Strength From a Stillness Within. Brazilian rubber tapper and environmentalist Chico Mendes died trying to protect the forest he loved

CHICO MENDES was a gentle man - very different from the rough, ``macho'' stereotypes of what a leader of Brazilian rubber-tappers might be like. The strength he exuded came from a stillness within him. It came from the love he freely demonstrated for his people and for the beautiful, fragile rain forests they live in and depend on. And it came from his calm conviction that the cause he was living for - the preservation of those forests - was also worth dying for. For an internationally acclaimed activist, Mr. Mendes was extremely modest, unassuming - even, at first, a little shy. Yet he liked to laugh and joke with the exuberance of a true Brazilian.

One day last September, Mendes and his cousin Miguel took two journalists on a walk through the jungle. He showed us the towering rubber trees he loved as if they were human, the diagonal incisions in their bark carved by rubber tappers like himself, and the milky latex that drips out into cups made from another forest product - sturdy, thick Brazil nut shells.

After a while, as we wandered down a rubber tappers' path, marveling at the beauty and power of the forest, we came to a mysterious barrier: long filaments of springy rubber tied from tree to tree blocked our way like the beginnings of a giant cobweb. Suddenly we realized Mendes had disappeared and the forest was still. Well, not quite. Laughter was coming from somewhere deep among the trees.

MENDES was shot to death at his home in the little jungle town of Xapur'i in the state of Acre on Dec. 22 by a hired gunman. His death is an immeasurable loss to those who knew and loved him - and, because of the scope and impact of his work, to millions who have never even heard of him.

His full name was Francisco Mendes Filho, but everyone in Acre knew him as Chico Mendes. For 10 years, he had been the leader of the National Council of Rubber Tappers (CNS), representing some 150,000 people who live in, and off, the rain forests that cover 87 percent of Acre.

In 1987, he received the Global 500 Award from the United Nations Environmental Program for his nonviolent, yet remarkably effective, efforts to halt the destruction of the rain forest. Twelve percent of all Brazil's rain forests have already been destroyed, mostly in the last decade, by cattle ranchers, small-scale farmers, and speculators.

Mendes helped to increase in Acre's rubber tappers a self-awareness, solidarity, and a determination to defend their rights. But his greatest practical achievement was the creation, through negotiations with the Brazilian government, multilateral development banks, US congressmen, and environmental agencies, of four ``extractive reserves'' in Acre and eight in other Amazon states. These reserves, more than 5 million acres, are protected for the extraction of rubber, nuts, resins, and other forest products.

It was Mendes' hope that 40 percent of Acre will eventually be classified as reserves. But he was also concerned that, in areas without a strong rubber tappers' union, the extractive reserve movement might fail.

The forest where Mendes walked with the journalists is in a reserve called Cachoeira. Sixty-seven families live there, including Mendes' aunt and uncle. A cattle rancher named Darly Alves claims part of Cachoeira as his own land. In recent months, Mr. Alves had repeatedly threatened Mendes' life, to the point where the governor of the state assigned him two bodyguards. These guards were in his house when Mendes walked out his back door and was shot. Alves' son Darcy admitted guilt a few days after the murder, but police continued to search for his father. He was found hiding in the forest last week and is now in police custody, pending the investigation of his alleged responsibility for this and other killings.

The entire world needs the rain forests Mendes died trying to protect. Yet it should be understood that in Brazil, which contains 30 percent of the earth's remaining tropical forests, inequities of land distribution are a major cause of the increasing destruction of these forests. Small farms, half of all rural properties in Brazil, cover only 3 percent of occupied rural land, while large estates, owned by less than 1 percent of the landholders, occupy 43 percent of the land. And an estimated 335 million hectares are being held, unused, for speculative purposes.

A key role in many violent land disputes in Brazil is played by a landowners' association, the Rural Democratic Union (UDR) whose leaders admit to having stockpiled 70,000 weapons. UDR defends large landholdings and cattle ranches against peasants' attempts to implement existing land reform laws. According to Amnesty International, the organization is responsible for the deaths, disappearance, and torture of hundreds of Brazilian peasants, priests, and union leaders. The day after Mendes' murder, the UDR leader in Acre, Joao Branco, left the country and is now reported to be in Paris.

Stephan Schwartzman of the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington says that, judging from the international outrage over Mendes' murder, the Brazilian government may finally take action against UDR. ``This could be the straw that breaks the camel's back,'' he says. ``Maybe this time the people responsible will go to jail, and it may discredit and even dismantle UDR. The final responsibility for this [killing] rests with UDR for promoting an atmosphere of terror in rural Brazil and using violence to stop any kind of agrarian reform.''

When interviewed by phone, Brazilian Vice President Ulysses Guimaraes stated emphatically that ``the government is acting with much determination to punish those responsible [for the murder].'' However, he said just as emphatically that he knows nothing at all about possible UDR involvement with the case.

``Chico Mendes taught the international environmental community something of crucial importance,'' says Schwartzman. ``Environmental protection in the Amazon, and in the developing world in general, can't be separated from social justice for the people who live there. His death is unfortunately the most terrible kind of proof of that fact.''

THE world will always owe a huge debt to Mendes, for his work will continue. Those who knew him can be grateful they did, and treasure him in their memories.

I keep thinking of his tiny son who looks so much like him, beside himself with joy when his father came home at the end of the day. Monitor photographer Neal Menschel remembers a moment in the home of Mendes' uncle, when Mendes said goodbye to his aunt. He picked up her two hands, worn and wrinkled from a lifetime of hard work, gently turned them over, and kissed her upturned palms.

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