Page 2 of 6 of Murder in Brazil, The Rain-Forest Martyr Chico Mendes
Vanity Fair Magazine, April 1989
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 The news of Chico Mendes's murder was greeted by a tremendous international outcry that took the ranchers completely by surprise. The crime had focused a growing anxiety in the United States and Europe about the fires in the Amazon and the effect all the car bon dioxide they are spewing into the atmosphere might be having on the world's climate. Last year a murderously hot summer parched an area from New Mexico to Pennsylvania and from Idaho to South Carolina. Forty percent of the counties in the U.S. were declared drought areas. Worldwide, 1988 tumed out to be the warmest year on record. The climate was clearly out of whack, and it was obvious that, as ecologists have been warning for decades, we are poisoning the planet. Suddenly a term, "the greenhouse effect," coined in the thirties for the buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide that traps solar energy and heats up the earth's surface, was on everyone's lips. 

More than half of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from the burning of fossil fuel by internal combustion engines, especially those in cars, and virtually all the rest is from the incineration of "modern biomass," especially the tropical rain forests. The fires in the Amazon account for something like 17 percent of the total. The greatest single contributor of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is in fact the United States, but in the curious way such things happen, everyone became very concerned about the rain forest. And Chico Mendes, a poor rubber tapper and union organizer few outside of Acre and the small world of rain-forest conservationists had ever heard of, became a symbol of the cause. Both he and the conservationists were fighting to stop the burning of Amazonia, he to save the tappers' way of life and they to save the planet, and he had been killed for it. 

Within days a Chico Mendes Committee was formed and letters were sent to the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank urging that all funding of development projects in the Amazon be suspended until a full investigation was made. The Brazilian government, under pressure to do something fast, announced that the Ministry of External Affairs had created a Division of Ecology and Human Rights (to handle all the flak it was getting in these areas), and that the director general of the Federal Police in Brasilia would be personally overseeing the case. Special investigators were sent to the scene, including the forensic team that had identified the remains of Josef Mengele. Chico's body was exhumed so that the team could reconstruct the angle and distance of fire.

Two days after the murder, twenty one-year-old Darci Alves had walked into the police station in Xapuri and confessed to the killing. His motive, he explained, was that Chico had been "harassing" his father, Darli. Beyond that he remained as tight-lipped as James Earl Ray, except to say that he had acted alone, which was clearly a lie. Two men with guns had been seen running from the scene by numerous witnesses, and there was evidence that for days before the murder two men had camped in the dense thicket behind Chico's house. One of them smoked Charm cigarettes, and Darci doesn't smoke. He didn't explain why he had turned himself in, but he was widely believed to be the boi de piranha, the steer for the piranhas, i.e., a scapegoat. The head of the Federal Police in Brasilia referred to him also as a "smoke screen." The police were almost certain that his accomplice was his mulatto brother-in-law Jerdeir, a.k.a. Antonio, a.k.a. Francisco, Pereira, one of three brothers, nicknamed the Mineirinhos, who worked as pistoleiros and ranch hands for the Alveses. Darci's father and his uncle, Darli and Alvarino, were suspected of being the mandantes.

Meanwhile, Darli, Alvarino, and the Mineirinhos had fled into the forest and were being hunted by sixty agents of the Federal Police, including a crack team with special jungle training, sixty military police, and thirty civil police. Bloodhounds and a helicopter were converging on the scene, and the fugitives were expected to be brought in momentarily, preferably alive because there were a lot of questions they were going to have to answer. Stories were beginning to surface about the strange goings-on at Darli's ranch, the Fazenda Paranastories about a cemetery in the forest where the brothers buried their victims, about a fisherman pulling a skull out of a pond. 

There was widespread speculation that the murder of Chico Mendes was a complicated affair involving drug and arms smuggling, clandestine airstrips, a radical right-wing ranchers' organization called the Rural Democratic Union (U.D.R.), and the secret death squad within the Acre Department of Public Safety. But overshadowing all these wild, range-war aspects of the situation were the global resonances of the event. Here in this remote part of a vast, fragile land, the interests of environmental protection and social justice, of the oppressed rubber tappers and the millions of other species that inhabit the Amazon rain forest, coincided-a rare event in Third World conservation. And Chico Mendes had joined the thin ranks of a new kind of saint: the eco-martyr.

Francisco "Chico" Mendes Filho was born on the fifteenth of December 1944, on the Seringal Cachoeira, two days' walk from Xapuri. There were no schools or health clinics out there. The forest was Chico's first teacher. Instead of memorizing multiplication tables, he watched rain bow-billed toucans gobbling paxiuba palm nuts and deduced the basic plantanimal relationships. "I became an ecologist long before I had ever heard the word," he would say years later. 

In 1962, when Chico was seventeen, a stranger appeared at the Mendeses' doorstep. He was a tapper, but he talked differently from anyone Chico had heard. "I was fascinated by the way he expressed himself," Chico recalled in a series of talks just before his death with the sociologist Candido Grzybowski. "He had a few newspapers with him. At that time I had never seen a newspaper and I didn't know what it was." 

The stranger lived by himself in a shack in the forest three hours' walk from where Chico beached his dugout. Together the two of them would work slowly through the political columns of the papers that the stranger received two or three months late, and soon Chico had learned to read. Sometimes he would stay awake all night, listening as the stranger told him the amazing story of his life. He had been one of a group of leftist lieutenants who in 1935 had tried unsuccessfully to stage a revolution. He was imprisoned on the island of Fernando de Noronha, escaped, became a Communist guerrilla in Para, was hunted down by the dread cangaceiros, marauding cossacklike bandits who terrorized the backlands of northeastern Brazil, was imprisoned again, escaped, and fled this time to Bolivia, where he organized tin miners' strikes, and with the police on his tail escaped over the border to Acre. It was only after a year that he told Chico his name: Euclides Fernandes Tavora. The Tavoras were a famous family of revolutionaries. 

In 1964 there was a military revolution in Brazil, and a dark period of persecution ensued for anyone smelling vaguely leftist-artists, intellectuals, university students. Deep in the forest, Tavora and Chico would turn on the radio and listen to the Voice of America claiming that the revolution had been a victory for democracy (when in fact it had set democracy back twenty years), then they would tune in Radio Moscow, which said that the coup had been backed by the C.I.A. (which it was) and that the real patriots were being imprisoned, tortured, massacred, driven into exile. One day in 1965 Tavora went to town for supplies and vanished. He was probably picked up by militares.

The physical Tavora was desaparecido, but his ideas lived on. He had transformed Chico into a political man.

Page three of Murder in Brazil, The Rain-Forest Martyr Chico Mendes


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