Chico Mendes

Photo:taken by Alexandre Severo of a 2006 protest by the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil in a shanty town named after Chico Mendes in São Lourenço da Mata, Brazil, following threats of eviction by the landowning company. .

If you’ve been visiting the main site, you may have seen the item on the discussion we’ve got coming up on 15th January: The Chico Mendes Legacy. It’s free, but places are limited, so book early. See here for details of how to attend. Chico Mendes’ daughter Elenira Mendes, who witnessed his father’s assassination by political opponents twenty years ago, will be talking about the importance of her father’s achievements. Also on the panel will be composer Jonathan Dove, Greenpeace’s Charlie Kronick, designer and all-round provocateur Vivienne Westwood and director Paul Heritage of the Young Vic/People’s Palace Projects.

Chico Mendes is often sainted as “a rainforest campaigner”, which, yes, he was, but that label confuses what that Chico Mendes legacy is. Mendes came from a family of rubber tappers; he started work tapping trees himself at the age of nine. When, in the 1970s, the big ranch landowners from south of the Amazon started forcing rubber tappers off the land to chop down the forest, murdering families and burning out villages, he initiated the fightback. His ability to inspire and organise was extraordinary. Facing landowners who didn’t much care if the tappers who had worked forest rubber trees for generations died in the clearances, he responded with peaceful activism. His famous “empates” were groups of people who would gather in such numbers whenever the chainsaws arrived and surround the hired workers until they were forced to retreat.

As a result of a mass march on Brasilia, the government agreed in 1985 to create a series of rubber reserves in the rainforest. These were no-go areas for the deforesters, kept for those who maintained a living from the trees. This has become the model for how to preserve rainforest in Brazil – through creating sustainable communities who work with the local environment rather than destory it.

I suspect the lesson of why Mendes’ movement had such force and popular appeal is that it wasn’t just an “eco” movement. It was above all a popular attempt to maintain a standard of living for tens of thousands of people, and that movement figured out a great sustainable development model.

At the moment road to COP15 is paved with good intentions but from what has been happening recently in Brussels and Poznan the green movement is being regarded as just one special interest group among many rather than an unstoppable popular clamour. Green politics are still regarded as the preserve of the Prius-driving veg box buyers. ( Where There’s A Protest There’s Probably A ‘Posh Kid’.)

Of course the other thing is there’s nothing like the threat of bulldozers, chainsaws and guns to unite a popular movement. Climate change doesn’t have such a tangible enemy.

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