“He always spoke out in defense of the Amazon,” recalls Angela Mendes, daughter of envrionmentalist leader Chico Mendes, who would turn 76 on Tuesday, November 15th.
In an interview with Brasil de Fato, she talked about maintaining the environmentalist’s legacy, and highlighted how the union between social movements has strengthened the struggle for the preservation of forests and traditional peoples, drawing on the lessons her father learned in the his fight for the preservation of the Amazon.
“He learned how to read and write from the guerrilla, by someone who not only taught him the alphabet, but also taught his first lessons on mobilizing workers. He spoke of the importance of mobilization, of organizing, of being united. That was very important to him,” she points out.
On December 15, the day that Chico Mendes would have turned 76, the 31st edition of the Chico Mendes Week began in the state of Acre, an event celebrating resistance which seeks to shed light environmental issues and land rights in the country.
The event will have debates, lectures, discussions panels, tributes and performances. Everything will be streamed through the Chico Mendes Committee’s Facebook page, which is coordinated by Angela Mendes.
Activities continue until December 22nd, the same day he was murdered in 1988, exactly a week after he turned 44. Mendes was killed by land grabbers outside his home in the town of Xapuri (Acre).
Read the interview nelow:
Brasil de Fato: What are the goals of the Chico Mendes Week?
Angela Mendes: Chico Mendes Week has been going on for 31 years. It first took place in 1989, a year after my father’s murder. It is organized by the Chico Mendes Committee, which I run, from December 15th to December 22nd, which respectively, are his date of birth and the date of his murder.
We host a series of activities that focus on bringing the debate about environmental issues and land rights to the forefront, which is exactly Chico’s legacy, everything he fought for and was murdered for.
Starting last year, alongside other local civil society organizations, we created the Chico Mendes Resistance Award. This award honors those people and organizations that, throughout their trajectory, also preserve Chico’s ideals. On the 15th, we kick things off by giving out the Chico Mendes Award.
The award is divided into four categories: Youth Leadership, whose winner was Jurivan, a resident of the Chico Mendes extractivist reserve, a young militant, a fighter; we have the Institutional category with two winners, the first of which was Apib, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, for all the work they have been doing in defense of Indigenous populations; we also have, in the Institutional category, Chief Raoni as one of the recipients.
Next, we award the Seringau Cultural. From the 16th to the 20th, we host panels. On the 21st, we will screen the documentary Peoples of the Forest, by director Rafael Calil, and on the 22nd we will wrap things up with the Legado de Luz, which is the moment when we gather our men and women to pay homage to Chico. It is a very busy week, full of debates and reflections.
BDF: In January, the Alliance of the Peoples of the Forest was launched, an event that brought together different Indigenous leaders, such as chieftain Raoni and Sônia Guajajara, and you were one of those responsible for this initiative. Can you tell us a little about the first ten months of this alliance? What impact has it had?
AM: The Alliance of the Peoples of the Forest was a strategy devised in the 1980s and idealized by my father, led by him. It consisted of uniting rubber tappers, extractivists and riverside communities. At that time, in the 1980s, this population faced many common threats – farmers, land grabbers, cattle ranchers, loggers.
So, there is a need for new alliances as well as the alliances that were made in the past. We discussed this a lot at the 2019 Chico Mendes Week, which had as its theme “The alliance of the peoples of the forest, a day of struggle in defense of our territories.”
It was there that we discussed the resumption of that alliance. As a result, we were invited by Raoni to participate in a meeting of Indigenous leaders and take these proposals to a more macro level.
We discussed a series of actions, planned for this year. But, unfortunately, our actions were hampered by the pandemic. From the start, our leaders are doing nothing else but caring for their people.
Communicating with extractivist forest residents and Indigenous people is very complicated at the moment, because all people have in their minds is trying to protect themselves, trying to manage to stay alive during this period, considering that the federal government does not, under any circumstances, support, nor serve this population. You can imagine that we have not been able to advance much.
Not to say that we have not progressed, we have worked together on various activities. We created a campaign to help minimize the impacts of COVID-19 on both Indigenous lands and extractivist reserves. We built and adhered to several manifestos relating to Indigenous peoples, we made all decisions and published all documents together.
For next year, we intend to reach out to our base, work with our base on the new alliance. It is not a simple thing. You need to do this with planning, with a good team, do a good job. We still have a lot to do. We have been joining efforts and we are together in the struggle.
BDF: There is a famous phrase that goes around, assumed to have been written by Chico Mendes, which says that at first, he believed that his fight was for rubber tappers, then he realized it was for the Amazon and finally, he realized it was for humanity. Can you say that he was the first leader to prove the need to universalize the fight for the Amazon?
AM: I don’t know if he was the first person, but he was the person who, believing that, created a whole revolution surrounding this belief, in the state of Acre, in Brazil and the world. Today, he is the patron of the Brazilian environment in addition to being considered a Brazilian hero. But not only that. It turned the state of Acre into a reference point, based on a project that the state government adopted which was largely inspired by what Chico Mendes did here.
Brazil has become a major reference point for environmental initiatives as well. Other comrades also understood the importance of the forest. My father was a person who won the world because it is unthinkable that a rubber tapper, from deep within the woods, had that boldness, or was capable of being so ahead of his time.
In the 70s, when he was a city councilor in Xapuri, he already spoke of the importance of the forest on the world stage. We recorded all his speeches. He was mayor and was removed from office because of this, because he often spoke in defense of the forest.
He always spoke out in defense of the Amazon, even though he was a rubber tapper from deep inside the woods. He learned how to read and write from the guerrilla, by someone who not only taught him the alphabet, but also taught his first lessons on mobilizing workers. He spoke of the importance of mobilization, of organizing, of being united. That was very important to him.
Who would have thought that would happen? He spoke out to the world for precisely this reason: because it was his reality, it was his life. Many people could talk about the Amazon, about the forest, but without the first hand knowledge he had from his own experience.
When we talk about his legacy, we talk about extractivist reserves, we talk about the rubber tapper project, we talk about the alliance of the peoples of the forest, we talk about local ties, a peaceful resistance movement that he and Wilson Pinheiro, another great leader from the Acre countryside, created.
Chico came to the world with a very specific mission, therefore, everything that happened around him had to happen.