Francisco Alves Mendes Filho (Dec. 15, 1944 – Dec. 22, 1988), also known as Chico Mendes, was a Brazilian rubber tapper, unionist and environmental activist. He fought to stop the logging of the Amazon Rainforest for the purposes of cattle ranching, and founded a national union of rubber tappers in an attempt to preserve their profession and the rainforest that it relied upon. He was murdered in 1988 by ranchers opposed to his activism.Chico Mendes grew up in a family of rubber tappers (seringueiros). Rubber tapping is a process whereby one harmlessly extracts sap from rubber trees, which is then used in such products as car tires, pencil erasers, and even Tupperware. Rubber tapping is a sustainable agricultural system and one of the many ways in which the resources of the Amazon are exploited without permanently harming the ecosystem.
For the cattle ranchers and mining interests in Brazil, sustainable agriculture impedes profit-making. Much money can be made by tearing down the forest as fast as possible and replacing it with pasture land and strip mines. What the ranchers and miners leave behind is a shattered wasteland, a ruined desert where a forest more than 180 million years old once stood.
Not surprisingly, Mendes encountered a great deal of opposition from industrialists and corrupt government officials who were profiting from the clearing of the Amazon. He was jailed, fined and threatened, but nothing could deter him from his mission to save his beloved jungle. When, in 1988, a rancher named Alves de Silva ordered Mendes killed, the power of his grassroots movement only increased.
Mendes fought courageously to oppose the destructive practices of such large companies and individuals. He advocated a return to sustainable agricultural systems and urged his fellow Brazilians to nonviolent protest against corporations that would rob them of their livelihoods.
The outcry following Chico Mendes' murder was deafening. It marked a turning point in the fight to save the Amazon. A human face could be connected to the cause: money and support from all over the world poured in to help complete Mendes' work. The plight of the seringueiro has become an international, cause célèbre and many far-reaching reforms have been inacted since his death to insure the future of this eco-friendly industry.
Adapted from The My Hero Project and The Global 500 Forum, the United Nations Environmental Programme