Is Chico Mendes' Dream for Brazil's Amazon Still Possible?

Cutting a tree
Is Chico Mendes' Dream for Brazil's Amazon Still Possible?

Thirty-five years after the murder of rubber tapper and environmentalist leader Francisco Alves Mendes Filho, better known as Chico Mendes, who was the creator of extractive reserves in Brazil and around the world, one of his greatest legacies is under threat. Covering almost 1 million hectares, located in Acre, close to the border with Peru and Bolivia, the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve is suffering from the dispute between two development models, a duel that also puts the future of humanity at risk by catalyzing climate change, one of the great global challenges.

The perpetuation of threats increases uncertainty. According to data from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve has already lost almost 5% of its forests to cattle ranching.

Dreamed up so that its residents could make a living from extracting rubber from the native rubber tree, Brazil nuts and other products that don't require deforestation, the reality in practice is different.

The reserve was among the protected areas that are most threatened by and under pressure from deforestation in the whole of the Amazon between October and December 2022, according to data from the Deforestation Alert System (SAD) of the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment (IMAZON). Images of the landscape that marks the boundary of the reserve in Assis Brasil and Xapuri illustrates what the figures say: deforestation is getting closer and closer.

A road fromo above
The entrance of the reserve Chico Mendes in the municipality of Xapuri. May 2023 / Credit: Bruna Obadowski.
bridge on the river
The bridge at the border between the reserve and the farms in the municipality of Assis Brasil. May 2023 / Credit: Bruna Obadoswki. 
collage of images
Shots of the Chico Mendes reserve. May 2023 / Credit: Bruna Obadowski.
road in the jungle
Deforestation at the Chico Mendes reserve. May 2023 / Credit: Bruna Obadowski.

Livestock farming is the main vector of destruction

The threat is not only to the Chico Mendes reserve, but also to the forest. In 2021, Brazil was the seventh largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet, according to the Climate Observatory. According to a survey by the international think tank Carbon Brief, with the increase in deforestation and fires, Brazil has returned to fourth place in the emissions ranking, a position it held in 2004 and 2005.

The data shows that deforestation accounts for most of Brazil's emissions of gases that warm the planet. The Climate Observatory report showed that Brazil emitted 2.4 billion gross tons of greenhouse gases in 2021, which represents an increase of 12.5% compared to 2020, when the country emitted 2.1 billion tons. The rise in deforestation, especially in the Amazon, was the main cause of the increase in emissions.

In 2021, climate pollution caused by changes in land use rose by 18.5%. The destruction of Brazilian biomes emitted 1.19 billion gross tons of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e) last year — more than the whole of Japan —compared to 1 billion tons in 2020. With the change of government in Brazil in January 2023 and the return of Marina Silva, Chico Mendes' former colleague in Acre, to the Ministry of the Environment, the expectation is that the fight against deforestation and investments in activities that don't depend on cutting down the forest will resume, reducing the national share of the global climate crisis.

Achieving this ideal future was also a dream of Chico Mendes when he wrote the famous "Letter to the Youth of the Future." At the time, the current climate crisis was not on the global agenda, and the current generation of residents on the extractive reserve, like André Maciel, had not even been born. At that time, those who followed Chico were André's father, Anacleto Maciel — a rubber tapper and poet recognized in the region — and his grandfather, who was among the first presidents of the Xapuri Rural Workers' Union.

In his letter, Chico Mendes envisioned an alternative world, with land and environmental conflicts overcome. Thirty-five years after his assassination, that dream seems increasingly distant, but hope still remains for young people like André. Aware of the bottlenecks and difficulties, he sees opportunities in all the challenges:

"If we don't make the model really work so that the people inside the unit have a better quality of life and are also financially effective, we'll be vulnerable to exploiters. So this is the moment for us to reaffirm that the model works. And it works. Of course, it needs improvement, because nothing is perfect."

Hope is still present even among the more experienced. Raimundo Mendes de Barros, or "Raimundão" as the 78-year-old extractivist, environmental activist and cousin of Chico Mendes is better known, agrees with young André.

André Maciel / Credit: Ahmad Jarrah.

Raimundão welcomed the news team to his place in the Dois Irmãos rubber plantation in Xapuri, where he has lived with his family for four decades. "This is where my rubber plantation begins!" he says, pointing to a narrow path through the forest. In his "backyard," the native vegetation guarantees his family's livelihood by extracting rubber latex and collecting Brazil nuts, while at the same time contributing to the preservation of the Amazon.

For Raimundão, the deforestation in the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve is rooted in the "greed for land ownership," which was not satisfied with the forest outside the reserve, and is now leaning towards this protected area, pressuring and harassing its residents.

Raimundo believes that the initiative to put pressure on the forest is organized and not just about economic gain. "The intention is also to demoralize the work of environmentalists, the defenders of the cause of the forest peoples. So to do away with the Chico Mendes reserve is to once again demoralize the name of Chico, the figure of Chico, and to say to this population: 'Didn't I tell you that you weren't going to get anywhere?'"

Irregular practices such as leasing, the irregular sale of plots and the cutting down of the forest to form pastures are the main vectors for the increase in deforestation in the protected area in recent years, according to the Ministry of the Environment.

photo collage
Irregular practices area turning the forest into a savanna / Credit: Ahmad Jarrah.
Practices such as cutting down trees for pastures are among the main causes of deforestation, according to the Ministry of Environment / Credit: Ahmad Jarrah.

Of all the threats to the Amazon, the transformation of forest into pastures is the worst, according to MapBiomas data, accounting for up to 80% of what was degraded by 2020, with 150 million hectares. This is true both in protected areas such as the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve and in private areas or wastelands, which are public areas that have not been earmarked by the government and are not owned by private landowners, even if they have been occupied irregularly.

Forest ox crack

The Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve is surrounded by extensive rural properties, mainly for cattle ranching, which exert intense pressure on the region. Faced with fluctuations in earnings from the extractivist economy, especially from Brazil nuts, many residents of the reserve end up giving in to the proposals from large ranchers in the surrounding area and cut down the forest for pasture, adopting cattle breeding in the practice known as "Boi na Meia" (which translates loosely to leaseholds), which further induces the increase of herds within the protected area beyond the limit accepted for this modality of use.

In the "Boi na meia" mode, the people responsible for the pasture are residents of the reserve, who rent the land and keep the first calf as payment. The next calves are split, with half going to them and the other half to the cattle owner (rancher). The calf that is born inside the reserve is then sold to the rancher who illegally introduced the cattle to the region. The rancher, in turn, resells it in a "legalized" way outside the reserve as if the calf had never grazed inside an Amazon protected area.

Raising cattle within an extractive reserve is not an illegal activity, as long as it respects the Utilization Plan and the Management Plan, the main regulations for extractive reserves. According to the plan, published by Decree No. 60 in 2008 by the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), complementary activities can occupy 10% of the area, not exceeding 30 hectares. Of this area, up to half can be used to raise cattle.

At the end of the day, up to 15 hectares of each allotment can be used to raise livestock, making the number of animals in these areas a major controversy, since the number is not taken into account but rather the area occupied.

Anthropologist Mary Allegretti, from the Instituto Estudos Amazônicos, says that cattle ranching has been present as an activity in the region, but in recent years it has become an accentuated problem. "What happened was that the expansion of livestock farming around the [reserve] generated a model in which the ranchers do it and they [residents] put it up," she explains.

"They make a partnership in which some families from inside [the reserve] raise cattle and then sell it to the rancher himself, who is on the edge of the reserve. So there's a lot wrong that needs to be looked at. Let's say that this existed on a small scale and in recent years the issue has become a critical problem."

Mary Allegretti / Credit: Ahmad Jarrah.

Even in the face of the problem, the anthropologist believes it is possible to raise cattle within the reserve, but by changing the model. "You can continue raising cattle on a small scale alongside other activities, as there are already very sustainable models for doing this today," she argues. Raising cattle sustainably, as the anthropologist suggests, can guarantee the continuity of the extractivists' way of life. Raimundão himself raises animals for slaughter to supplement his basket of products. He argues that in a controlled way it is possible to have sustainable livestock farming through the agroforestry system.

"We can have grass here in the reserve, as long as it complements the basket of products without harming the native forest or destroying it. It's an example. You find an area, two, three hectares, plant manioc, pineapple for the first few years, and three, four years later, you start planting chestnuts, rubber trees, and then you put in the grass," says Raimundão, showing an area on his property destined for this model.

However, in order to access programs to encourage the implementation of agroforestry systems or sustainable production models, recover degraded areas, or even access public policies such as health and social security, reserve residents need to present regularized documentation of their occupation. This requirement has become a bottleneck, as it facilitates the entry of exploiters.

Invisible citizens

Adding to the difficulties faced at the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, a gap has persisted for 20 years and is now a major issue when it comes to regularization: the absence of a "Beneficiary Family Profile." In December 2013, ICMBio published a normative instruction with procedures for drawing up and approving this profile of beneficiary families in extractive reserves, which could have been the beginning of the solution to this issue.

One of the factors that explains the lack of a profile is that more and more people from other regions of the country are migrating to the Amazon's extractive reserves. According to local residents interviewed by the report, although they want to live in the region, they are unaware of the way of life in the forest, and of the management practices for rubber trees, Brazil nuts and other forest species. These people also end up being vectors for the entry of other economic practices and activities into the region, such as cattle ranching.

In May, a debate was held on defining the profile of extractive reserve beneficiary families during the Ordinary Meeting of the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve Deliberative Council in Rio Branco, the capital of Acre. The meeting was attended by dozens of councilors and ICMBio, where the process is currently underway. But even three decades after its creation, this profile — which is essential for determining which families can and cannot benefit from the protected area — still doesn't exist.

For Raimundão, with the definition of the beneficiary profile, those who don't fit in because they carry out irregular activities and occupations will be forced to leave the reserve. "If you don't have a defined profile, what criteria am I going to use to say that Chico can and José can't?" he asks.

However, the profile is not the only bureaucratic problem. Wendel Silva Araújo, 28, president of the Association of Residents and Producers of the Assis Brasil Extractive Reserve (AMOPREAB) and director of the Varadouro Youth Collective, alongside André — highlights another distressing situation: the lack of an official register and the outdated list of reserve residents with ICMBio.

family looks at the window
Wendel and his family in the municipality of Assis Brasil / Credit: Ahmad Jarrah.

Even though he was born in the extractive reserve, his name is not on the list of residents. This list, created from an occupational survey carried out by ICMBio in 2009, is essential for families' access to public policies, including the "Bolsa Verde."

Wendel's mother, who suffers from mental health problems, is also not on the list, which prevents her from accessing the documents needed to receive social benefits. "We are invisible," she says, mentioning the negligence with which this issue has been treated over the years. In this case, there is a contradiction: People who have no social or historical ties to the region are on the register, but have no profile. And those who have lived there for generations and know how to live off the existing forest end up relegated to invisibility.

Market responsibility

"If it wasn't for Vert, I don't think we'd even have an existing forest anymore." This is how José de Araújo, president of Acre's Central Extractivist Marketing Cooperative (Cooperacre), describes a partnership in the region between the cooperatives and VEJA/Vert, a French manufacturer of ecological athletic footwear.

Vert has a contract with the co-operatives of the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve to buy 100% of the latex produced by 1,292 families. The president of the Xapuri Agro-Extractivist Cooperative (Cooperxapuri), Sebastião Nascimento de Aquino or "Tião" as he is known, says that this partnership brings significant benefits to the extractivists, who receive a better price for their latex, reaching 14 reais per kilo, almost double the price charged on the traditional market.

"Today our main product is native rubber, we sell everything we collect for shoe production to Vert. We work with CVP rubber" — virgin Pressed Cernambi — "which is sold together with the other local co-operatives," explains Tião.

 Tião / Credit: Ahmad Jarrah. 

In addition to the higher price, the partnership with Vert also offers an important innovation: the consideration of payments for environmental services (PES). This new approach values the role of the rubber tapper in keeping the forest standing and recognizes the economic contribution that this sustainable activity makes. Tião emphasizes that the company takes into account not only the commercial aspect of the transaction, but also the rubber tapper's commitment to good practices and the preservation of the Amazon ecosystem.

To become Vert suppliers, rubber tappers have to fulfill strict criteria, expressed in term of commitment that covers sustainable production, controlled origin and fair trade in rubber. There are four fundamental criteria: preservation of the forest, quality of the rubber, care of the rubber tree and responsibility towards the local co-operative and association.

It is estimated that by the end of 2023, the reserve will produce more than 270,000 tons of latex, 100% destined for the French company. Promising as it is, this model of support and sustainable trade is still a timid initiative in the market, and the extractivists are in favor of expanding it to include other products such as Brazil nuts, always with compensation for environmental services and subsidies, in order to make it economically viable for the families.

photo collage
Cutting the forest / Credit: Ahmad Jarrah.

For Luiz Antonio Brasi, coordinator of the Origins Brazil Network at Imaflora, the market needs to invest in products that help keep the forest standing, paying a fair price for environmental services.

Brasi argues that expanding these partnerships is crucial for the future of the Amazon rainforest and for maintaining the balance between environmental conservation and economic development. "These populations are keeping the forest standing and extracting forest products, managing to combine production with conservation and contributing to climate stability, which today is a global challenge," he emphasises.

Angela Mendes, the daughter of Chico Mendes who is herself an environmental activist and president of the Chico Mendes Committee, also agrees with the contribution of extractivist populations to the preservation of forests, but emphasizes that they need more support and effective public policies.

"It's not fair that only those who are there in the territory fight alone," she argues. In her opinion, other agents should also be involved in the economic valorization of extractivism, in line with the need for companies and countries to be more responsible with their consumption. "Whoever buys meat, whoever buys wood, soya, what is their responsibility with this commercialization, with the origin of these products? It could be coming from conflict, violence and human rights violations," she asks. Angela believes that interrupting the consumption chain weakens the incentive for criminal and illegal activities.

"We are living in times of climate extremes and extractive reserves are part of these solutions. If it weren't for the extractive reserve, we wouldn't have a million hectares of forest where the Chico Mendes [reserve] is today."

Despite all the challenges and the warning of threats, the extractive reserve model is still the most successful way of protecting the Amazon in Brazil and worldwide. According to the 2022 “The State of the World’s Forests" from the Food and Agriculture Organization, almost half of the world's forests and agricultural areas (4.35 billion hectares) are occupied by local populations and Indigenous peoples. The data on deforestation, which is lower in these areas, also proves the effectiveness of protection. 

According to MapBiomas, deforestation on private properties in the country reached 56.8% in 2022. Of this total, more than half (58%) is in the Amazon. In sustainable-use protected areas (such as extractive reserves), the rate is just 3.1%. The challenge is to scale up the current model and make it attractive to new generations.

When asked about the current situation of the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, the Ministry of the Environment responded to the report's questions in a statement, attributing a large part of the current conflicts to previous administrations, such as that of President Jair Bolsonaro, who kept Ricardo Salles at the head of the Ministry of the Environment between 2019 and 2021.

"The practice of leasing, the irregular sale of housing and the cutting down of the forest to form pastures are the main vectors for the increase in deforestation in the Conservation Unit in recent years. This has occurred in parallel with the dismantling of environmental agencies, the coercion of civil servants, threats against community leaders and campaigns against the extractive reserve stimulated by the previous administration," said the ministry's press office.  Although during Bolsonaro's administration, there has been an increase in the devastation of the Amazon, the problems of the extractivist profile and the massive presence of cattle began before his administration.

According to the federal government, monitoring will be the main measure to regain control of the Amazon Conservation Units. "In 2023, monitoring was resumed and strengthened, as was dialogue with communities. the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve is among the priority Conservation Units for protection in the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (PPCDAm). The Ministry of the Environment is working to monitor the environment and those who finance illegal practices, to resume and strengthen management instruments and to strengthen the socio-biodiversity economy," says the statement.

Asked by the report about the "extractivist profile" for the Chico Mendes reserve, the Ministry of the Environment argues that this proposal has already been drawn up and is under discussion. According to the ministry, it is undergoing adjustments and will be submitted to the reserve's deliberative council for approval and then published in the Official Gazette. Also according to the ministry, at the same time as the profile is being identified, the list of residents is being updated and is expected to be finalized this year. This is a chance for young people like Wendel to be recognized as Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve residents.

Youth and the future

Brazil has more than 20 million hectares of land, water and forest in the hands of the traditional populations of the Amazon, thanks to the legacy of Chico Mendes.  According to Júlio Barbosa, president of the National Council of Extractivist Populations (CNS), an organization founded by Chico Mendes before he was murdered in 1988 by ranchers in Acre, "a large part of these forests are much better protected than traditional private properties."  For Júlio, the extractivists urgently need support and recognition — including financial — for the environmental services they provide.

Mary Allegretti argues that the government should also invest in the potential of extractive reserves so as not to jeopardize them in the future. "Within the federal government, at ICMBio, there is a huge weight attached to the integral protection units (parks). They're important, nobody questions that. But the sustainable-use units have a smaller share of the budget, a smaller share of the technical team, a smaller share of importance in the ICMBio management process, and this is a distortion that today jeopardizes the future of the reserves," she explains. For the anthropologist, there was a balance in the past, but progressively there has been a distancing, which she sees as critical.

In order to have a greater say, the reserve's youth, such as André, Wendel and others, have included the Varadouro Collective, of which they are members, as a member of the Resex Deliberative Council. "This will give us an institutional and decision-making space for the future," explains Wendel.

Like their parents, who once took part in the Union of Forest Peoples — which brought together rubber tappers, extractivists, coconut breakers and Indigenous peoples - fostering a model that revolutionised Amazon protection, the young people are now fighting for better conditions so that they can one day achieve the ideal advocated by Chico Mendes on a large scale.

If they are victorious, they will be saving not just a few protected areas in Brazil, but contributing to the future of the planet, as Chico Mendes himself once reflected: "At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I'm fighting for humanity," summed up the activist, who continues to inspire current generations.

Read the original Portuguese-language story here.

This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in A Lente (in partnership with InfoAmazonia and  PlenaMata) on August 16, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Cutting a tree / Credit: Ahmad Jarrah. 

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