Fight for the Forest - review

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 90 - October 1989

Fight for the forest. Chico Mendes in his own words, Latin America Bureau, £2.95, 96pp.

At 5.45pm on Thursday 22 December 1988, Chico Mendes was assassinated in the doorway of his home in Xapuri, Acre, north west Brazil.

Chico Mendes was President of the Xapuri Rural Workers Union, member of the National Council of Rubber Tappers, member of the national council of the Trade Union Congress (CUT), an activist in the Workers' Party (PT), and commit-ted to the defence of the Amazonian eco-system. At the time of his death he was 44 and married with two young children. Fight for the forest is the last major inter-view given by Chico Mendes just weeks before his death.

Fight for the forest outlines the growth of the organisation of the rubber tappers in the last two decades and in particular the great contribution of Chico Mendes in building the structures of self-organisation and defence against the destruction of the rain forests.

Chico Mendes was born into a rubber tappers family. The traditional rubber estate (seringal) operates on a system of debt bondage. During the rubber boom at the turn of the century the rubber tappers (generally men from the semi-arid north east escaping the droughts) were obliged to remain single, forbidden to plant food for themselves and obliged to sell their rubber at artificially low prices to the seringal. Illiterate and innumerate, they were permanently at the mercy of the rubber estate owners (seringalistas).

In many parts of the western Amazon this system remains unchanged, although in the area around Xapuri the seringalista has given way to the rancher. In the region around Xapuri, the 1970s and 1980s have seen a growing conflict between ranchers clearing the forest for pasture and rubber tappers facing eviction and loss of livelihood.

In his words Chico Mendes explains the struggles of the rubber tappers, first to learn to read, write and become numerate and as a result of their growing awareness of their exploitation and the destruction of the rain forests by the ranchers, the growth of their own trade unions and the physical defence of the rain forest.

Through Projecto Seringueiro (the Rubber Tapper Project) rubber tappers and their families were educated and enabled to run the first extractive reserve on the Cachoeira estate.

In 1987 Cachoeira was bought by Darli Alves da Silva who tried to drive out the 60 families of rubber tappers who had lived and worked on the estate for generations. Chico Mendes used all his powers of persuasion and leadership to convince the rubber tappers of Cachoeira to stay where they were and Darli issued death threats against him. In the second half of 1988, the federal government sought to defuse the situation by signing expropriation orders for three extractive reserves including Cachoeira, where 6,000 hectares were allocated to the rubber tappers.

The victory for the rubber tappers was also the death sentence for Chico, as the family of Darli Alves sought to avenge their defeat. The attempts on his life became systematic and on 22 December 1988 he was murdered.

Chico Mendes devoted his short life to fighting for the rights of the rubber tappers and for the future of the rain forest. He refused to give in to the intimidation of the ranchers and government officials who wanted to make fast bucks out of the rain forest. Equally he refused to co-operate with right wing elements of the church and the workers party who feared for their own interests above the interests of the rubber tappers.

Fight for the forest is a powerful book and highly recommended.

Lorna Reid


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