Chico’s children

Twenty years ago today, a shotgun-blast rang out in the Brazilian Amazon and made an environmental martyr of a rabble-rousing rubber-tapper named Chico Mendes. The pioneering eco-activist was gunned down in an attempt to silence his protests against avaricious cattle-ranchers' destruction of Brazilian rubber trees, a campaign that had made Mendes one of the world's foremost rain-forest advocates. “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest,” he said. “Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”

Mendes’s slaying sparked an international outcry, and catapulted deforestation onto the international agenda; it even shamed the Brazilian government into creating “extractivist reserves” where cattle-ranching was banned and local populations could earn a living through through sustainable rubber-tapping. Two decades later, Mendes has become an environmental icon; writing in the Guardian, veteran environmental journalist Charles Clover calls him “the Gandhi, or perhaps the Che Guevara, of our environmental age.”

But the battle Mendes began is far from over. The ranchers are winning the fight for the Amazon's forests; according to the Brazilian government’s new mapping system, there was a two-thirds increase in areas partially destroyed during 2008 compared to 2007. And while the Brazilian government now hopes to reduce deforestation by 72 percent by 2017, rain-forest advocates are skeptical that the country will be willing or able to make the necessary changes in the midst of a global recession.

Perhaps even more troublingly, Brazil’s environmental activists remain the targets of violence from ranchers, loggers and farmers. One Amazonian anti-development campaigner has been under 24-hour police guard for two years after receiving death threats; another leading landless-movement activist was killed with a single shot to the head earlier this year.

More than 1,100 others have been killed in land disputes since 1988, while according to Brazil’s Catholic Land Commission at least 260 environmental and human-rights activists remain under threat of murder because of their work. Twenty years after Mendes’s death, US greens should take a moment to remember that for many of the world’s people, environmentalism is about more than just slogans and bumper-stickers. For Chico’s children, the defense of the Amazon rain-forest remains a matter of life and death.