EDF's Schwartzman Remembers Chico Mendes

EDF's Tropical Forestry Director Steve Schwartzman writes to us from Rio Branco – the capital of the Brazilian state of Acre – where he joined friends and colleagues to remember Amazon legend Chico Mendes

Schwartzman writes:
Some things don't change much in places like Rio Branco, capital of the far-western Amazonian state of Acre. Plans can be disturbingly vague to American sensibilities, things get confusing, but then serendipity takes up the slack.

I was invited here last week by the governor, Binho Marques, to receive the Chico Mendes "Florestania" Prize, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of rubber tapper, union leader and environmentalist, Chico Mendes. I knew Chico and, as a fledgling environmental advocate at EDF, I helped draw international attention to his struggle to protect the forest and forest peoples' livelihoods against invading ranchers.

The government had decided to recognize twenty people who were important in Chico's life and story, and I was deeply honored to be among them. When I caught the midnight flight from Brasilia to Rio Branco, I knew that someone was supposed to meet me at the airport, but not much more – then I ran into Binho and former governor Jorge Viana, who were on the same flight. We went straight from the airport to a family party at Jorge's house to eat pizza and catch up till the early hours.

Florestania for Citizens of the Rain Forest
Other things in Rio Branco can change a lot. "Florestania" is like "citizenship", only for people who live in the forest – not just the rubber tappers who Chico organized, and the indigenous peoples, with whom he forged an innovative alliance, but the people of the remote, poor, and densely forested state of Acre in general. Jorge, one of the small group of people who worked with and supported Chico during his lifetime, made "florestania" the trademark of the wildly popular government he led starting a few years after Chico was killed. Because Chico had won international environmental prizes and been in the international press, his murder, unlike the 1,500 or so previous murders for hire in land conflicts in Brazil, hit the front page of the New York Times and became world news. This gave Chico's friends a chance to explain what was so important about his ideas.

"Florestania" is premised first of all on the idea that government has to work for the public, not just feed the oligarchy. In Chico Mendes' day, when I first came to Acre, the Maternity Canal (so-called for the Maternity Hospital that's next to it) was a constant, glaring reminder of what government in Acre was all about. An open sewer hedged about with trash heaps and overgrown with bug and snake-infested scrub brush running through the heart of the capital, the Canal had already been the pretext for a series of multi-million dollar government clean-up contracts, whose sole accomplishment was to spend the public's money.

Jorge cleaned up the Canal and turned it into what was to become the first of several public parks in the city. Instead of a menace to public health and a monument to corruption, the people of Rio Branco have an open green space that winds for miles though the middle of the city, with bike paths and snack bars, where kids play and families stroll on the weekends. Now they've planted a tree for everyone who's won the Chico Mendes prize at one end of the Maternity Park, and this afternoon the prize winners got to go walk around in the sun, and find their trees. I was pleased to find that I got an açai palm (euterpe oleraecea), a big favorite with Amazonians, and increasingly with Americans and Europeans, because of the rich, deep purple drink made from its fruit.

Açai palm planted in Maternity Park
Açai palm planted in Maternity Park

Walking around the central square this morning was like being in a dream – familiar but strange. The once-ubiquitous potholes are gone, the streets are clean, and the signs of neglect and decay that formerly blighted public spaces and exteriors have been erased by care and tending and replaced by civic (florestic?) pride. Where the hulk of a semi-abandoned public building once loomed over the square there is now a gleaming new public library, replete with computer terminals and video screens. I kept running into people who I knew, or who knew me, twenty years ago, and running through the skein of relationships and ties that still connect us across the years – all of them converging on Chico Mendes.

Extractive Reserves Enter the 21st Century
The "extractive reserve" was Chico’s central idea. After a decade of leading rubber tappers in non-violent demonstrations to stop deforestation and prevent ranchers' gunmen from driving families from their homes, Chico and a group of colleagues proposed that the government should give forest communities secure land and resource-use rights, as well as investing in social services and economic alternatives, in exchange for which the communities would undertake to manage their forests sustainably, under a contract with the government environmental agency. There are now some 20 million hectares of extractive reserves across the Amazon. The Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, almost a million hectares in Acre, was one of the first, created shortly after Chico's death.

One of last night's prize winners, Acrean writer and religious leader Antônio Alves, gave something of a Ghost from Hamlet speech on the Chico Mendes Reserve during the award ceremony in the spacious, well-appointed Plácido de Castro theater. The people that lived on the rubber estates in Chico's day made a precarious living tapping native rubber latex from rubber trees spread through the forest, collecting Brazil nuts in January and February, planting small subsistence gardens, and hunting and fishing. The better off – or less poor – had a little pasture, and raised a few head of cattle. They supported the reserve because they didn't want to be driven out by ranchers and lose their land, as many had before them, and because they hoped that government would provide promised services.

Twenty years later, the reserve has fixed the land tenure problem, and brought schools and health care to places where they never existed. But economic options remain poor, and today, more people, especially young people who don’t remember Chico Mendes and the struggle for the land, are raising cattle because they can make more money from beef and milk than from rubber and Brazil nuts, and more cattle means clearing more forest for pasture. Those who supported the extractive reserve concept, said Alves, (pretty much everyone in the theater) have failed to deliver on the promise of sustainable economic alternatives, and have left the rubber tappers in a cruel dilemma – stay poor, or betray Chico Mendes' legacy and clear more forest.

The actual extent of clearing in the Chico Mendes reserve is low – by the management plan, the residents can clear up to 10% of the forest, and after 16 years, they've only cleared about half that. Reports that "the forest communities are cutting down their own forests" are wildly exaggerated. You have only to look at the satellite images of the Chico Mendes reserve to see that deforestation has advanced much farther around the reserve than in it (and remote sensing data shows that this is true all over the Amazon – indigenous lands, extractive reserves and parks do in fact stop deforestation). But it's also true that the rubber tapper's son in the Chico Mendes reserve who has 100 head of cattle today could want 200 next year. Does he have to stay poor to be true to Chico's legacy?

Climate Negotiators Seek Ways to Valorize Tropical Forest
The answer, as Chico himself saw, is that living forest has to be worth more than cut-down dead forest if people – rubber tappers or ranchers – are going to want to protect it over the long run. People like the rubber tappers of the Chico Mendes reserve have to be compensated for the ecosystem services their forest provides. It is in fact in part owing to Chico's legacy that international climate negotiators in the United Nations climate convention spent much of the first half of December in Poznan, Poland debating whether and how tropical forest countries and forest peoples that reduce deforestation could be compensated through a new climate agreement to go into effect in 2013. The organization Chico founded to advocate for Extractive Reserves, the National Council of Rubber Tappers (CNS), has long called for carbon market credit for reduced deforestation in the climate treaty, precisely because CNS represents people who want to keep the forest and escape from poverty at the same time.

The awards ceremony was (to my surprise) well organized and on time. The local musicians, like Keila Diniz, were great. A famous TV actor had volunteered to be master of ceremonies, and the lineup was stellar — Marina Silva (senator and former Environment Minister, former rubber tapper, one of Chico's closest colleagues, Marina is a powerful, compelling orator), and the former and current governors, Jorge and Binho. The award-ees were divided into three groups, and I was asked to speak for the last, Chico's colleagues from the world. When my turn came, I said I wasn't sure whether it was a greater injustice to me or the audience to make me speak after Marina and Jorge.

Schwartzman with Marina Silva and Binho Marques
Schwartzman with Marina Silva and Binho Marques

Then I said that I met Chico at the first national meeting of rubber tappers in Brasilia in 1985. The organizer of the event, Mary Allegretti, asked me to talk to the rubber tappers one evening after dinner. So I told them what environmentalists were saying about the importance of tropical forests, biological diversity and the global problem of species extinction (for most of them, this was first time they'd heard these words), and I said I thought what they were doing in defending the forest was important not just for the Amazon and Brazil, but for the world. Then I told them I wanted to support them, and see that more people knew what they were doing, and that it was a privilege and an honor to be there with them. And I said, to the audience in Rio Branco, that I still thought the same thing. It was a greater honor than I'd ever imagined to get the Chico Mendes prize, and I didn't expect to ever receive one greater in my life. But even so, it was no greater an honor than having had the chance to walk a little way with Chico and share his story for a little while.

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One Comment

  1. Peter Black
    Posted December 24, 2008 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Steve,
    otimo! This a great honor, and keep up the work in Acre and elsewhere!

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