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NYT explores life and impact of Chico Mendes, “a Fighter for the Amazon”

  • The NYTimes has released a video looking back on Mendes’ life and untimely death, which, as the newspaper notes, is widely credited with having marked “a turning point in Brazil’s environmental consciousness.”
  • In the 1980s, the Amazon was being burned to make way for pastureland and other economic development projects at an alarming rate — the NYTimes video features one scientist showing off the latest remote sensing technology and noting that it allows researchers to track as many as 7,000 fires per day.
  • Two Brazilian men — a local rancher and his 23-year-old son — were convicted of murdering Mendes and sentenced to 19 years in prison in 1990.

Francisco Alves Mendes Filho, better known to the world as Chico Mendes, was a Brazilian rubber tapper, trade union leader, and activist who fought for the Amazon rainforest and the rights of rural and indigenous Amazonian peoples until his assassination on December 22, 1988.

“A shotgun blast ripped into him as he stepped outside his wood-frame house in the western Brazilian state of Acre,” according to the New York Times. “It was the end of a man who had won global acclaim for championing the sanctity of the forest and the rights of compatriots who eked out a living by extracting latex from rubber trees.”

The NYTimes has released a video looking back on Mendes’ life and untimely death, which, as the newspaper notes, is widely credited with having marked “a turning point in Brazil’s environmental consciousness.”

The video is part of the Times’ Retro Report series, which looks at major stories from the past through archival footage coupled with new interviews and analysis.

Two Brazilian men — a local rancher and his 23-year-old son — were convicted of murdering Mendes and sentenced to 19 years in prison in 1990. But the assassins could not destroy what Mendes stood for in life.

In the 1980s, the Amazon was being burned to make way for pastureland and other economic development projects at an alarming rate — the NYTimes video features one scientist showing off the latest remote sensing technology and noting that it allows researchers to track as many as 7,000 fires per day.

“Over the last half-century, roughly 20 percent of the Brazilian Amazon has disappeared as a result of deliberately set fires and relentless bulldozing to make room for cattle ranchers and to clear paths for loggers, road builders and other developers,” the NYTimes notes.

Mendes worked tirelessly to bring attention to the plight of the rainforest and the people who called it home, despite several attempts on his life. After his murder, which made headlines in Brazil and abroad, he became an international symbol of the fight to save the Amazon, and rainforest conservation became a cause célèbre the world over. Tributes to Mendes’ memory were numerous: the Brazilian government created the 931,537-hectare (2,301,878-acre) Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve in 1990, and several more protected areas like it; numerous books were written about the late activist; Raul Julia played Mendes in the 1994 TV movie The Burning Season; and celebrities like Sting championed the cause of rainforest protection, with Paul McCartney even dedicating a song on his 1989 album Flowers In The Dirt to the slain activist.

Mendes’ influence can arguably still be felt today. In the aftermath of the killing, in addition to creating several new nature preserves in the Amazon, the Brazilian government adopted moratoriums on tree-clearing, dams that would have displaced indigenous tribes were scrapped, multinational companies boycotted commodities grown on deforested Amazonian land, and law enforcement efforts against loggers, ranchers, and land grabbers were stepped up by Brazilian authorities.

The result was that, by 2010, Amazon deforestation had dropped precipitously in Brazil. And though there has been a recent uptick in the deforestation rate, it still remains at historical lows across the Brazilian Amazon. That, more than anything, might be the true legacy of Chico Mendes.

“At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees,” the NYTimes quotes Mendes as having said just one year before his death. “Then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rain forest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”

Chico Mendes and his wife, Ilsamar Mendes, at their home in Xapuri, Acre, Brazil. Photo via Miranda Smith. The photo was taken during a shoot for a documentary called Voice of the Amazon of Miranda Productions. The film is freely available here.

Editor’s note: On December 2nd, the photo credit for the header image was changed to Miranda Smith. We also added information on where to view Voice of the Amazon