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


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.

Acre’s heyday began at the end of the nineteenth century when the industrial demand for natural rubber sent prices skyrocketing, and masters and debt peons pushing deeper and deeper into the forest. In the Acre river valley they found the richest rubber stands in all that great forest, and Acre’s white history began. Just as tea and sugar wended their way from opposite sides of the earth into British lives, the need for rubber for tyres, shoes and machines extended quickly and brutally into some of the remotest areas of the planet. Suddenly the region went from being a refuge for nineteenth-century naturalists to become the centre of a mercantile system based on debt peonage. While debt peonage was not in any way new to the region—together with slavery it had been the primary means by which agricultural and extractive products such as dyes, quinine and rosewood oil were provided for markets—it assumed a particularly violent form as Indians and impoverished whites milked the trees for latex. Debt peonage in its New World form has no consoling overlay of traditional rights and obligations in the European sense. As oppressive as formal slavery, it has been one of the most savage forms of labour deployment and monopolistic market control ever to have existed outside concentration camps. Peons not only generate the product which they must sell to a particular patron at a monopolistic price. Unlike in slavery, where in principle the master had at least to feed slaves or provide the possibility of agricultural plots, Amazon debt peons were forbidden agriculture and forced to buy their own subsistence from the patrons, who thus made profits on all sides. By hampering any form of agricultural production, and insisting on monopoly, the patrons could thus ensure the reproduction of peonage. But given the regional shortage of labour, they also had to force compliance to these marketing structures through personalized and capricious forms of brutality. No bureaucracy or faceless violence here. It is rather the naked face of personal power.

Chico Mendes, himself a debt slave, began his career as an organizer when he witnessed several murders by patrons. Rubber tappers often try clandestinely to sell small amounts of rubber (less than ten kilos, known as principios) to petty traders or marreteiros, for cash or for items like medicine that are not available at the patron’s store. This practice was unwelcome to patrons, who naturally preferred monopoly systems. Those caught selling in this way had strings of principios tied to their body, were doused in gasoline and set afire. Chico organized the households in the rubber estate where he was enslaved to sell to marreteiros en masse, so that the murderous individual reprisals would become impossible. By collective actions that emphasized the tappers’ rights to sell when and where they would, to farm for their subsistence if they would, and by encouraging non-payment of rent to patrons, Chico challenged more than debt peonage. By asserting the rights of labour and human dignity over the claims of property, he drew battle lines that assured the enmity of landowners, and—ultimately—his own violent death.

Until very recently the debt peonage system remained more or less intact. In the early part of this century, the rubber economy generated spectacular riches, but boom was followed by bust when the pilfered seeds of rubber were transported to England, and thence to Malaysia which was free of the disease that limited dense planting of Hevea in the Amazon. Faced with efficient British and Dutch plantation management, the production of the Amazon was soon eclipsed. Consigned to the oblivion of ceaseless toil in a world indifferent to the producers of tropical necessities, the Amazon rubber economy continued to supply this commodity to a national economy in which rubber barons had been able to argue effectively for trade protection. Yet the attempts to establish plantations continually met with failure as leaf blight disease ravaged the pure stands of Hevea. Fordlandia, a vast plantation begun in the twenties, was Henry Ford’s grandiose attempt to assure supplies of latex for tyres and to drive down the international price. The plantation’s failure stands as testimony to the difficulty of commercial cultivation of this forest plant in the area where it co-evolved with all its biological enemies. Thus, credits to the rubber sector rarely translated into investment in production. Indeed the major technical advance was the introduction of the Malaysian tapping knife. Funds to the rubber sector financed marketing, and occasionally processing, and remained firmly in the hands of the rubber elites.

The outbreak of World War Two once more fired the dreams of the rubber barons. With Asia out of reach of the Allies, natural Amazonian rubber became central to the war effort. Under the Washington accords, the us financed the revitalization of rubber estates, paid for labour recruitment—the so called exercito de borracha, or rubber army—to supply the airplane tyres and condoms so necessary to the Allied effort. The export and sale of rubber became a government monopoly, with marketing credits and guaranteed prices for the barons. The new us presence introduced modern formal credit structures which enabled the barons to borrow from banks instead of commercial mercantile houses, although such funds were not invested to any great degree in the improvement of production in Amazonia. While Amazonian rubber enjoyed an increased market share for a brief period after the war, tappers carried out their tasks of collecting and processing latex in the same way that they had for almost a century, life trickling on much as rubber sap filled the cups set to catch the latex from the wounded trees. For the barons, however, the rubber economy was clearly decadent, and as Asian and African plantations expanded, their future was ever more in doubt.

In 1964 the military seized power and radically modified Amazonian development policy to make the region the target of enormous programmes of ‘national integration’—infrastructure development, fiscal incentives, colonization programmes. It also brought about a restructuring of both the regional development and financial agencies. By 1967 the Amazon bank rubber programme set up during World War Two was largely bankrupt. Beset by international competition and the growing use of synthetic rubber, the seringalistas or rubber barons were unable to repay their debts. The monopolistic pricing system organized by the Brazilian state was liberalized to reflect international realities. As some estate owners now began to abandon their direct interest in rubber, it was sometimes possible for tappers and their families both to begin production of subsistence crops and to sell to a burgeoning class of petty traders. A socially and ecologically viable use of the land was emerging from the ruins of debt peonage in the Acrean forests, particularly those near the village of Xapuri where, since the early 1970s, the rural workers union had been organizing the dispersed tapper plantations.