In January 1989, writer Alex Shoumatoff travelled to a small town in the Brazilian Amazon to write about the murder of a 44-year-old labor activist called Chico Mendes. What he discovered there tells us everything we need to know about the rash of fires that since January have consumed more than 1,330 square miles of the world’s largest rainforest.
Reading Shoumatoff’s story today, it’s clear that the massive wildfires now sweeping the Amazon are not particularly unusual, or unprecedented, or even wildfires at all. People set those fires, and they mark a return to a status quo rooted in web of greed and violence Shoumatoff described in the pages of Vanity Fair 30 years ago.
Mendes came off “like Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett, the straight-shooting, homespun backwoodsman coming to the capital and telling what it was like on the frontier.”
Listen to him set the stage. “Worldwide, 1988 turned 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.”
Read those lines from April 1989 and tell me they weren’t written this week. We’ve just logged another hottest-ever year (the 25th in the 30 years, according to NASA’s Global Land-Ocean Temperature Index) and climate is again at the center of news coverage of the Amazon. But the rainforest has been burning for 50 years.
When Shoumatoff first came to the Amazon in 1976, he witnessed a fire “so intense that it created local firestorms, complete with thunder, lightning, and mini-tornadoes. I saw huge trees that had been blasted into the air and had landed upside down with their root buttresses sticking up like the fins of crashed rocket ships,” he wrote of that blaze, which a Brazilian subsidiary of the King Ranch of Texas set to clear land for cattle.
That fire, and tens of thousands like it, was the result of an orchestrated Brazilian policy that took stride in 1969. “The government offered tremendous incentives to anyone who was willing to come up to the Amazon and raise cattle: loans at interest rates below the rate of inflation, tax holidays, land concessions,” Shoumatoff wrote. “Gangs of chain saws and bulldozers started leveling the forest, and some of the largest fires in recorded history were set.”
The saws and dozers were necessary because healthy rainforest rarely burns. “In an intact Amazon forest—a virgin forest—if it’s a really dry year and the fire gets going, it’s shin-high,” Amazon ecologist Dan Nepstad said in an NPR interview. “You can step over it.”
Such fires don’t get rid of forests; they renew them. To clear the rainforest to make way for cattle or soybeans, settlers must first knock down the trees with bulldozers or giant tractors and then leave them to dry. Months later they come back and set them ablaze. Those are the fires we’re seeing now. Nothing about them is accidental or spontaneous.
“This is the expected one-two punch,” said Doug Morton, chief of the Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. The fires are concentrated near roads, many on a 1,800-mile crescent along the southern edge of the Amazon basin. Scientists call it the arc of deforestation, and if you look closely at satellite photos you can make out its herringbone pattern of roads, clearings and fires.
Deforestation has progressed this way for decades, which brings us back to the assassination of Chico Mendes, a rubber tapper and union leader in the state of Acre, on the western edge of that crescent. Starting in the 1970s, as ranchers encroached on traditional lands, Mendes organized rubber tappers and their families to keep them out.
“When Chico heard about a part of the forest that was about to be cleared, he would round up the two or three hundred families who lived there and get them to form a wall on the edge of it so the bulldozers and chain-saw crews couldn’t enter,” Shoumatoff wrote. “He would put the women and children in front so that the pistoleiros and the police the ranchers had hired wouldn’t dare shoot, while he walked the line gently reassuring his companheiros—there is video footage of this—‘Don’t be afraid, nothing’s going to happen.’”
Mendes called this tactic empate, and came up with it completely on his own. “He had never heard of Gandhi or Martin Luther King. He simply took the somnolent passivity of the tappers and turned it into a form of resistance,” Shoumatoff wrote. In 13 years Mendes organized 45 empates and saved nearly three million acres of forest.
In the process, he became a darling of environmentalists in the United States and Europe, who remember him as a martyr to their cause. The truth is a little more complex. An unassuming man with an easy smile and trademark mustache, Mendes was an early champion of “extractive reserves,” tracts of forest set aside for the sustainable harvest of rubber and other resources. In the 1980s the concept was gaining currency among pragmatic first-world environmentalists. They needed Mendes for their plan to save the forests, and Mendes needed them to help preserve his comrades’ livelihood and way of life.
So Mendes became an environmentalist in name as well as action. Though he had no formal schooling, he was charismatic and knew just what to say. “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest,” he once said. “Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”
In 1987, environmentalists flew Mendes to meet with a group of Inter-American Development Bank officials in Miami, serving as a kind of living prop for a study showing that a family of rubber tappers in Brazil made nearly twice as much money as a family of ranchers—without any outside investment or clearing of land. Mendes also testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, where Mendes came off “like Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett, the straight-shooting, homespun backwoodsman coming to the capital and telling what it was like on the frontier.”
“At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest,” he once said. “Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”
Back home in Acre, ranchers saw Mendes in a different light. One man in particular viewed him as an obstacle. Darli Alves da Silva was a small-time rancher who had obtained dubious title to the tract of forest where Mendes had been born, and where the mustachioed organizer’s empates were keeping Alves from cashing in on his fraud.
So in May 1988, Alves vowed to kill Mendes. It wasn’t the first death threat against Mendes, but local authorities regarded it seriously enough to assign two armed men to protect him. The guards were playing dominoes at Mendes’ table when he opened the kitchen door and was shot once in the chest with a 20-gauge shotgun. The killer was Darli Alves’ son, Darci. Both men were convicted and sentenced to 19 years in prison.
That may be the most surprising part of the story.
No one expected the assassins would be held to account, least of all Darli and Darci Alves. According to Shoumatoff’s account, the men, along with other family members and a cadre of hired pistoleiros, had been implicated in numerous other killings. They had never been arrested or tried for any of them, even after allies of Mendes presented a warrant for Darli’s arrest, alleging he’d killed a man in another state.
Mendes was the 90th rural activist killed in Brazil that year. The previous 89 produced little impact outside of the communities in which they occurred, but Mendes’s murder provoked a massive reaction throughout Brazil and the world. His killers were prosecuted because of his prominent international profile. It seems self-evident that it is the only reason they were.
The Alves’s expectation of impunity was perfectly reasonable, which is why the assassination of Chico Mendes 30 years ago tells you everything you need to know about the fires raging in the Amazon today. It’s not just that the economic system continues to reward the authors of systematic deforestation. The legal system enables it.
Last week, as the fires made news worldwide, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said this fire season was far from the biggest on record. That’s true. Through the 1980s and 1990s, massive fires seasons were the norm in the Brazilian Amazon.
But this year’s fires are the worst in a decade for one reason: In 2004, the Brazilian government began cracking down on illegal deforestation. Violators were fined or arrested, and forest loss declined 75 percent by 2012. Bolsonaro’s predecessors removed the expectation of impunity. Now Bolsonaro has restored it.
During his campaign last year, Bolsonaro pledged to limit fines for damaging the rainforest. When he took office in January, he slashed budgets of agencies charged with enforcing environmental protections and sidelined their senior staff. When the Brazilian space agency released satellite photos showing the extent of the fires, Bolsonaro called the evidence “lies.” He even blamed the fires on environmental groups, without offering evidence. He has shrugged off international condemnation of the fires as colonialism.
And so here we are. In his Vanity Fair story 30 years ago, Shoumatoff took a break from the sordid tale of murder and double-dealing to walk through the forest with three rubber tappers, lifelong friends of Mendes.
“The brothers took me down one of their estradas and showed me the green pods of wild cacau—chocolate—sprouting right from the trunk, the fresh tracks of an armadillo, the tree they made dugouts from, a bamboo whose roots, steeped in water, reduce swelling, the place where João had met head-on with a jaguar just last week, the copaíba tree, whose high-octane sap you can supposedly pour into your gas tank and drive off with, and dozens of other marvelous things. They told me about the cablocinho da mata, the Father of the Forest, who spirits off your dogs if you shoot more than one deer a week, and about the Mother of the Water, a large serpent who upsets your canoe if you catch more fish than you need. We stood listening to the liquid improvisations of the uirapurú, the gray-flanked musician wren. “He is the poet of the forest,” Antônio explained. He said how important it was not to tap the trees too often, to let the trees rest, or the milk would turn to water. “You fall on a forest like this, senhor, and it gives you everything.”
That patch of forest is protected now as an extractive reserve, named in honor of Mendes. Last week NPR’s Philip Reeves visited the reserve and spoke with Raimundo de Barros, a 74-year-old cousin of Mendes who still taps rubber in the forest.
De Barros told Reeves the forest wouldn’t exist if Mendes hadn’t defended it. He also told the reporter where his neighbors had slashed and burned large tracts of the preserve. The trend isn’t new, but it’s accelerated since Bolsonaro took office. In a normal year, rangers would mount at least four major operations targeting illegal loggers and ranchers in the reserve.
This year there have been none.