The Burning Season
Houghton Mifflin, $19.95
The World is Burning
Little, Brown, $19.95
For decades, Brazilian politicians and patriots have concerned themselves with visions of taming the Amazon River basin, an area almost as large as the United States, home to approximately 15 million species of plants and animals, tangled under the largest stretch of dense, daunting tropical forest left on Earth.
The Brazilians envisioned bulldozing and burning enormous tracts of the forest, clearing them for cattle ranches and some farms, laying highways across the basin, and fashioning great cities. Most Brazilians knew that some Indians in habited the forest but were not pre pared to find tens of thousands of rubber tappers, relics of the past, still living there as well (Smithsonian. November 1989). As they forged ahead with their schemes, violent conflict became inevitable, a violence at least as terrible as that spawned by the conquest of the American West. Out of that violence came the murder of Chico Mendes, the rumpled. 44-year-old leader of a local tappers' union who had become the unlikely hero of environmental groups throughout the world. The international outcry over his death astounded and unnerved Brazil.
In very different ways, Andrew Revkin, a teacher of environmental reporting at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and Alex Shoumatoff, a New Yorker staff writer, tell the story of Mendes and the struggle over the Amazon basin, a struggle that began with all advantage to the visionaries and developers. Revkin delivers a straightforward and measured account while Shoumatoff offers a meandering, personal narrative. A reader will sense the sounds and smells of Brazil far better in Shoumatoff's book but probably will feel confused unless well acquainted with the story already.
Mendes, a tapper with little formal education, was head of a small union in the rubber-trading post of Xapuri in Acre, the most western and remote 152 province of Brazil. His tappers came out of a moribund industry. Vulcanization of rubber and the birth of the auto mobile industry had turned the 100- foot-tall rubber trees of the Amazon into an extraordinarily rich resource at the turn of the century, attracting tens of thousands of workers from all over Brazil. Brazil was the largest exporter of rubber in the world. But more efficient Asian producers of rubber soon entered the market, and by 1913, Asian rubber production had surpassed Brazilian production. Brazil had a short revival during World War II when the United States found its Asian suppliers under Japanese control. The Brazilian government called for soldados do borracha — soldiers of rubber — to come to the Amazon forest to tap the trees for the Allied war effort. But synthetic rubber and Asian rubber took over the market again after the war.
Without government tariffs to keep out the competition, the tappers could not sell their rubber even within Brazil today. None at all is exported elsewhere. The weakness of the rubber industry and the support of the Roman Catholic Church made it easier for leaders like Mendes to organize the tappers, who had been exploited for decades—kept in debt by rubber plantation owners who paid them a pittance.
Lined up against them were the forces of Manifest Destiny, of modern ism, of inexorable development. The ranchers, as Revkin puts it, were the "pioneers who were leading the country toward its new status as a major ex porter of food." To them, the tappers were merely "an inconvenience that had to be removed from the land along with the weeds and trees." To do so, the ranchers either bought out the tappers or cheated them or frightened them or killed them. Many hired hands were simply pistoleiros with instructions to intimidate and murder tappers and their leaders.
Although Mendes and his tappers organized confrontations that sometimes forced ranchers to back off, his movement might have remained obscure and feeble if he had not been discovered by environmentalists. Fretting over the depletion of the tropical forest and persuaded that the burning of the Amazon—7,603 fires were spotted by satellite on a single "worst" day in 1987—was contributing to a dangerous warming of the planet, environmentalists embraced a dynamic local leader who opposed destruction of the forest to save the livelihood of his people.
Inspired by the environmentalists, Mendes proposed the creation of "ex tractive reserves" in the Amazon protected tracts of forest left for those, such as rubber tappers and gatherers of Brazil nuts, who could extract the Amazon's resources without destroying the forest. Mendes thus was protecting his tappers and helping to prevent "the greenhouse effect" with the same stroke. In 1987. Mendes traveled out of Brazil for the first time in his life, making speeches, conferring with U.S. legislators and accepting awards. He became an international environmental hero, and that infuriated the developers and ranchers even more. "You think it's right that we pay the onus of not being able to develop so Americans can breathe our oxygen?" a rancher's wife asked Shoumatoff.
Mendes was shot down three days before Christmas in 1988 as he walked out of his house into the backyard to take a shower. So many tappers, peasants and their leaders had been murdered in recent years that most Brazilians could shrug at this assassination. Shoumatoff says there had been only two convictions in more than a thousand cases of murder in conflicts over land in the Amazon since 1980. But the murder of Mendes provoked an international outcry, and Brazilian officialdom was forced to investigate. Police arrested Darly Alves da Silva, an unsavory rancher who had long battled with Mendes, Darly's son Darci, and a hired hand, and charged them with the murder. Both Revkin and Shoumatoff however, hint that they believe the Rural Democratic Union (UDR), an organization of rich ranchers, founded in 1985, probably had issued the order to kill Mendes. The UDR, presented as "little more than a club," quickly bought 1,636 firearms "to be distributed to members." Revkin says.
As the murder trial began in December 1990, Darci, who had confessed when he was arrested and then recanted, once again claimed full responsibility for the murder. Prosecutors said his description of the crime did not agree with the evidence. "It is evident that the crime did not happen in the manner he says. The object is clearly to save Darly," said prosecutor Marcio Tomas Bastos. Defense attorneys pointed out that the judge would have to be lenient in sentencing because Darci was under 21 in 1988.
A case can be made that Mendes did not die in vain. The new Brazilian government of President Fernando Collor de Mello, more sensitive to the problems of the environment, has now slowed down development and set aside some extractive reserves for the tappers. Both the environmental and tappers' movements seem more vibrant in Brazil these days. Even more significant, the numbers of killings have diminished. But, as the furor over the death of Mendes subsides, both the ranchers and the movement to tame the Amazon are still powerful, and many observers are pessimistic that the real murderers of Chico Mendes will be convicted.