The latest New York Times Retro Report, “The Fight to Save the Amazon,” shows how Chico Mendes'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 last post discussed what hasn't changed in the Amazon rainforest in the 28 years since Chico Mendes was assassinated. Here, I discuss three major changes to which Chico and indigenous leaders, including the Kayapô leaders Raoni and Megaron, profiled in the story, made major contributions.
What has changed since the fight to save the Amazon began in the 1980s?
1. The whole idea of development has changed.
Part of what gave the ranchers and land-grabbers who killed Chico such confidence that no one would be held to account for the crime was they thought they were on the right side of history. “The gringos cut down all their forests and got rich – why shouldn’t we?” was the received wisdom. When Chico said “We realized that in order to guarantee the future of the Amazon we had to find a way to preserve the forest while developing the region’s economy,” he was way ahead of the curve.
Now no one says that deforestation is the price of progress anymore – and deforestation was down about 80% between 2004 – 2014, while cattle and soy production increased. Brazil’s Agriculture Minister, mega-soybean producer Blairo Maggi, says that nobody is more conscious of the need to stop deforestation than farmers, because they know that standing forest is critical for the rain they need. Maggi – as well as agribusiness, state governments, indigenous groups, grassroots social movements like the rubber tappers’ movement, and many in the federal government – now agree with Chico that the Amazon needs real economic incentives to make forest protection a viable environmental asset.
2. Environmentalists recognize that indigenous and other forest peoples’ land rights are central to forest protection – and Amazon social movements see environmentalists as allies.
When Chico was alive, mostly environmentalists thought that people in the forests were the problem and that real conservation was about finding the highest-biodiversity and most remote, inaccessible pieces of forest possible and setting up parks with guards. While defending remote high-biodiversity forest is a good thing, leaders like Chico, Raoni and Megaron , showed the world that their people were holding the line against the advance of the lawless, entirely unsustainable frontier. Environmentalists – and increasingly, Brazilian public opinion –came to support indigenous and forest peoples’ rights and recognize that protecting the forest is a valuable service. This has greatly helped swing numerous local struggles to the Indians’ and forest peoples’ side.
Today, nearly half of the Amazon (think of half the land in the continental US west of the Mississippi) is officially recognized indigenous territories and environmentally protected areas (almost all of which are occupied by forest communities like Chico’s) and these territories are a big part of the reason Brazil is the world leader in reducing greenhouse gas pollution because of its success in reducing Amazon deforestation.
3. Companies are getting on board with deforestation-free commodity supply chains.
In Chico’s day, a lot of economic activity in the Amazon wasn’t very efficient and was heavily subsidized. Global markets, with the partial exception of timber, didn’t really connect with the Amazon.
Since then Brazil has become an export agriculture powerhouse, and major multinationals like Cargill and Walmart source a lot of soy and beef in the Amazon. But, as Fight for the Forest explains so well, Amazon deforestation became a global issue after Chico’s assassination and the Kayapo convergence against the Belo Monte dam, and it has remained on international public opinion and decision makers’ agendas. Big consumer goods companies like Walmart, Unilever and Marks and Spencer found out that having their brands stained with the ashes of dead forests was bad business, so many of them have committed to zero-deforestation supply chains, and are telling their suppliers they’ll need to comply to do business. That’s a message farmers and ranchers get – even though the last three years’ increases in deforestation show that the gap between taking the pledge and making it happen is large, and governments need to stop backsliding on law enforcement.
The people who killed Chico were fundamentally wrong. Chico died, but he didn't lose.
It’s worth remembering, as we head into what could be a time of great trial and trouble for the environment, that when Chico started out, the odds were seriously stacked against him. Dirt poor, illiterate, and under the thumb of an unenlightened oligarchy at the end of world isn’t a great resume for most-likely-in-class-to succeed.
Chico started from a position far more disadvantaged, and had to overcome greater challenges than just about anyone who will read this. But he changed the world. Let him be an example to us.