Fighting to Save Brazil's Rain Forest

FAR from the jungles of northern Brazil, where she works much of the time, Mary Helena Allegretti hails a new martyr. And official Washington, like influential people in her own country, is paying more attention to his death and his cause.

Her former colleague - labor leader and environmentalist Francisco (Chico) Mendes - was murdered Dec. 22 as he left his home. Mendes had worked for 12 years to protect the Amazon rain forest and its indigenous people. Leader of a rubber tappers' union in isolated Acre State, he fought against the encroachment of cattle ranching.

[Reuters reported Monday that the main suspect in the murder, Darli Alves da Silva, surrendered to police over the weekend. Mendes had said before his death that cattle ranchers Darli Alves da Silva and Alvarino Alves da Silva were out to kill him.]

``He was a simple man and a very intelligent man,'' remembers Ms. Allegretti, head of the Institute for Amazon Studies in Curitiba. She speaks warmly of the eight years she worked with him in the impoverished, but biologically rich interior of Brazil.

But now, three weeks after his death, she works not only to preserve his memory but also for his cause: developing Brazil's rain forest region in a manner that is environmentally sound.

Together, Allegretti and Mendes had begun organizing the nation's rubber tappers - subsistence forest dwellers who harvest latex from trees in the Amazon jungle to make natural rubber. Such harvests do not harm the forest, because tappers give the trees enough time to replenish before the next harvest.

They had won support within the international development community for establishing the so-called ``extractive reserves.'' These are zones set aside for the exclusive use of rubber tappers, much like national forest areas are managed for timber in the United States.

In the absence of such zones, tappers continue to be the object of intimidation - as farmers and ranchers raze vast swaths of land in the Amazon region. Such agricultural development, though entirely unsuited to the fragile soils of the tropics, continues at a breakneck pace.

For the moment, the push for more extractive reserves is on hold while Allegretti and others push for a thorough investigation of Mendes's murder. Allegretti says that Brazilian press reports have incorrectly characterized the slaying as a dispute between families, rather than the result of an intensifying political conflict between landowners who wish to develop the rain forest and peasants who wish to conserve it.

SENIOR Brazilian officials have pledged to investigate fully, but Allegretti says she is organizing an independent, parallel investigation. ``We're not sure the government will do this well,'' she says, speaking through an interpreter in Portuguese.

At the same time, Mendes's murder has begun to galvanize a national movement to address the rain forest problems. Known primarily for his work in his native Acre State, Mendes ``is being transformed into a leader for all of the Amazon,'' Allegretti says. About 2,000 people reportedly attended his funeral last month.

Leaders of major civic groups - including associations of lawyers, clerics, politicians, and labor leaders - met Jan. 4 to organize demonstrations marking his death. Mendes's widow and other associates have also formed the Chico Mendes Foundation - an association of rubber tappers organized to carry forward his vision to create extractive reserves wherever tappers exist.

The task is daunting, though. Neither the Brazilian government nor private groups have a listing of where the tappers live.

Nonetheless, the progress is remarkable, Allegretti says. ``All of this is new in Brazil.''

And the newness and the cause have stirred interest in Washington. The Better World Foundation, a media group, is planning a television documentary of Mendes's work. Ashoka, an international development organization which finances small projects of entrepreneurs in Brazil and other countries, has extended a fellowship to Mendes's widow Ilzamar.

Three US senators - Timothy Wirth (D) of Colorado, John Heinz (R) of Pennsylvania, and Richard Shelby (D) of Alabama - arrived in Brazil Jan. 5 on the first leg of a two-week tour of South America. About half of the trip is devoted to an investigation of conservation issues. It will include talks with Brazilian officials and an inspection of Amazon areas hit hard by deforestation. On Jan. 16, the delegation is expected in the town of Xapuri, headquarters of the Mendes Foundation, to meet with the tappers.

Mendes's followers and government officials are greeting the visit with great anticipation, Allegretti says. But it highlights a problem which continues to disturb her and other Brazilian activists working to protect the rain forest: the perception that environmentalists in the developing world are the stooges of industrialized nations. ``We are accused of defending US interests in Brazil,'' Allegretti says. ``But the world needs to know it is we Brazilians who are interested.''

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