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


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 of conflict: Rubber tappers against cattle ranchers and the murder of Chico Mendes, Brazil
State or province:Acre
Location of conflict:Xapuri
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Deforestation
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Land acquisition conflicts
Specific commodities:Land

Project Details and Actors

Project details

A list of RESEX can be found here:

According to O Globo, the first RESEX was created in Alto Juruá in 1990, after Chico Mendes' death. Altogether, there are 89 RESEX in Brazil, in 17 states. Total number of hectares is 14 million, equivalent to the area of Ceará state. [1]

Project area:980,000
Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:1976
Company names or state enterprises:Frigorífico Bordon from Brazil - owner
Relevant government actors:National 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 organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:União dos Povos da Floresta (UPF), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), National Wildlife Federation (NWF),National Council of Rubber Tappers (CNS)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Trade unions
Religious groups
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
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-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession
Potential: Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Criminalization of activists
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Institutional changes
Land demarcation
New legislation
Strengthening of participation
Violent targeting of activists
Proposal and development of alternatives:The proposal of creation protected extractive reserves (RESEX) that would hand over the management of public land to local communities.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain: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 & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

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.

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

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.

[1] O Globo - Reservas extrativistas permitem exploração sustentável da natureza

The life and legacy of Chico Mendes

Chico Mendes: 25 years of a brutal killing

Reserva Extrativista

Brazilian Rubber Tappers campaign to protest the deforestation of the Brazilian rainforest region, 1977-1988

La Amazonía, explotación Vs ecologismo. Caso: Chico Mendes

Brazil Marks 25 Years Since Murder of Environmentalist Chico Mendes

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Eu quero Viver. (Adrián Cowell and Vicente Rios) - Part I

Eu quero viver (Adrián Cowell and Vicente Rios) Parte II

Chico Mendes talks in USP , 1988

Eu quero viver (Adrián Cowell and Vicente Rios) Parte III

A história de Chico Mendes Documentário

Voice Of The Amazon

Eu quero viver (Adrián Cowell and Vicente Rios) Parte IV

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

Meta information

Contributor:EJAtlas team
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:2402



Chico Mendes


Chico Mendes vive!