This Day In History: December 22

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Chico Mendes, a Brazilian union leader and environmental activist who dedicated much of his life to defending the Amazon rainforest, is assassinated on December 22, 1988. He was 44 years old. 

Mendes was a longtime rubber tapper—rubber tapping is a sustainable process for extracting latex from trees which does not require the tree to be damaged or cut down—who organized other Amazonian rubber tappers against the growing and ecologically devastating cattle-ranching industry. Beginning in the 1970s, Mendes organized empates—peaceful demonstrations—in which protestors would protect trees with their own bodies. Mendes pushed the Brazilian government to pass initiatives that would create protected rubber areas in the Amazon. These “extractive reserves” would give rubber tappers the right to continue to sustainably harvest rubber, nuts and other products. As his profile grew, Mendes traveled outside of Brazil, lobbying non-governmental organizations to finance these sustainable reserves.

On December 22, 1988—following several previous attempts on his life, mostly by ranchers and other landowners—Mendes was shot and killed in the backyard of his home in the Brazliian state of Acre. The assailant was Darci Alves da Silva, the son of rancher Darly Alves da Silva, who bought a rubber reserve for logging and whose efforts to deforest the land were thwarted by Mendes. Both men were later convicted and sentenced to prison for the murder. 

By the late 1980s, worldwide interest was being drawn to global warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions from, among other things, burning forests. The destruction of the Amazon was shown to be having a disproportionate impact on human-caused climate change. “The destruction and burning of forest here is so vast, the scientists say, that it may account for at least one-tenth of the global man-made output of carbon dioxide,” the New York Times reported just months before Mendes’s killing.

Since Mendes’s death, over one thousand activists and rainforest defenders have been killed in Brazil. Mendes is still seen as an icon of the global environmental movement.