War Two Chico Mendes father was one of the soldados da borracha,
soldiers of the rubber industry. These were migrants from the north east
of Brazil who were drafted to tap rubber for the production of tyres and
condoms for the Allied war effort. This was the last time that there was
a major demand for Brazilian rubber.
Prior to World
War Two rubber production had gone into severe decline. From 1870 until
about 1910 Brazil had a monopoly on rubber production, the period of the
Brazilian rubber boom. In the early twentieth century the rubber boom
collapsed. This was due to the development of more efficient rubber plantations
in the British colony of Malaya. The rubber seeds used in these plantations
were stolen from the Amazon by the British Government. During World War
Two Japanese forces captured the British rubber plantations. After the
war time stimulus for demand for Brazilian rubber had ended, Brazilian
rubber production once again went into decline. This decline was accelerated
in the 1960s by an increase in efficiency on the Malayan plantations and
a subsequent drop in the world price for rubber.
The life of Chico
Mendes, as a rubber tapper trade union activist began in the 1970s. In
the 1970s the Brazilian Government began promoting a policy of national
integration and modernisation. As part of this strategy it supplied subsidies
to southern businessmen and landowners to buy up land in Amazon states
such as Acre. Forest was cleared and cattle ranches were established on
this land. A conflict ensued between the rubber tappers and these new
Clashes between the
two sides were most intense in the south of Acre, around Xapuri and Brasiléia.
The rubber tappers began organising empates, stand-offs, on their land
against hired gunmen from the cattle ranches. They also began organising
politically by organising themselves into trade unions. In 1985 the Brazilian
Government announced a National Agrarian Reform Plan. In the same year
the rubber tappers, encouraged by this development, organised their first
national meeting in Brasília. The National Council of Rubber Tappers
was set up at this meeting and shortly afterwards the idea of the Extractive
Reserve–the Rubber Tappers Agrarian Reform was established.
At this stage these
reserves were considered to be primarily a way of defending the rubber
tappers land rights and therefore their capacity to make a living.
By the 1990s the extractive reserve was popularly understood to be primarily
a means of preserving the forest. This was due in no small part to the
influence of the international environmentalist campaigns which engulfed
Brazil in the late 1980s.
Chico Mendes was
involved in the environmental campaign which caused this shift in emphasis.
In the mid 1980s the World Bank received intense criticism for its role
in the Polonoroeste, north west regional development programme in Rondônia.
In particular, the Western environmental lobby opposed the paving of the
BR-364 highway. In 1987, Chico Mendes joined this campaign. He made three
trips to Washington to lobby US Congress members and the World Bank about
the potential environmental and social costs of paving the BR-364 from
Porto Velho to Rio Branco. In 1988 the loans for this stretch of the BR-364
were temporarily suspended (the paving of this section was eventually
completed in 1992). 1987 was also the year in which Amazon burnings reached
a peak, with 350,000 fires detected and the loss of 48,000 square miles
of virgin rainforest. Finally, in 1987 some of the most violent confrontations
took place between cattle ranchers and rubber tappers in Acre.
In 1988, the Brazilian
Government created the first Extractive Resettlement Projects in the Brazilian
Amazon as an emergency response to these land conflicts. A more long term
solution came after the promulgation of the new Brazilian Constitution
in 1988. International NGO and environmentalist lobbying had helped to
incorporate environmental and agrarian reform legislation into the new
constitution. Extractive reserves were part of that legislation. On 22
December 1988, Chico Mendes was assassinated for his defence of the land
rights of rubber tappers.
In the same year
the Brazilian Government set up Extractive Resettlement Projects in the
Amazon states of Acre, Amapá and Amazonas. These ten project covered
an area of nearly 900,000 hectares. In 1990 the Brazilian Government created
a decree which formalised the new concept in Brazil of Reserva Extrativista.
By the end of 1992,
nine federal extractive reserves, under the supervision of the Brazilian
Institute for the Environment and Renewable Resources (IBAMA), had been
set up. One of these was the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve. The reserves
cover an area of over two million hectares and have a population of approximately
29,000 inhabitants. In line with the sustainable objectives of the Planafloro
zoning scheme, a further 21 state-run extractive reserves have been decreed
in Rondônia. The largest amount of funds for extractive reserves
has come from the G7 Pilot Programme. US$9 million of funds have been
allocated for the four largest reserves in the Amazon.