Brazilian Murder Conviction Elates Rain-Forest Activists

IN the eyes of many, justice finally came to the Amazon last week. Deep in the rain forest, in the small town of Xapuri, there was jubilation in the streets after a seven-person jury voted to return a ``guilty'' verdict against two Brazilian cattle ranchers for the 1988 murder of Chico Mendes.

Mendes, at the time of his death, had become an internationally known environmentalist. His murder became a worldwide symbol of the life-and-death struggle involved in trying to preserve Brazil's rain forest.

A recipient of the United Nations Global 500 award, Mendes was a rubber tapper who organized colleagues to preserve the rain forest and to resist encroachment by cattle ranchers who cut down the forest to create grazing land. On Saturday, the jury sentenced Darci Alves da Silva and his father Darly to 19 years in prison for the Mendes murder - striking a blow for his cause, environmentalists say.

Brazil's rain forest has become a zone of conflict in the past two decades. Before leaving power in 1985, a military government drew people into the sparsely-settled territory with road building, tax incentives for cattle ranching, and farming colonization schemes. At the same time, gold was discovered in the region's waterways.

Newcomers burned the forest to clear land, dumped mercury into rivers to separate gold from rock, brought disease to indigenous peoples, and fought over land with Indians, rubber tappers, and others who long occupied the Amazon.

Environmentalists became concerned about harm to the forest and its people, especially after scientists linked the forest's destruction to global warming. Mendes death two years ago fanned awareness of the situation. Since then, world public opinion led Brazil's government to set up an Amazon reserve named after Mendes, and pushed President Fernando Collor de Mello to put new emphasis on environmental policy.

But environmentalists worry the novelty of a judge's black robes appearing on Xapuri's muddy streets will not be enough to stop the forest's destruction.

``I'm afraid that Chico Mendes will be a fad of the moment,'' says Nikolaus von Behr, an ecologist in Bras'ilia. ``It's chic to be for ecology. But this will not change people's behavior.''

Mendes became a symbol not only for those who care about the rain forest, but also for those who want to stamp out the grass-roots activism he practiced. Even as the Xapuri defendants sweated through the heat of the trial's third day last Thursday, a sugar-cane unionist was shot and killed on a Brazilian roadside 3,000 miles away. His union received a letter reminding members that ``Chico Mendes sleeps because he talked too much.''

Fabio Feldmann, Brazil's only ``green'' congressman, says: ``Rural violence continues. I am not optimistic.''

Though Mendes' death raised consciousness, ecologists say the only concrete response from Brazil's government was a decision to set up reservations where the forest can be harvested of latex and nuts without being damaged.

``They exist on paper only, because the government hasn't surveyed and titled the land,'' says Mr. Feldmann. ``Collor talks and doesn't do anything.'' The government, however, disputes assertions it is not trying hard enough.

``The ecologists want us to get things done from one day to the next,'' says a federal environmental agency official who asked not to be identified. ``There hasn't been time to survey reserves. We need money.'' This official says a $150 million program is not yet off the ground, because there is no money for it.

Despite the work remaining, activists say the trial outcome is encouraging.

``It makes people conscious of their value,'' says Mr. von Behr. ``Rubber tappers will feel strengthened by the judgment, they will see that poor people can also confront power.''

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