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Francisco Alves Mendes Filho, better known as Chico Mendes (December 15, 1944 – December 22, 1988), was a Brazilian rubber tapper, trade union leader and environmentalist. He fought to preserve the Amazon rainforest, and advocated for the human rights of Brazilian peasants and indigenous peoples. He was assassinated by a rancher on December 22, 1988. The Chico Mendes Institute for Conservation of Biodiversity (Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade), a body under the jurisdiction of the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment, is named in his honor.
Francisco “Chico” Alves Mendes Filho was born on December 15, 1944 in the town of Seringal Santa Fé, outside of Xapuri. He was the son of a second-generation rubber tapper, Francisco Mendes, and his wife, Irâce. Chico was one of 17 siblings—only six of whom survived childhood. At age 9, Chico began work as a rubber tapper. Schools were generally prohibited on the rubber plantations. The owners did not want the workers being able to read and do arithmetic, because they would then be likely to discover they were being exploited. Mendes did not learn to read until he was 18 years old. Activism
Chico Mendes with his children
At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity. —Chico Mendes
To save the rainforest, Chico Mendes and the rubber workers union asked the government to set up reserves as they wanted people to use the forest without damaging it.  The Xapuri Rubber Tappers Union was created in 1970, and Chico was elected as its president. Mendes played a central role in the creation of the National Council of Rubber Tappers in the mid-1980s. Mendes’ group also had strong ties with the National Campaign for the Defense and Development of the Amazon, and helped locally organize Workers’ Party support. When the first meeting of this new union was held in 1985, in the capital Brasilia, rubber tappers from all over the country came. The discussion expanded from the threats to their own livelihoods to the larger issues of deforestation, road paving, and cattle ranching. The meeting also had the effect of catching the attention of the international environmentalist movement, and highlighting their plight to a larger audience. The group embraced a larger alliance with environmentalism, rather than strict Marxism, in spite of the bourgeois associations of the former. Another result of these discussions was the coining of the concept and the term “extractive reserves”.
In November of that year, Adrian Cowell, an English filmmaker, filmed much of the proceedings of this meeting as part of a documentary he was making about Mendes, which aired in 1990. Mendes believed that relying on rubber tapping alone was not sustainable, and that the seringueiros needed to develop more holistic, cooperative systems that used a variety of forest products, such as nuts, fruit, oil, and fibers; and that they needed to focus on building strong communities with quality education for their children. In March 1987, the Environmental Defense Fund and National Wildlife Federation flew Mendes to Washington, D.C. in an attempt to convince the Inter-American Development Bank, World Bank, and U.S. Congress to support the creation of extractive reserves.
Mendes won several awards for his work, including the United Nations Environmental Program Global 500 Roll of Honor Award in 1987, and the National Wildlife Federation’s National Conservation Achievement Award in 1988. In 1987 a man called Darly Alves Da Silva bought the plantation where the rubber workers union were working and tried to drive them off the land to build a ranch. They stood firm and the government made it into a reserve. In 1988, Mendes launched a campaign to stop rancher Darly Alves da Silva from logging an area that was planned as a reserve. Mendes not only managed to stop the planned deforestation and create the reserve, but also gained a warrant for Darly’s arrest, for a murder committed in another state. He delivered the warrant to the federal police, but it was never acted upon. Assassination
On the evening of Thursday, December 22, 1988, Mendes was assassinated in his Xapuri home by Darly Alves da Silva, a rancher. The shooting took place exactly one week after Mendes’ 44th birthday, when he had predicted he would “not live until Christmas”. Mendes was the 19th rural activist to be murdered that year in Brazil. Many felt that although the trial was proceeding against the actual killers, that the role of the ranchers’ union, the Rural Democratic Union, and the Brazilian Federal Police was ignored. In December, 1990, rancher Darly Alves da Silva, his son Darly Alves da Silva Jr., and their ranch hand, Jerdeir Pereia, were sentenced to 19 years in prison for their part in Mendes’ assassination. In February, 1992, they won a retrial, claiming that the prosecution’s primary witness (Chico’s wife) was biased. The conviction was upheld, and they remained in prison. In 1993, they escaped from jail, along with seven other prisoners, by sawing through the bars of their prison window.
All were recaptured, except for Darly Jr., who was as of 2004 still at large. Mendes’ murder made international headlines, and led to an outpouring of support for the rubber tappers’ and environmental movements. In March 1989, a third meeting was held for the National Council of Rubber Tappers, and the Alliance of Forest Peoples was created to protect rubber tappers, rural workers, and indigenous peoples from encroachment on traditional lands. Thanks in part to the international media attention surrounding the murder, the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve was created in the area where he lived. More than 20 such reserves, along the same lines as Mendes had proposed, now cover more than 8 million acres (32,000 km²). The musical group Maná made a song about the death of Mendes. The song was titled “Cuando los Ángeles Lloran”, referring to Mendes as an angel that has died. Paul McCartney dedicated the song “How Many People” from his 1989 album Flowers In The Dirt to the memory of Mendes. Mendes was portrayed by Raul Julia in the 1994 telemovie The Burning Season.