapuri after his wife, who was home at the time with their two small children, raised the alarm.

A rancher named Darli Alves had sent his son, Darci, with a shotgun to murder Chico Mendes when he stepped out of his house, and the news went around the world. But for each of us personally, Chico’s death was shocking, horrific, deeply saddening and impossible to accept. It also, I believe, had an effect on us that in some way made its mark on both of our lives.

For me, the thing about Chico is that he was a truly nice person, kind and empathetic, generous and determined to change the world for the better without being authoritarian or arrogant about it.

Changing the world, above all the world of impoverished and disenfranchised forest dwellers, by changing the way we understood the environment around us, was like a normal, even unremarkable goal for Chico. It was just something that needed to be done, something logical and sensible and fair. Actually – let me highlight the fair. Thousands of families earned their living by extracting the natural products of the rainforest, and at the same time, the forest was a global resource that belonged to all of humanity. Destroying it to produce meat was an injustice. And that fight for what was fair, what was right for all of us, cost him his life.

Chico’s death – and the lackadaisical judicial response to it – bothered me for years. It seemed to symbolize the powerlessness of the average person, and the way people with money and influence but no ethics can so easily ride roughshod over our collective rights like an out-of-control steamroller. It could almost have made a person turn cynical and bitter.

But the legacy of Chico Mendes’s life and ideas also had its influence (and not just because Google featured him on its search page recently).


In the case of Gomercindo Rodriguez, it led to him becoming a lawyer. One of his first, most significant cases involved the defence and eventual liberation of three young men falsely accused of rape in order to protect the real culprit, the son of a local mayor.

For me, it made me increasingly curious about the way poor and disenfranchised people are actually coming up with collective, positive solutions to powerlessness, all the time. It got me looking at the way this happens, and for more examples of people doing this. It’s what made me write Broke but Unbroken: Grassroots Social Movements and their Radical Solutions to Poverty, and, looking at it another way, looking at the essential problem of top-down, First World aid, The Anatomy of Giving.

Yesterday, on the 28th anniversary of the murder of this kind man who was our friend, Gomercindo emphasized the fact that Chico Mendes is still alive because his ideas are still among us and are gaining strength. There are now protected Extractive Reserves throughout the Amazon. The fact that burning rainforest is a big part of the potential destruction of the entire planet is common currency. Most of all, though, the notion that people with few resources can come together and fight against what’s wrong and win – that too is more true than ever.

Chico Mendes would have been 72 years old now, if he hadn’t been murdered. None of us can say what he would be like. But I tend to think that the years wouldn’t have changed him much. After every and any victory for forest dwellers and for the forest itself he always thought about the next step. He would always say ‘the struggle continues.’


Too Little, Too Late?

20 Jul

Chico Mendes and his son Sandino in 1987

Back in the late 1980s, there was a period of perhaps 18 months within which three people I knew were murdered. They all lived in the Amazon, and all but one engaged in political activism focused on the rights of  peasants and forest dwellers in that enormous region. One, Chico Mendes was  — and became even more  — famous; his life, struggles for rubber tapper rights and death was the subject of films and books(including one of my own).

Another, Expedito Ribeiro de Souza, was president of the Sindicato de Trabalhadores Rurais, or Rural Workers Union, in Rio Maria, Para. He was exposing the appalling but widespread use of slave labour on big cattle ranches splayed among the stands of rain forest, and for that was threatened and killed.

The third was an affable, mild-mannered family man named Antenor Moreira. And he was murdered one day while working on his plot of land by a land dealer. They are just a few of the estimated 918 people killed in the Amazon between 1985 and April of this year.

Yet only now is the Brazilian government – already in its third Workers Party government – offering some kind of protection to people like them. At least 131 rural leaders, environmentalists and human rights defenders are slated for either regular visits from police to round-the-clock vigilance. And that list would have been larger if not for the fact that 42 people already on it have already been killed. Among them: the Silvas, a husband-and-wife team killed for trying to stop illegal loggers and charcoal-makers. They had already spent ten years alerting authorities to the threats they were receiving – and which in the end were carried out in cold blood last May.

The big question of course is not why has this taken so long – although that is a big question! – but will the promise of protection do any good? Will it change anything? In the end, if the Brazilian government makes it clear that harassment and killings of activists is always going to investigated and always going to be punished, there will be a lot less incentive to shoot someone for a $4000 (the price on the head of Jose Claudio Ribeiro da Silva ,for example.)

But that message is not being sent.

It would have to begin with the trials and sentencing, to name just one case, of the military personnel responsible for killing 19 Sem Terra rural workers in the state of Para in 1996. It would have to go on to bring justice to the many other criminals who are easily identified but living safely because of the power they (or their bosses) wield economically and politically in the region. It might even veer towards taking away or severely reducing the holdings of these people and turning them into extractive reserves, thus actually preserving rain forest.

Lucio Flavio Pinto

Meanwhile, another friend – and valuable source of information on the dirty dealings at play in the Amazon – Lucio Flavio Pinto, continues to receive threats.  The editor of the renowned  Jornal Pessoal, he received an International Press Freedom award in 2005 from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Yet the fact that he still has ample subject matter to expose in the Jornal Pessoal would seem to indicate that something far deeper than individual protection for those who seek justice in the Amazon is seriously lacking.







The Amazon, photo by Andrei Smoler

So it’s the year of forests …

8 Jan


The UN has declared this year the “International Year of Forests” and so I am going to devote my first blog of 2011 to not only forests but people who live in and from the forests.

They add up to about a billion and are among the poorest people on earth in terms of what they earn. Yet their main problem isn’t so much poverty as  invisibility. It isn’t easy to make a billion people disappear but logging and palm-oil companies, plantations and governments all do a pretty good job of it.

Older blog posts in The Global Kiosk tell some stories of forest dwellers who have been forced out of their forest homes, from areas where they have lived sustainably for eons. Some collect and sell forest products, others farm beneath the trees, using one patch for a few years before leaving it to go fallow for decades and return to their natural state.

So hopefully this year not only the forests but the many organized communities who struggle for tenure rights and the protection of their forest habitats will get some much-deserved attention. In Indonesia, the SPI campaigns for the rights of forest dwellers, while in Nepal, an organization called FECOFUN does the same. In Brazil, the National Union of Rubber Tappers have long used a class interpretation to assert the value of keeping loggers, ranchers and dam-builders out of the Amazon, while in Thailand, the Assembly of the Poor take on the issue of forest dwellers who have been evicted from wooded areas, so that pulp-and-paper companies can have free rein in destroying trees and replacing them with so-called green deserts: expanses of eucalyptus that kill anything around or underneath them.

And unfortunately, conservationists in rich countries have also added to the problem, standing by while forest tribes – especially in Africa – are kicked out of their homelands in a mistaken attempt to protect bio-diversity.

A few far-thinking NGOs, like the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development are coming out with studies showing the crucial importance (and simple common sense) of letting forest dwellers protect and manage their forests themselves. Let’s hope that international bodies like the UN take notice of them – as well as the cause they have decided to champion this year.

Peru Attacks its own People — and its Forest

4 Jul


Originally uploaded by thekjkev

Even as the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico rivets the attention of people all over the world, people in many other places continue to suffer the catastrophe of petroleum production completely unheeded. I’ve already posted something about the vicious toll oil companies have imposed on the poor of Nigeria. Now in Peru, oil companies have set their sights on that country’s Amazon basin. According to the website of the Red Ambiental Loretana (the Loreto Environmental Network) “there are hundreds of kilometers of rivers and streams that have never received any treatment after the oil spills.”

It’s really no wonder. The Peruvian government is firmly on the side of the oil companies. Avid for petro-dollars, it has refused to listen to the complaints and proposals of the indigenous people who actually live along those river, in places like Loreto, Bartra, and the Rio Tigre. Just a few weeks ago, it resorted to the kind of unhinged violence to smash through a road blockade that left at least one hundred dead. It has used the police to beat and torture protesters and the navy to break through flotillas of canoes arranged across the affected rivers — essentially funding the repression of Peruvians in favour of multi-nationals from the public purse. 

Lately the Interior Ministry has gone so far as to expel a Catholic missionary, Brother Paul McAuley, and forbid him to ever return. Government bureaucrats are calling him a terrorist. McAuley’s crime? Encouraging the inhabitants of the rainforest region to stand up for their rights.  Yet many student, civil and grassroots movements support the work of Brother McAuley, and the right of the people of the Peruvian Amazon to decide what is in their best interest.

No doubt the Peruvian government is saying it will use all the money it can earn from petroleum and gas production to better the lives of the poor. The governments of countries with these kinds of resources always do. But it never seems to happen. (Check out Paul Collier’s ‘The Bottom Billion’ for statistics on the economic performance of African nations ‘blessed’ with natural resources.)

Could oil and gas be extracted and produced without harming a rainforest environment and benefiting local people? Well, it’s a good question, but one on which no oil company I can think of wants to waste profits on trying to answer.