28 years after Chico Mendes’s death, four environmental challenges still facing the Amazon

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Chico Mendes in the window of his home with Sandino, his son, in Xapuri, state of Acre, Brazil. Author: Miranda Smith, Miranda Productions, Inc. November 1988. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I was at home on the evening of December 22nd, 1988 when I got the call from Brazil telling me that Chico Mendes had been murdered a few hours earlier.

Chico Mendes's ideas, his story, and indigenous and forest communities’ fight for land rights that he gave his life for have changed the Amazon, Brazil and the world. But the fight is far from over.

I, and Chico’s other friends, had thought that drawing media attention to his struggle to protect the forest and forest communities against the depredations of land-grabbing cattle ranchers would protect him. We were tragically mistaken.

But the cabal of land grabbers and their hired guns who killed Chico were wrong on a deeper level. They thought that his murder would go unnoticed, and that even if it didn’t everyone would know that cutting down the forest and driving a few poor rubber tappers off the land was the price of progress – inevitable.

The latest New York Times RetroReport, “The Fight to Save the Amazon,” does a very good job of showing both how very much Chico’s ideas, his story, and the indigenous and local forest communities’ fight for their land rights that he gave his life for, have changed the Amazon, Brazil and the world – and how very far from over the fight is. My next post will address what’s changed over the past 28 years, but here I’ll address four things that haven’t.

What hasn’t changed since the fight to save the Amazon began in the 1980s?

1. The frontier is still lawless.

Even though government and state agencies have stepped up enforcement, particularly since the 2004 Plan to Prevent and Control Amazon Deforestation, about 30% of the Amazon is still at risk for illegal logging, deforestation, gold mining and land grabbing.

Deforestation went down from about 27,000 km² in 2004 to a little over 4,000 km² in 2012 – but since then has oscillated around 5,000 km² and now has increased two years in a row, to an alarming near-8,000 km² this year.

It seems that a big part of the residual deforestation is linked to illegal activities, if not organized crime. Environmental/land rights activists like Chico don’t get killed in his home state of Acre, where ten years after he died, his people came to power and have made the state a sustainable development leader. But Brazil is still the world leader in killings of environmental activists, such as Luiz Alberto Araújo, municipal secretary of environment, murdered in Altamira, Pará on October 13th. Dismantling land grabbing and illegal deforestation gangs (as the Federal Police have clearly shown they can do in the last few years) and aggressively prosecuting their leaders need to be high priorities, and gathering the intelligence to do it needs dependable support.

2. The forest is still worth more dead than alive.

Chico’s prescient ideas on the need for forest protection while developing the Amazon economy have won the rhetorical war – but the actual incentives needed to create robust economic alternatives for indigenous peoples and forest communities, compensate good-actor landowners willing to forgo legal rights to clear forest, and fund the shift to high-value, zero-deforestation agriculture for family farmers and agribusiness alike have yet to materialize, and Brazil’s climate negotiators are not helping. Brazil should open up to emerging carbon markets to fund the elimination of deforestation in the Amazon and other biomes, while also pursing public donor funding.

3. Technology and capital to build 21st century supply chains and develop markets for sustainable forest products are still lacking.

After Chico was killed and his story went viral a wave of newly minted MBAs washed over the Amazon, full of passionate conviction that commercially viable sustainable alternatives based on non-timber tropical forest products were there for the taking (Full disclosure: I thought so too, at the time.) Then they figured out that bringing products of highly variable supply and quality to market over continental distances and no infrastructure wasn’t all that good a recipe for business success.

In some places, though, governments and NGOs kept at it, and developed alternatives that yield real benefits for local people. In Acre, for example, the government has invested heavily in things like fish farming on already cleared land, a high-tech condom factory using native rubber latex, and scaled-up Brazil nut processing technology.

In the Xingu indigenous territories and protected areas, NGO Instituto Socioambiental has brought in state-of-the-art technology to add value through local processing of fruits, nuts and oils, while training local people to collect native tree species seeds for sale to famers obliged by law to restore degraded lands. Alternatives like these raise incomes and help the communities get access to the market, and with investment, could help landowners derive sustainable value from the 80% of their holdings they’re required to keep under forest cover. But with over 2 million km² (equal to the size of four Californias) of indigenous territories and protected areas, these innovative pilots will need major investment and a world of new technology to come to scale.

4. The weather in the Amazon is still changing for the worse.

Chico saw before almost anyone else that the weather in the Amazon was changing. The combined effects of climate change and deforestation on regional and global rainfall regimes are provoking more frequent and intense droughts, and causing runaway forest fires in places that were always too moist to burn, even in the dry season. About half the rain that falls in the Amazon is from moisture cycled into the atmosphere by the forest itself – about 20 billion tons of water a day.

If climate change, deforestation and fires continue feeding off of each other, the Amazon ecosystem could unravel, and large parts of the forest could change into savanna. This could affect rainfall patterns as far away as California, and seriously reduce agricultural production in Brazil and other countries.

In one of the last interviews Chico gave before he was killed, he talked about the death threats he was getting and said he wanted to live to save the Amazon. In my next post, I’ll talk about some of the things that have distinctly changed for the better in the last 28 years – in no small measure because of Chico’s life and story – that make saving the Amazon a real possibility.

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