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An Amazon Icon's Town Is a Shrine Frozen in Time

José Rodriguez de Araújo makes rubber products on a reserve in Brazil's Acre state named for Chico Mendes, the slain rubber tapper-turned-activist who thought of preserving the Amazon by using it as a marketplace.
José Rodriguez de Araújo makes rubber products on a reserve in Brazil's Acre state named for Chico Mendes, the slain rubber tapper-turned-activist who thought of preserving the Amazon by using it as a marketplace. (Photos By Joshua Partlow -- The Washington Post)

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By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 12, 2008

XAPURI, Brazil, Oct. 11 -- She remembers the spot in the hallway where her father said, "They shot me," then fell into the arms of his wife. She remembers, even though she was only 4 years old, how Chico Mendes tried to say her name but couldn't finish the words before the world's most famous rubber tapper died from a single gunshot to the chest.

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"I remember the day and the moment," said his daughter, Elenira Mendes, standing inside her old house. "It was right before dinner."

The artifacts of that moment on Dec. 22, 1988, remain frozen in their places. There are the white dominoes Chico Mendes was playing with at the red Formica table under a single bare light bulb in his kitchen. There is the 21-volume history of Brazil, ending in 1978, still lining the bookshelf in the front room. And if they look closely, tourists can even see the bloodstains on the back door where Mendes was standing when he was shot dead at the age of 44.

How much has changed in the 20 years since his death? What lives on after the martyr dies?

Along the dusty, brick streets of Xapuri, the western Amazon town where Mendes rose from union leader to environmental activist to world icon, the answer appears to be: not much. The rhythm on his street is one of easy lassitude; shirtless men smoke and play pool in the afternoon under a leaf-littered awning next door to his house. More bicycles pass by than cars. The mayor in office when Mendes died is still serving. Local rancher Darly Alves da Silva and his son Darcy Alves went to jail for the killing, but they are out now, and sometimes Elenira Mendes passes them in the street. It is always painful for her to hear the townspeople dismissing their most famous son.

"Some people recognize him as an important person, as a hero, and some people simply don't," she said. "This town is pretty abandoned. People don't see the impact of how Chico Mendes's struggle benefited their lives."

Beyond Xapuri, his legacy is clearer. Mendes was a leading proponent of the concept of the "extractive reserve"-- a way to preserve the Amazon by creating a marketplace of products, such as rubber and brazil nuts, out of the standing forest. One of the first reserves, created in Acre state two years after his death, bears his name, and by mid-2007, there were 65 state and federal extractive reserves across the country encompassing nearly 30 million acres.

Some of those reserves are threatened. Relentless pressure by cattle ranchers, soy farmers, settlers and illegal loggers have cut into them, according to environmental groups. The people living inside the protected areas often chop down their forests themselves in search of profits. Flying over the Chico Mendes reserve, one can see large swaths of cleared land dotted with white cattle.

"This is not a good example of management anymore -- it is under risk because of the cattle problem," said Cláudio C. Maretti, conservation director of the environmental group WWF-Brazil. "You can see all this open area is for cattle. There is an easy market and social pressure. The people in the forest want to become part of this market."

In the reserve, home to about 3,500 people scattered across 2.5 million acres, residents said it is difficult scraping a living from the forest selling rubber, fruit and nuts. They elect leaders who try to reach a consensus on issues such as what type of roofing materials the houses will have and whether residents can hunt with dogs in the forest. The most controversial rule is among the most basic, that residents cannot deforest more than 10 percent of their land.

"There are people who want to deforest and do cattle ranching, and there are others who want to work with the standing forest," said José Rodriguez de Araújo, 36, who lives in the reserve. He is known as Dr. Rubber for his skill at turning the white tree sap into shoes, flags and trinkets for sale in the market. If he worked only in rubber, he said, he could make $400 to $500 a month. To augment this income, he grows rice, bananas, beans and manioc, or cassava.

"To survive, I need to cut some trees. To have my daily bread, I'll have to deforest more," Araújo said. "But I have a hope and a belief that someday I will live by the forest alone."

"The oxygen we make here goes to the United States," he added. "If we chop the trees, then they'll die first, but we'll die next. That's why I want to conserve and I want to do my part."

Back in Xapuri, at the shop next to Chico Mendes's house, Charlison Maciel serves sodas behind the counter. He is 19, the grandson of a rubber tapper. A new factory is opening nearby that will make condoms from rainforest latex. Some of his friends hope to work there.

"I don't want to work in the forest. I want to go to the university," Maciel said. He would like to study environmental management. "There is a lot of work in this area."

Maciel was five days old when Mendes was shot. Tourists come around sometimes, he said, and there is a museum to the rubber tapper across the street.

"Things have changed here," he said. "But in a certain way, they are the same."


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