By Viv Meluish
On Thursday 22 Decembe, 1988, in the north-western Brazilian town of Xapuri, Acre, Chico Mendes was assassinated.
The leader of the local union of rubber tappers, active member of the growing Workers’ Party, and advocate of “socialist ecology”, Mendes was the sworn enemy of the landowners against whom he had fought and organised for workers’ rights all his life.
His death was a tragedy, which received publicity all around the world. But his life was an inspiration.
The rubber tappers are an exploited group of workers, whose job is to “tap” liquid rubber from trees in the Amazon rainforest. Rubber became increasingly important in the world economy from the end of the 19th century, especially after the invention of the pneumatic tyre, and Brazilian rubber manufacturers began to import labour into the Amazon basin to collect it.
“Great wealth was created,” one study notes. “By the turn of the century, Manaus had grown from a remote military outpost into the most advanced city in South America... Much of this investment was British.” (Latin America Bureau, Fight for the Forest, 1989).
The traditional rubber estates operate a system of debt bondage, tying the workers to the company. “They were doubly exploited, obliged to sell their rubber at artificially low prices to the estate, and to buy tools and foodstuffs from the estate store” (LAB). Although this system remains in place in many areas, around Xapuri, where Chico Mendes lived, it had given away to ranchers: “The rubber tapper, instead of being exploited by the estate owner, is simultaneously exploited by local merchants and facing expulsion at the hands of the rancher.”
From the mid-1970s, Chico Mendes joined the rubber trappers’ trade union movement, and became an organiser. Born in 1944, Mendes was illiterate until he learned to read from an old Communist Party militant. When the Workers’ Party was formed in 1979, Mendes joined it, at once recognising the political dimension to his local struggles.
Environmental issues, workers’ rights and broader political goals were central to the struggle Chico Mendes waged.
“We realised that in order to guarantee the future of the Amazon we had to find a way to preserve the forest while at the same time developing the region’s economy... We accepted that the Amazon could not be turned into some kind of sanctuary that nobody could touch. On the other hand, we knew it was important to stop the deforestation that is threatening the Amazon and all human life on the planet... So we came up with the idea of extractive reserves... We mean the land [should be] under public ownership, but the rubber tappers and other workers... should have the right to live and work there...” (quoted in LAB).
Through growing organisation and direct action, Mendes and the Xapuri Rural Workers’ Union made significant gains against the landowners. One form of direct action was the empate, which Mendes describes:
“When a community is threatened with deforestation, it gets in touch with other communities in the area. They all get together in a mass meeting in the middle of the forest and organise teams of people to take the lead in confronting the workers cutting down the trees with their chainsaws... in a peaceful and organised way. [They] try to convince the workers employed by the landowners to leave the area... The whole community — men, women and children — take part in the empate...” But, he goes on: “The landowners are quite happy about using violence...” The threat of violence from the landowners and their goons was ever present, but, by careful and democratic organisation, the empates reduced this to a minimum.
Sometimes these actions were successful; sometimes they were not. In 1985, Chico Mendes took the rubber tappers’ issues to the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank on Amazon development projects, arguing for the system of co-operatives he and his comrades were trying to build.
In the face of this growing workers’ movement, the landowners were growing increasingly unhappy, and organised Mendes’ murder. Four thousand people joined his funeral cortege. The assassination hit international headlines, and the Brazilian government was embarrassed into taking action to see the killers were caught. The suspected organiser of the murder, Darli Alves, was eventually caught, but the rubber tappers’ situation continued to deteriorate as the landowners stepped up their anti-working class offensive.
In 1989, shortly after Chico Mendes’ death, the National Council of Rubber Tappers in Rio Branco issued this “declaration of the peoples of the forest”, which can serve as Mendes’ epitaph:
“The traditional peoples who today trace on the Amazonian sky the rainbow of the Alliance of the Peoples of the Forest declare their wish to see their regions preserved. They know that the development of the potential of their people and of the regions they inhabit is to be found in the future economy of their communities, and must be preserved for the whole Brazilian nation as part of its identity and self-esteem. This Alliance of the Peoples of the Forest, bringing together Indians, rubber tappers, and riverbank communities, and founded here in Acre, embraces all efforts to protect and preserve this immense but fragile life-system that involves out forests, lakes, rivers and springs, the source of our wealth and the basis of our cultures and traditions.”
By Viv Meluish