a cowboy in Acre, Brazil.

Brazil’s Amazon forest is in the crosshairs, as defenders step up

Thirty years after ranchers assassinated rain forest protector Chico Mendes, a scramble is on for environmental strategies that can survive a right-wing presidency.

A cowboy drives steers in Acre state, Brazil, which is ground zero for a fight over the future of the Amazon.
Photograph by David Guttenfelder, Nat Geo Image Collection
This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.

In a tiny town in the westernmost corner of Brazil’s vast portion of the Amazon River Basin, a single blast from a 20-gauge shotgun echoed around the world, thirty years ago this Saturday.

The target, fatally struck by 60 lead pellets as he walked out his back door to wash before dinner, was Francisco Alves Mendes Filho, best known as Chico Mendes. Mendes was a rubber-tree tapper and union organizer who’d built a broadening movement to protect Brazil’s rain forests not just for their global ecological and climatic value, but for the sake of the traditional and indigenous communities that lived productively within them.

The danger came from an advancing front of road builders and ranchers, fire and gunfire, encouraged by a military government eager to secure Brazil’s hinterlands.

In Mendes’s back yard, the trigger had been pulled by Darcy Alves, a son of a cattle rancher who was furious at Mendes for leading empates, or human blockades, that prevented the Alves family from cutting a forest tract they sought to possess, and for digging up an old arrest warrant.

Mendes had been pushing for the contested land to be set aside by the government as an “extractive reserve,” granting rubber tappers who’d lived there for generations the right to harvest nuts, rubber, and other products in ways that preserved the ecological integrity of the forest. He was getting traction, in part because he’d gone as far as Washington to make his case for conservation, garnering awards from the United Nations and profiles in international papers.

Worldwide interest was also drawn by headlines that year about global warming driven by heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions from smokestacks, tailpipes—and burning forests. The Amazon, the biggest rain forest on the planet, was identified as a critical reservoir and sponge for CO2, and vast fires set to clear the forest were worsening the climate threat.

Up close, the situation was simple, insisted the assassin’s grandfather, Sebastião Alves, in a front-porch interview in the same town, Xapuri, in 1989.

“We are not violent people,” Sebastião said. “But if someone starts to treat you badly, to push you, to beat you, you have two choices: you can go look for justice or you can find a gun and kill the man.”

A “beef, Bible, and bullet” campaign

Early this week, about 500 of Mendes’s early allies and a new generation of successors convened in Xapuri to celebrate his life and legacy, to pray and recall the deaths of hundreds of less prominent victims of frontier violence at that time and since, and to speak of solidarity at Mendes’s grave in the same kind of pounding rain that interrupted his funeral on Christmas Day 1988.

The event centered not on the anniversary of Mendes’s death, but on what would have been his 74th birthday, December 17. The feel was generally celebratory. (You can explore the speeches and scenes on Facebook and Instagram.) But in an urgent undercurrent, away from the microphones, attendees said, there was fresh fear for the future after three decades of hard-won progress.

The prime concern was the disruptive outcome of Brazil’s tumultuous election and the kickoff of the presidency of the far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro, on January 1.

By now, anyone worried about the fate of the Amazon rain forest or the indigenous and traditional communities depending on this vast, rich ecosystem knows the litany of potentially devastating steps Bolsonaro has threatened to take.

He won on a platform mainly built around change and order after the worst string of corruption scandals and economic troubles in Brazil’s modern history.

But he also wooed rural landowners and businessmen, appealing to Brazil’s “beef, Bible, and bullet” political bloc. A big theme for this former military officer was taming and exploiting the country’s vast Amazon expanse. Beneath and within the extraordinary biological bounty of the lacework of rivers and towering forest canopies, enormous mineral and timber and hydropower resources remain unexploited.

Bolsonaro disparaged Brazil’s minorities and indigenous tribes and discounted their land claims, pledged to loosen forest and environmental regulations and enforcement, to open reserves to mining, and to ban international environmental groups.

“There is fear,” said Mary Allegretti, a Brazilian anthropologist who worked closely with Mendes from the early stages of the Acre land struggle and spoke at the Mendes memorial meeting. At the gathering, she said, several rubber tappers who live just outside the nearby Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, created after Mendes’s murder, described rising tensions. Since Bolsonaro’s election, they’d been feeling increasing pressure from ranchers. Outside the reserve boundary, they have fewer legal protections.

“Farmers are feeling more comfortable making threats,” Allegretti said in a Skype interview. “There are a lot of small conflicts around the reserves. It’s a clear consequence of the new government and ideology.”

Even so, Allegretti said, she feels there are reasons for hope, if not optimism. Interviews with half a dozen people working with forest communities or tracking activities in the region tended to support that view.

Progress and peril

First, the fight for the Amazon now is starting from a baseline of enormous progress compared to 30 years ago.

From 2004 through 2012, the rate of deforestation plunged more than two thirds, propelled by a variety of factors, ranging from more sophisticated space-agency tracking, including a near-real-time tool called Deter, to a cut in credit available to landowners in areas with high rates of forest loss.

The country has a suite of updated environmental laws, a network of extractive reserves and other protected land and made ambitious pledges under the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, including an end to all illegal deforestation by 2030 and a huge commitment to restoring more than 46,000 square miles of forest (an area approaching the size of Greece).

After the federal government created the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve near Xapuri in March 1990, dozens more were established, dotting a broad swath of the Amazon Basin along with other “sustainable development reserves” and other types of protected areas that Allegretti says account for 13 percent of the Amazon’s total area.

A similar constellation of Indian territories has demonstrably slowed deforestation, although Bolsonaro’s rhetoric points to threats ahead.

The reserves offer a haven for people testing ways to live with nature even as modernity encroaches, said Marcelo Salazar, adjunct coordinator for a program at the Instituto Socioambiental supporting extractive communities in the Xingu region near the mouth of the Amazon.

“What concerns us the most is the land grabbing, which probably will grow, and the threats of illegal mining and illegal logging will be very hard to fight against in the years to come,” he said. “But we have communication in our favor,” he added. “Local leaders, indigenous and tappers are now connected to institutions, including the federal district attorney. Parts of the government will remain trustworthy.”

As National Geographic reported in October after Bolsonaro was elected, there’s no easy path for a Brazilian president, even with a coalition, to charge ahead into the forest. Brazil’s 2012 update to its Forest Code, while criticized on all sides for various reasons, has tough provisions.

And some of his inflammatory campaign rhetoric has modulated a bit.

In recent weeks, Bolsonaro backed off a plan to merge the country’s environmental and agricultural agencies and retreated from an early decision to follow President Donald Trump and leave the Paris Agreement on climate change.

In newspaper interviews earlier this month, Bolsonaro’s pick for environment minister, Ricardo Salles, offered more nuanced framing on the climate accord, and, asked about fears that the Amazon deforestation rate will spike, said this:

“I think that all NGOs, environmentalists, and conservation organizations can be absolutely at ease because, under the guidance of President Jair Bolsonaro, we will act in the most legalistic and appropriate way. That is: we will comply with the law.”

There’s also a growing sector of Brazil’s powerful agricultural bloc that has already embraced ways to set aside or restore ecologically valuable land while getting more production from land already being farmed or grazed.

Bernardo Strassburg, a geographer who is executive director of the International Institute for Sustainability in Rio de Janeiro, said there are cost-effective ways to sustain such progress that won’t alienate Brazil’s huge and influential agricultural lobby.

A key is what some are calling “sustainable intensification” of agriculture, getting more production from existing fields or pastures.

Strassburg did caution that, without legal and economic carrots and sticks, intensified production can actually lead to more farming in the long run—further pressuring forests. “The political and economic signals are not there yet,” he said.

But some signals and incentives are already coming, even with Bolsonaro in office—from countries that buy all that exported timber, beef, and the like.

Last month, for example, France formally adopted a national strategy aimed at eliminating what it calls “imported deforestation”—forest loss in countries from which it buys forest or agricultural products.

Among other steps, there are plans for a national "zero deforestation" label to help consumers make wise choices and work to help businesses trace and control supply chains. An aid agency will devote 60 million Euros (about $68 million) per year to development projects that contribute to forest conservation and reforestation projects.

There’s also another front in environmental diplomacy.

Brazil is also party to another international agreement, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diviersity, and—ahead of a significant conference meeting in Beijing in 2020—its agencies are actively working with Brazilian scientists, including Strassburg, to identify ways to cost-effectively protect and expand habitat for rain forest species.

A “community watch” for rain forests

External pressure won’t matter much on the ground in the Amazon without surveillance and accountability. While deforestation rates have remained relatively low since 2012, a slow rise in the last few years—during a period of sustained political and economic turbulence—had conservation groups worried well before Bolsonaro’s victory.

And Brazil remains the dubious global leader in killings of environmental or land-rights campaigners, with 57 such killings in 2017 and 49 in 2016, according to the watchdog group Global Witness.

While Bolsonaro has targeted indigenous tribes with rhetoric, these farflung communities could have a potential ally countering sentiment, said Mary Allegretti—military leaders in the Amazon. Those trying to keep order and secure borders in the far reaches of the Amazon have long relied on indigenous tribes in tracking trouble, she said.

The front-line capacity to identify and respond to threats, and spread the word, continues to grow.

In the 1980s, the rubber tappers—scattered over vast stretches of forest connected more by streams than roads—used a radio station run by the Catholic church to pass alerts about cutting crews and organize blockades. Now many forest communities connect by Whatsapp.

Now, nongovernmental organizations like Brazil’s Instituto Socioambiental serve as a communication hub, data center and support system for scattered forest communities. Journalism projects like InfoAmazonia connect local reporters with an international readership. Independent groups like Global Forest Watch are boosting the capacity to fact-check government claims on land issues.

When considered together, this array of capacities for remote sensing and ground verification, with connectedness from Whatsapp phones on a reserve to social media, is creating the potential for a “global community watch,” said Rebecca Moore of Google, who more than a decade ago helped the Surui tribe in the Amazon develop a cultural map boosting their territorial claim. The benefits will be global. Over the next several years, Google and the National Geographic Society are collaborating to build a Human Impact Map on Google Earth.

In Chico Mendes’s state, a rightward political shift

The grand challenge, with or without Bolsonaro, is the relentless thirst for resources and the aching desire of people in deep poverty—like millions in Brazil—to have a healthy, secure life.

The government of Mendes’s home state, Acre, maintained forest-friendly policies through more than two decades under progressive governors from Mendes’s Workers Party.

But Acre, connected to Peru and the Pacific by a paved road that was a dream of local politicians when Mendes was alive, is now a busy crossroads for commerce, and crime.

That’s one reason the state voted forcefully for Bolsonaro, said Jeffrey Hoelle, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has spent years in the state. In the 1980s, when someone was killed there, it was likely to be related to a conflict over land. These days, with the second highest murder rate in Brazil, the cause is more likely gang violence, said Hoelle, who is also author of Rainforest Cowboys: The Rise of Ranching and Cattle Culture in Western Amazonia (University of Texas Press).

Hoelle said the vote should not be seen as a referendum on the forest’s fate. But he said the coming years won’t be easy. Basic financial pressures are a significant factor, even among those trying to preserve the rubber tappers’ lifestyle—living in small clearings in the forest and hiking trails each day to collect latex, nuts, and the like. The Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve in Acre has seen some patchy deforestation as rubber tappers move increasingly into raising cattle—which provide a more consistent stream of income than seasonal foods.

“I can’t believe how well they sustained this over all these years, being this model state in the face of all these pressures,” Hoelle said in a Skype interview. “And this is going to be a real threat to them but I know there’s a lot of people in Acre who are deeply invested in maintaining this legacy of Chico Mendes and trying to work hard to prove this is a viable model that can counter the immediate gains of this more predatory agro-industrial mode of production.”

That spirit was certainly on display at the Xapuri memorial meeting. There were songs and tearful hugs and powerful speeches from church figures, unionists, and representatives of Indian tribes who had banded with the tappers in the early Alliance of the Peoples of the Forest.

But an emotional capstone, resonant far beyond Acre, came when, Lívia Mamede Ortega Mendes, a wisp of a girl, took the podium and recited a neatly penned letter she’d written:

"My dear great grandfather Chico Mendes,

I wish I had met you. They told me about you, about your story and I know you've always been important to the world and always will be. You saved the Amazon Forest. Because of you, it is the largest forest in the world. Hopefully people are aware and have learned that they don't live without nature."

Andrew Revkin is the Strategic Adviser for Environmental and Science Journalism at the National Geographic Society and is the author of four books, including The Burning Season: The Murder of Chico Mendes and the Fight for The Amazon Rain Forest. He covered the environment for years at the New York Times.

Read more about Chico Mendes in the Brazilian edition of National Geographic (in Portuguese)

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