Rubber tappers against cattle ranchers and the murder of Chico Mendes, Brazil

Chico Mendes, a Brazilian environmental defender campaigned against ranchers to stop the deforestation of the rainforest. In 1988 he was shot down. He and his fight are symbols for the Global Environmental Justice Movement.

The 1970s marked a shift in the dynamics of the extraction of resources from the Amazon. During 1970 and late 1980s the government of Brazil, in an effort to fortify the economy offered incentives to cattle ranchers in the Amazon rainforest.  Rapidly, the deforestation became visible affecting rubber tappers or seringueiros, who are traditional communities who lived in the forest.  Faced with eviction and loss of livelihood, in 1976 the rubber-tappers organized themselves to save the forest and their livelihoods. One of the forms of mobilization by the protesters was the "empate" – a peaceful demonstration in which they protect the trees with their own bodies. Early 80´s, ranchers from Southern Brazil began to buy up huge tracts of Amazon land in order to clear them for cattle grazing land. Frigorifico Bordon SA - a company engaged with beef- was one of the enterprises detected in this conflict. In all this process, Chico Mendes, a traditional rubber tapper in Xapuri (Acre State) became involved in the struggle.  Initially, Mendes sent letters to the president of Brazil describing the inhuman conditions imposed upon the rubber tappers. But their letters were ignored.  At the same time, there was another treat coming into their territory.  Starting from Rôndonia state, a highway (BR 364) was being built (with World Bank-IDB financing, causing deforestation and loss of livelihoods of thousands of seringueiros in the near State.  Chico Mendes also opposed the construction of this highway in Acre.  The Environmental Defense Fund invited Chico Mendes to to attend the Inter-American development bank (IDB) annual meeting in Washington and to meet US Congress members; he explained that cattle ranchers systematically destroyed the rainforest and created hardship for the natives and rubber tappers.  Senators respond the following: "We can´t repeat the devastation occurred in Rôndonia" and insisted that later works of extension of the BR 364 should be interrupted until the Bank can certify that they have complied with the environmental and social  components required for the loan". The year 1985 marks the founding of the National Council of Rubber Tappers (CNS) by Mendes and other key union leaders aiming to defend rubber tappers demands.  In 1986 the Xapuri Rural Workers’ Union allied with the indigenous people of Brazil, who had also been historically discriminated against and overlooked.  The alliance between these two groups showed to government officials the seriousness of the campaigns demands. In June of 1986 Mendes organized over 200 tappers for a march on the federal forestry office of Xapuri. They were evicted by the police.  Since then, the seringueiros received threats of death, including Chico Mendes. As a form of territory resistance, trade unionist proposed the creation of the "Extractive Reserves (RESEX)", which would be protected areas where the traditional populations continue its extractive activities, with no risk of being expropriated. The following years, the focus of the movement was recruitment of rubber tappers for empates and rallying international support for the cause. International recognition of Mendes with international prizes (United Nation’s Global 500 Environmental Prize and World Society Prize in 1987) spread awareness of the campaign. On December 22nd 1988, Chico Mendes was murder by two ranchers (Darcy Alves and his father). They both were in jail for 19 years.  As an example of environmental justice success, after the murder of Chico Mendes, the policy in the Amazon changed radically and the model proposed (extractive reserves) was legalize. The first Resex is named Chico Mendes with 980, 000 hectares and serves as a home and refuge to 3,000 families. Today there are Resex along the whole Brazilian territory. 
Basic Data
Name Rubber tappers against cattle ranchers and the murder of Chico Mendes, Brazil
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture and Livestock Management)
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Land acquisition conflicts
Specific CommoditiesLand
Project Details and Actors
Project Details
A list of RESEX can be found here:
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Project Area (in hectares)980,000
Type of PopulationRural
Start Date1976
Company Names or State EnterprisesFrigorífico Bordon from Brazil - owner
Relevant government actorsNational System of Conservation Unities (SNUC),Confederação da Agricultura e Pecuária (CNA), Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade (ICMBio), Comissão Nacional de Desenvolvimento Sustentável dos Povos e Comunidades Tradicionais – CNPCT
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersUnião dos Povos da Floresta (UPF), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), National Wildlife Federation (NWF),National Council of Rubber Tappers (CNS)
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)HIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
When did the mobilization beginPREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups MobilizingFarmers
Trade unions
Religious groups
Forms of MobilizationBlockades
Development of a network/collective action
Land occupation
Official complaint letters and petitions
Popular education schools committed to the seringueiros demands; "empate" – a peaceful demonstration in which they protect the trees with their own bodies.
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover
Potential: Desertification/Drought, Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming
Health ImpactsPotential: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession
Potential: Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures
Project StatusStopped
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCriminalization of activists
Institutional changes
Land demarcation
New legislation
Strengthening of participation
Violent targeting of activists
Development of AlternativesThe proposal of creation protected extractive reserves (RESEX) that would hand over the management of public land to local communities.
Do you consider this as a success?Not Sure
Why? Explain briefly.The labour of Chico Mendes influence a generation of conservationists and policymakers. He is now a symbol of the global environment movement.

His idea of creating legal instrument to establish extractive reserves (RESEX) is now a reality. Yet the relentless destruction of virgin Amazon forest has continued (ranchers and soya) and the treats and murders of the environmental defenders in Brazil is one of the highest in the world.
Sources and Materials

BRASIL 2000. Lei Federal Nº 9.985 de 18/07/2000. Regulamenta o artigo 225 da Constituição Federal e institui o Sistema Nacional de Unidades de Conservação e da outras providências.
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Burch, Joann J., Chico Mendes, Defender of the Rainforest, The Millbrook Press, 1994

DeStefano, Susan, Chico Mendes: Fight for the Forest, Twenty-First Century, 1991.


La Amazonía, explotación Vs ecologismo. Caso: Chico Mendes
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Brazil Marks 25 Years Since Murder of Environmentalist Chico Mendes
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[1] O Globo - Reservas extrativistas permitem exploração sustentável da natureza
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Reserva Extrativista
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The life and legacy of Chico Mendes
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Brazilian Rubber Tappers campaign to protest the deforestation of the Brazilian rainforest region, 1977-1988
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Chico Mendes: 25 years of a brutal killing
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Media Links

A história de Chico Mendes Documentário
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Voice Of The Amazon
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Eu quero viver (Adrián Cowell and Vicente Rios) Parte IV
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Chico Mendes talks in USP , 1988
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Eu quero Viver. (Adrián Cowell and Vicente Rios) - Part I
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Eu quero viver (Adrián Cowell and Vicente Rios) Parte II
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Eu quero viver (Adrián Cowell and Vicente Rios) Parte III
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Other Documents

Chico Mendes
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Chico Mendes vive!
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Other Comments“At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.” Chico Mendes
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ContributorEJAtlas team
Last update01/10/2016