Tag Archives: Brazil

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.’


What’s for Lunch?

1 Oct
CC Photo by B.Adams

CC Photo by B.Adams

Well, if you are poor, these little creepy crawlies apparently.

A group of McGill University MBA students won a prestigious award from Bill Clinton last week, for having the best idea for a new social enterprise. This year’s challenge for the annual Hult Prize, which consists of a million bucks and some mentoring from top international business persons, was to come up with a solution to secure food for undernourished communities, particularly in urban slums. Their idea: insect farming.

That’s right. Along with Golden Rice, the urban poor might now improve their diets with ground up insects, which are nutritious, sustainable, already consumed by lots of people in the Global South and, I assume, cheaper than other protein sources like pulses or meat.

But I have an even better idea for Mr. Clinton and the Hult B-School poobahs. Land Reform!

Here’s my business plan: An astonishing number of Third World countries have both big populations of rural landless or land poor and, at the same time, enormous tracts of empty fertile land belonging either to the state or to very rich, absentee landlords. (So much in fact that they can afford to lease such land for mere pennies to multi-national corporations based in other nations.)

Take this land and divide it up among these rural families so that each one has enough to cultivate and earn a decent living. Those families will then be able to feed themselves, instead of being net buyers of food as most of them are, taking some pressure off of markets.

With the money they earn from actually selling to those markets instead of buying, they will be able to send their children to school, helping to end illiteracy and ignorance.

They will also be able to purchase things they need, helping to boost local economies, instead of abandoning their tiny plots and actually swelling urban slums seeking jobs that don’t exist.

Having enough land will also allow them to plant more trees to protect their water sources and help halt global warming. And lots of rural grassroots social movements are already organized to facilitate such transfers in an equable manner and offer agricultural advice and support.

Oh, and did I forget to mention this? It’s also inherently fair.

Maybe my idea is too logical for global decision-makers, because I don’t think any MBA students have ever thought of this. World Bank economists and big donors have also failed to suggest this as a solution to poverty. (Look at Zimbabwe! They say. Look at South Korea! I say.)

No, it is somehow more logical — and let’s face it, the market is based on rational behaviour, right?  — to spend millions of dollars tinkering around the edges of the real issue, the real cause of Third world poverty, which is the unequal distribution of resources.

Those MBA students may be congratulating themselves for their million-dollar windfall by putting bugs on the menu of the urban poor — while fighting off accusations of plagiarizing the research of a fellow student — but I’m not buying it. Nor should you, and nor should the poor. We can do better than this. And if we don’t, it’s because we don’t really want to.


Comedy — and Life — Through The Back Door

12 Sep

Last week, the media conglomerate spawned by Brazil’s O Globo newspaper – founded in 1925 – issued an unusual, if tardy apology. It said ‘sorry!’ for having supported Brazil’s military dictatorship for more than three decades.

Of course it had always been clear that the Marinho family supported the dictatorship — this wasn’t news to anyone — but the idea of apologizing for one’s past ideology is. And it can’t help but make me wonder if O Globo’s admitting to past mistakes arises from the fact that it, along with most traditional media, is less and less relevant a source of our news, entertainment and ethos.

It is also probably true that, at the time, any news outlet that did not want to be shut down at the time, was obliged to show support for the military government and all it stood for, including its economic plans and the hierarchical system it embodied.  Thus the poor were poor because they were lazy and resentful, not because they lacked rights and resources. The rich were rich because they were naturally superior beings.

This was still very much the view when I first went to work in Brazil in 1987 and my daily read was the Jornal do Brasil, which has since gone bankrupt and been bought out by O Globo. And that is also why I am such a big fan of film-maker Nelson Pereira dos Santos and particularly his incredibly moving film made in 1957, Rio Zona Norte.

Yet that accepted understanding of hierarchies is still very much part of Brazilian culture and one of the reasons the current Workers party government finds itself in such an ideological bind. Here are the people so long excoriated by the powers-that-be, now itself in power, and playing politics completely according to its corrupt and self-serving rules.

And hence the increasing lack of relevance of traditional media that has a hard time evoking what average Brazilians think or feel, and what their lives are really like.

But now, with new media offering all kinds of alternative outlets, we can not only find the British documentary, Beyond Citizen Kane,  about the Globo dynasty the company tried so hard to suppress — but also a comedy program like Porta dos Fundos. Its name means ‘the back door’ and it has been making and running dozens of skits on its own YouTube channel, watched by millions of people.

Here is a sample taken from the New York Times (only because it’s in English, because I highly recommend any Portuguese speakers check out the real thing) featuring a mock response to the recent demonstrations by the President and her cabinet.

There’s nothing particularly new or earth-shattering about the concept or the material. Just a refreshing viewpoint we would not be seeing if the technology of media hadn’t advanced as much as it has — and if a bunch of enterprising young folk hadn’t decided to take advantage of it.

Paulo, Maria — and the Hulk

19 Jun


About a week ago,  fully expecting to receive a ‘yes,’ I sent an email to find out if legal possession had finally been granted to the families occupying an already expropriated estate in north east Brazil. I had stayed with the families in June 2006, after which the National Institute for Agrarian Reform designated the land as “unproductive,” and visited again in 2010.

But the answer I received instead was ‘no.’ Why? “Because,” in the words of the Landless Peasant Movement coordinator there, “the purchase value is very high because of the many physical structures” on this estate.

What??? Excuse me, Brazilian government, but haven’t you just spent $30 billion on a soccer tournament? Aren’t you pouring more billions into “physical structures” for the upcoming FIFA world cup and the Olympics? You don’t have a few tens of thousands available to pay for the estate owner’s house, office and the simple concrete dam he built in the nearby Meio River?

If an illustration were needed to explain the nation-wide anti-government protests roiling Brazil right now, the predicament of landless peasant farmers like Paulo and Maria da Silva would provide the perfect one. Theirs is just one example of the extraordinary inequality between a huge population of poor and under-served Brazilians and the comparative few who have reaped fortunes from the country’s erstwhile economic boom.

For me, Paulo da Silva is one of this world’s great unsung heroes. He had a job on the 5000-hectare estate, where a Recife-based magnate named Slaibe Hatem raised a few cattle. When the MST targeted the land for occupation and expropriation, he went straight down to join them, frustrated for years by his paltry salary and the unrelenting refusal of the estate manager to let him plant a garden, raise chickens or even collect honey. He has stuck with the occupation through thick and thin, patiently waiting for the day when the INCRA would finally — finally — make good on its decision to hand this enormous piece of land to the hundreds of poverty stricken families who would turn it into a patchwork of productive farm land.

And now it’s saying, sorry, giving you the right to earn your own living is just too expensive. There is money for show-off projects that will bring no economic capacity to Brazil, but none for agrarian reform, education, health care or paying the people, whose houses we have bulldozed in order to build stadiums, a fair and decent indemnification.

The lack of action on the plight of Paulo and Maria da Silva is especially heart-breaking. I have huge respect for this couple and know about their many great ideas to make Hatem’s former fazenda a model of diversified organic farming, including a major honey operation that could potentially boost exports and provide jobs in a region where unemployment is chronic.

No one should be surprised at the level of fury behind the current protests in Brazil. People expected better of a government run by the Workers Party, a party that struggled for years to win acceptance and always vowed to forge a different, more equitable society. Because of their popular political positions, it was difficult to organize any meaningful protests against them when they fouled up on their principles, although in fact, the MST has been demonstrating for years on the lack of importance given to agrarian reform. But now the rhetoric of the WP government has been shown for hollow thing it is, and the tables are being turned. For several days now, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Rio, Sao Paulo, Florianopolis, Curitiba, Belo Horizonte and Belem. On Tuesday, members of Toronto’s Brazilian community held a sympathy march in front of City Hall.

Even the Brazil team midfielder Givanildo Vieira de Souza, known as Hulk, has come out in defence of the protesters. “I come from the bottom of the social ladder and now I have a good life,” he said. “I see these demonstrators and I know that they are right.”

So if the news about Paulo has left me depressed and incredibly indignant, the news a few days later about the scope and determination of the protestors has given me back some hope. I hope it gives Paulo some as well. And I hope Brazil’s bureaucracy wakes up, looks out the window and sees the real Hulk, the average person who has turned into an angry, fed-up super-hero. And  realizes that these are the people they should be working for. Not a government that has lot all sense of fairness, honesty and integrity.

(This great little video by Carla Dauden has me feeling pretty good as well.)