Francisco Alves Filho, better known as Chico Mendes, was a genuine child of the jungle, identified with her. A self educated man, he came to understand that because it sees nature more as a nuisance than as an ally, current development disregards nature and works against her. Chico Mendes was one of the few who understood sustainability as a dynamic and self regulating equilibrium of the Earth, thanks to the chain of inter-dependency among all beings, especially the living beings who live by recycling resources and therefore are forever sustained. The Amazon is the main example of this natural sustainability.
Those who knew him and enjoyed his friendship knew his profound identification with the Amazon jungle, with her immense biodiversity, the seringales (rubber tree plantations), the animals, and the smallest signs of life of the jungle. Chico Mendes had the spirit of a modern day Saint Francis.
He divided his time between the city and the jungle. Deep in his body and soul he would hear the strong call of the jungle when he was in the city. He felt part of, not above the jungle. That is why he periodically returned to his seringal and to communion with nature. There he was in his habitat, in his true home.
But his socio-ecological consciousness caused him to leave the jungle to spend time organizing the seringueros (rubber workers), founding labor union cells and participating in struggles of resistance: the famous“empates” strategy, where the seringueros, with their children, their elders and other allies, peacefully stood in front of the machines that cut down the trees, blocking their entry into the rubber reserves, and preventing the destruction they caused.
Facing the fires, such as those presently devouring the Amazon, that in 2019 have had 74,155 focal points, covering 18,627 square kilometers, Chico Mendes suggested, in the name of the Movement of the Peoples of the Jungle, creating extract reserves, which the Federal Government accepted in 1987. He put it correctly: “we, the seringueros, understand that the Amazon cannot be transformed into an untouchable sanctuary. On the other hand, we also understand the urgent need for development, but without cutting down trees, or threatening the life of the peoples of the planet”.
Mendes affirmed: “at the beginning I defended the seringueros, but soon I understood that I had to defend nature, and finally I understood that I had to defend humanity. Therefore we proposed an alternative, for preserving the jungle that simultaneously can be economic. We thought then of creating the extracting reserves” (cf. Grzybowski, C., (org.) The Testament of the Man of the Jungle: Chico Mendes by himself, (El testamento del Hombre de la Selva: Chico Mendes por él mismo), FASE, Rio de Janeiro 1989 p.24).
He himself explained how it would function: “In the extracting reserves we will commercialize and industrialize the products that the jungle generously offers us. The university must oversee the extracting reserve. That is the only way the Amazon will not disappear. That reserve will not have owners. It will be a common good of the whole community. We will use the products but will not be the owners” (cf. Jornal do Brasil 24/12/1988). “This way an alternative could be found to the savage extraction that only benefits the speculators. A felled mahogany tree in Acre sells for from 1 to 5 dollars; if sold in the European market, it costs from 3 to 5 thousand dollars”.
On Christmas Eve, 1988, he fell victim to the hatred of the enemies of nature and humanity. Five bullets killed him. He left his Amazonian life to enter universal history and the collective sub-consciousness of all persons who love our planet and its biodiversity.
Chico Mendes has become an archetype that encourages the struggle for the preservation of the Amazon jungle and the peoples of the jungle, a struggle now assumed by millions all over the world. We understand the indignation of many members of the G-7, led by Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, against the irrational devastation promoted by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who is committing a crime against humanity and deserves to be judged for that crime. The Amazon is a common good of humanity.
The Amazon mega-projects (Brazilian and foreign) show the predatory type of development of capitalism. It produces growth that has been appropriated by the few at the expense of the jungle and the misery of her peoples. Is contrary to life and the enemy of the Earth. It is the result of an insane irrationality.
Decisions are made about such Pharaonic projects in cold offices without sound information, far from the enchanting scenery, blind to the supplicant faces of the sertanejos and indifferent to the innocent eyes of the Indigenous people. They are decisions made by people without empathy, with neither respect for the jungle, nor human solidarity.
The work project of the Pan Amazonic Synod is different. There the voice that will be more present and listened to will be that of the people of the jungle. They know how to protect the forest. They will offer the best suggestions for combining protection of the jungle and extraction and production of its natural goods.
This “development”, made with the people and by the people, erases the legitimacy of the dominant idea, especially that of the agro-business, that the jungle and the forests must be eradicated because otherwise modernity cannot thrive.
Studies have shown that it is not necessary to destroy the Amazon jungle to obtain profits. The extraction of fruits from the palm trees (açaí, burití or moriche, bacába or milpesillo, chontaduro, etc.), Brazil nuts, rubber, vegetable oils and dies, alkaloid substances for pharmacology, and substances of herbicide and fungicide value, are more profitable than all the deforestation that under the Bolsonaro government has grown by more than 230%.
Only 10% of the tierras roxas (lands of the Indigenous), already identified as of excellent fertility, can be converted into major world agrarian productivity areas. The exploitation of minerals and timber can occur along with permanent reforestation, that assures the green nature of the affected areas (cf. Moran, E., The human economy of the Amazon populations (La economía humana de las poblaciones amazónicas, Vozes, Petrópolis 1990, 293 y 404-405); Schubart, H., Ecology and the the use of the jungles, (Ecología y utilización de las selvas, in Salati, E., Amazon, development, integration, ecology, Amazonia, desarrollo, integración, ecología, op.cit. 101-143).
The Amazon can be a test of a possible alternative, in consonance with the rhythm of her exuberant nature, respecting and giving value to the wisdom of the original peoples.
For the Pan Amazonic Synod, that will take place in October 2019, in Rome, Chico Mendes will be a paradigmatic example and a source of inspiration.
Leonardo Boff Eco-Theologian-Philosopher.Earthcharter Commissioner