VIII. A Death Announcement

Eternally lying in a splendid cradle,
by the sound of the sea and the light of the deep sky,
thou shinest, O Brazil, garland of America,
illuminated by the sun of the New World!
– Brazilian National Anthem

Xapuri is a small town of 14,000 inhabitants about 180 km upstream from Rio Branco along the Acre River.   The evenings in Xapuri, as the fiery sun melts into the waters of the river, reflect a beauty that repeats itself each day.

The old seringueiro (rubber tapper) is returning home and despite the trials and tribulations of the day, he can not but help feel a little uplifted by such a view.  He’s always moved by the pôr-do-sol (sunset).  Sometimes this is because the pôr-do-sol means the end of the day and that he’s coming home.  Sometimes it’s because the sunset reminds him that he was born and raised in the midst of a huge, limitless seringal (rubber forest or more correctly rubber-tree laden forest), limitless in every sense.

The conflict between the fazendeiros (ranchers, big time farmers) and the seringueiros had caused many problems.  Now, he received word that his friend Osmarino could have been the newest alvo de morte (person targeted for death).  He had also spoken with his own brother, Zuza, but Zuza was protecting himself.  He did not want to hear about Osmarino, who had been an important leader within the rubber-tappers’ sindicato (union), and he wanted to tirar isso a limpo (break away from this cleanly).  In 1980, the fazendeiros, had begun to respond to the union’s activities by killing the organizers.  The first was Wilson Pinehiro from Brasiléia.  Recently, there was a series of killings: Ivanir, Higino, Jair, Zé Ribeiro ... everyone entrou numa emboscada (was ambushed).  Higino had left his home at 5:30 in the morning to buy milk for his one month old child, and was killed all the same.  It was very sad.

Continuing home, he passed by a church.  He had good friends - and allies - there.  He thought about entering and sharing with them some of his worries, but decided against it.  He wanted to return quickly home.  At times, quando dava (when it was possible), he went upriver with Frei Cláudio, who would go upriver on desobrigas (periodic mission trips or duties).  He traveled into the seringais (rubber forests) along the river banks visiting the families of the seringueiros.  The padre (priest) made good company, and they talked about everything.  Whenever they arrived at a little village or settlement, they were always greeted by a festa (celebration).  At night, the families which lived nearby -- no more than an hour or two away -- would come together to talk.  Frei Cláudio loved to talk about trechos do Evangelho (parts of Scripture) with the seringueiros and he supported talk about organizing a sindicato dos trabalhadores rurais (a union for rural workers), which was beginning to be formed in Xapuri.  The trips were always tiring but they valiam a pena (were worth it) ...

Word came to him that last Saturday, at a mesa de jogo (gaming table) in the Clube Rio Branco, Dr. Efraim had heard talk that people were arming themselves for a new emboscada ... and he, now, was the target!  Isso não contava (That didn’t add up).  Lately, there was a lot of boato (boasting, big talk), conversa jogado fora (talk that was clearly nonsense).  He had his own sources, and at the moment, the story about Osmarino worried him more.

He remembered now that it was December.  Even with all the union work, the clima do Natal (the spirit of Christmas) was entering into the picture.   For his two kids, 4 ½ and 1 ½ years of age, Christmas represented an alegria (joy) that he could not deny them.  But he felt pesado (weighed down).  Osmarino ... an emboscada (ambush) ... He could not let these things go out of his head.

He finally arrived at home.  His daughter Elerina nearly tramples over little Sandino running over to give him a hug.  For the seringueiro, moments like these served as a great recompense for all difficulties of the day.

His wife greats him with a smile que podia ser só de amor (that could only be of love) – even though he also knows that she was also relieved that he simply made it home “mais uma vez” (“one more time.”) He had already escaped six emboscadas; each time he made it back home, it was for her a renascimento (rebirth).

As he did everyday, the seringueiro crosses the cozinha (kitchen) and exited the house to wash himself before eating.

He didn’t even make two steps...

Francisco Alves Mendes Filho, o Chico Mendes died at 44 years of age, fulminado por dois tiros (of two gunshot wounds).

It was 5:45 PM, Wednesday, the December 16, 1988.

And o sol acabar de se pôr (the sun began to set).

The Empates and Chico Mendes

The empates were a well thought-out means that the colonos (small-time settlers) used to protest, peacefully, the desmatamento desenfreado (uncontrolled deforestation) that has assaulted Acre since 1970.  Communities would come together em passeata (in the open) and try to impede the cutting down of the trees, through dialogue, seqüestro de motosserras (lit. sequestering of the loggers’ chainsaws), and actually abraçando (hugging) and defending the threatened trees.

In an interview, three months before his death, Chico Mendes recalled the first empate took place in the Seringal Carmen in 1976, with some sixty seringueiros and others.  “The women played a very important papel (role) as the front line, and crianças (children) were used to ensure that the pistoleiros would not shoot them,” he explained.  Chico organized 45 empates, 30 of them resulting in victories for the colonos.

As they hoped, may of these empates resulted in the creation of reservas extrativistas (extraction reserves) proposed by Chicago Mendes.  They function in the following manner: A National Council of Seringueiros was created whose job it is to recommend to the IBAMA the boundaries such reserves.  If a recommendation is approved, the area becomes property of the Union, but it is ceded to the community living there which is organized into a cooperative which regulates caça (hunting) and pesca (fishing) as well as the harvesting (extraction) of seringa (rubber latex), castanha (nuts), cupuaçu (Amazonian coconuts), palmito (palm leaf buds), óleo de copaíba (an oil, which has the properties of a stimulant, from the copaíba tree), and limited logging – all done in a non-predatory fashion.

By the time he was assassinated, Chico Mendes had already acquired international fame for his work on behalf of the seringueiros and the forest and had won various international awards.  In March, 1987, he was invited to participate in the meeting of the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB) held in Miami.  From there he went to Washington DC to speak at the U.S. Senate.  In July, he received the U.N.’s Global 500 award.  In September, he received the Environmental Medal from the Better World Society.

Such was the annoyance that he caused the pecuaristas (cattlemen) and fazendeiros (big time farmers), that in the same year they created the UDR – União Democrática Ruralista do Acre (the Democratic Rural Union of Acre).  Coincidently, in 1987, the assasination of the seringueiro leaders became a constant occurrence, culminating with the death of Chico Mendes.

In 1988, the first reserve, at Cachoeira, was created.  By 2007, some 35 extractionist reserves have been created across all of Amazonia, the largest being the Reserva Alto Juruá, 5,000 sq. km in size with 6,000 inhabitants, and the Reserva Chico Mendes near Xapuri, 9,700 sq. km in size with 1,250 inhabitants.

There are no more empates, but many sindicalistas (union organizers) continue to be threatened / harrassed for taking up the cause of Chico Mendes.

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