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20 years ago the Amazon lost its strongest advocate

Twenty years 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.

His assassination in Xapuri, a remote town in the Brazilian state of Acre, would serve as a catalyst that led to the birth of the movement to protect the Amazon rainforest from loggers, ranchers, and developers. But the movement has stalled. Some would even say it has failed: since 1988 more than 348,000 square kilometers (134,000 square miles) of Amazon rainforest have been leveled.

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.

Brazil has recently announced new measures to protect the Amazon, as it has done on nearly an annual basis since the mid-1990s. But this time it may be different — Brazil is aseeking more than $20 billion to make Amazon conservation a reality. The measure hinges on the rich world’s interest in paying for forest conservation and fighting climate change (Amazon forest loss accounts for 5-8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, depending on the level of devastation in a given year). Without commitment from the world’s largest long-time polluters, the proposed Amazon fund may just become another idea that is trammeled by cattle ranchers, loggers, soy farmers, miners, speculators and energy developers.

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:

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