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New Left Review I/173, January-February 1989


Susanna Hecht

Chico Mendes: Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Where do good ideas come from? Do they fall from the sky? No. They come from social practice.

Mao

Deforestation in the Amazon is a big problem, and not just for the trees, or those who panic about the greenhouse effect. It may well be that it is a matter of global life or death, but for many who live in the Amazon, when trees fall, people die. Sometimes they die because their means of living is destroyed; sometimes because they resist those who do the cutting. So was it with Chico Mendes. He was assassinated on 22 December 1988, shot point-blank in the head and the heart. Chico was the head of the rubber tappers union, the charismatic leader of former debt peons: rubber tappers, brazil-nut gatherers and petty traders who live in the far forests of the Brazilian state of Acre, at the border of Bolivia. Who he was, and why he ended his days with his brains splattered across his patio, tell us a great deal about what deforestation means for the people who live and die in the Amazon. To grasp how important Chico Mendes was to the dispossessed of Acre and the Amazon, one must understand that he sought to free landless rubber tappers from the relentless savagery of debt peonage, a vile holdover from the nineteenth century. Chico also sought to ensure that, once free, tappers were protected from the ravages of late twentieth-century ‘development’ which, by turning the forests to ashes, transformed tappers’ lives into dust. In the process he made many enemies among landowners and their minions. Death threats were his daily fare.

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