December 22, 2008
Twenty years ago ago today, Chico Mendes, an Amazon rubber tapper, was shot and killed in front of his family at his home. He was 44.
Photo by Denise Zmekhol. Zmekhol photographed Chico Mendes and his family during the last weeks of his life.
People like Mendes continue to fall with the trees. According to the Catholic Land Pastoral Commission (Comissao Pastoral da Terra), a Brazilian human rights' group, more than 1,100 activists, priests, judges, small landholders and rural workers have been killed in the region since Mendes' death.
In 2005 the murder of Dorothy Stang, an American nun who had worked more than 30 years protecting land rights of poor farmers, made headlines around the world (like Mendes' murder) and triggered a massive response from the Brazilian government, which sent in the military to re-establish some form of control in deforestation hotspots and announced the establishment of millions of hectares of protected areas. Three years after the murder, Regivaldo Galvao, the rancher suspected of orchestrating the killing, filed documents claiming he owned the land Stang had died defending. Galvao will likely escape punishment -- only 15 of the men behind the 1,100 slayings in the region since 1988 have been found guilty of their crimes, according to the Associated Press.
Stang's life is the subject of a new documentary: They Killed Sister Dorothy.
Mendes' life is the subject of The Burning Season, a book by Andrew Revkin (now of the New York Times); a disappointing movie of the same title; and a 2008 documentary film, Children of the Amazon, by Denise Zmekhol.
Mendes' aspirations live on through his children — Elenira Mendes is president of the Instituto Chico Mendes, an organization that fights for social justice and environmental protection in the Amazon. Let's hope his dreams are not forgotten.
** Update 12/22 **
The 20th anniversary of Chico Mendes' assassination is getting a lot of coverage:
- Dot Earth: The Uncertain Legacy of Chico Mendes [Comment and Discussion]
- Dot Earth: Can Roads and Rain Forests Co-Exist? [Comment and Discussion]
- New York Times: Forest Plan in Brazil Bears the Traces of an Activist’s Vision
- AP: Amazon killings go on despite Chico Mendes' legacy
- Lou Gold: CHICO MENDES, CAPIXABA and CHANGE