Justice in the Rainforest

The recent conviction of landowners for the murder of labor leader Chico Mendes should herald a new era for the Amazon region

ALMOST two years after the assassination of rubber tapper union leader Chico Mendes in Brazil's Acre state, cattle rancher Darly Alves da Silva and his son, Darci Pereira Alves, were convicted last December of planning and executing the murder. It was the first time any landowner had been convicted of ordering the murder of a rural activist, though more than 1,000 such assassinations have occurred in the Brazilian interior since 1980. The jurors' decision was based on evidence, arguments, and their own estimate of personal danger if they found the accused guilty. But the implications of their decision for the future of the Amazon and its peoples go beyond any steps taken so far to preserve the forest.

On trial in the town of Xapuri were two visions for the future of the Amazon and Brazil. One, represented by the defense (including notorious torturer Joao Lucena Leal), argued that Chico was an agitator who got what was coming to him: ``Chico Mendes was fooling around with a pile of rocks, and one hit him on the head.'' Darly Alves, in this scenario, was a hard-working rancher who ``put food on the table of a lot of people in Acre.'' Lucena and his colleague Armando Reigota have made their careers in Rondonia defending cattle ranchers and drug traffickers. Theirs is the Amazon where money and power for the elite equal progress and prosperity, and the status quo is justice.

The other vision, Chico's vision, is a Brazil where basic rights of citizenship apply to all, rich or poor, powerful or powerless, Amazon peasant or Sao Paulo businessman, and where government is an instrument of public policy, rather than of private prerogatives. The distinction seems, from the vantage of the United States, almost trivially obvious. But the immediacy and enormity of the conflict between these two visions is suggested by one of the key pieces of evidence in the case.

``Chico Mendes is trying to push me around, and nobody, not even my wife, can do that. He can wait and see what happens to him,'' threatened Darly Alves, in the same court of law in Xapuri where two years later he would stand trial. Retired court reporter Raimundo Dias testified that Darly had come to the court shortly before Chico was murdered, to find out whether or not a court order for his imprisonment on murder charges in Parana state had arrived. Chico had discovered the court order and delivered a copy to the federal police delegate in Acre. Darly, informed that Chico had a copy of the warrant, did not hide or give himself up to face trial in Parana, but went to the court and publicly threatened Chico Mendes. As prosecution assistant Marcio Tomaz Bastos noted, Darly thought himself beyond the reach of the police, and at that moment he was.

The jury in the Mendes case made history by deciding that Darly Alves was not above the law. And that could be a watershed, a defining moment for the future of the Amazon and Brazil.

MORE than 1,000 rural union leaders, peasants, Indians, and rubber tappers have been murdered in rural Brazil in recent years, and only five jury trials resulted from those crimes. In Maranhao and Paro there are listings for assassinations of legislators, priest, and union leaders. Gunmen are said to charge by the acre to ``clean'' land of peasant homesteaders.

An upcoming Americas Watch report details the grotesquely brutal conditions of enslaved laborers on ranches in the Amazon. Representatives of the ranchers' organization, the UDRR (Democratic Ruralist Union, widely suspected of involvement in the planning of Mendes's and other murders), have stated that they are armed and ready to stop any attempt at land reform. The Chico Mendes case was the first in which an instigator of the crime, not just a gunman, was convicted.

When a judicial system is ineffective or acts only at the whim of powerful elites, public institutions can do no more than what private interests allow them. In this sense, the Chico Mendes murder trial is as important for Brazilian democracy - and the global environment - as direct elections for president were.

President Fernando Collor de Mello has announced plans to carry out a land-use zoning plan for the Amazon, and for across-the-board enforcement of environmental legislation. In Geneva and New York, international bodies debate forest and climate conventions, perhaps to be signed during a 1992 UN conference on development in Rio de Janeiro.

The credibility of the Collor government's environmental programs, and its positions in international climate and forestry negotiations, will in large part depend on making the Chico Mendes murder trial the beginning of an era of the rule of law in the interior, rather than the end of an isolated, if celebrated, exception.

The case put on trial the current, failed model of development. Rural violence is only the most acute symptom of a chronic process of concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Brazil, with the eighth largest GNP worldwide, has the third most inequitable distribution of wealth on the planet. The deforestation of the Amazon has served in part as a safety valve for land conflicts in other parts of Brazil, and also as a way for large landowners to stake claims to immense areas on the frontier.

A development model that consumes nonrenewable natural resources for the short-term profit of the few is neither socially nor ecologically viable. This is why organizing for social justice and land reform all over Brazil is no less relevant to the future of the Amazon and the global environment than was Chico Mendes's work in Acre.

The political will of the Collor government will determine whether the hundreds of other Chico Mendeses, past and future, will also have their day in court.

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