Where All Life Matters


n December 2005 they came from the deepest
forest to the center of Amazonia to celebrate the 20th anniversary
of the Conselho Nacional dos Seringueiros (CNS), an organization
founded by Chico Mendes that even today is still fighting for the
rights of the rubber tappers and traditional populations of the
rainforest. More than 350 representatives of the Amazon’s reserves
met at their annual conference to take stock and unite to face new
challenges ahead. 

Much has happened in 20 years. When, in 1985, under military rule,
Mendes and his companions founded CNS, nobody thought about sustainable
development. When he was assassinated in 1988, the idea of Extractivist
Reserves was considered revolutionary and met with fierce resistance. 

Mendes was the first to promote Extractivist Reserves (RESEX)—
small communities who live and work collectively according to a
well-designed plan to use and extract the forest’s resources
sustainably and without harm to the environment. The land remains
property of the union, its use is defined by an association of local
communities and government agencies. RESEX offers a variety of products,
including rubber, coco, nuts, açai fruit, alternative medicine,
fish, and handicrafts made of seeds, leftover wood, and other natural
material. The profits go directly to the communities. 

Today, about one-third of the Amazon has been declared a protected
area, most of it indigenous reserves. Moreover, 19 Extractivist
Reserves and 14 marine reserves have gained legal status, their
numbers constantly increasing. Atanagildo “Gatão”
Matos, one of the early activists, is happy to see more and more
communities organize themselves independently to protect their land
and work collectively and sustainably. The reserves have become
an integral part of the Brazilian government’s Amazon policy. 

Joy was not all that you saw at the CNS anniversary celebration.
It was mixed with rage and sorrow. The world saw Chico Mendes and
Sister Dorothy brutally murdered because they lived and worked for
the preservation of the rainforest. The world didn’t see more
than 700 others die because they believed in a sustainable way of
living with nature and in their responsibility to the community
and future generations. To this day, activists are being threatened,
persecuted, and killed. The blacklist of big farmers, soy producers,
and their “pistoleiros” contains hundreds of names.
Three weeks after the conference another name was crossed off the
list. João Batista died in Rondônia with four bullets
in his chest (Rondônia is the state with the highest clearcutting
rate in Brazil). The police have yet to investigate.  

There is still a long way to go. A whole industry is profiting from
exploitation. After the trees are cut and sold, the meat industry
takes over the land to raise cattle. When all is grazed and the
ranchers move on, soy farmers finally exhaust the soil. It is hard
to imagine that once there had been thick forest with millions of
insects, birds, wild cats, and other species.  

In numbers it looks like this: in 2004 27,200 square kilometers
of forest land were clearcut (about 4.5 million football fields),
much of it illegally. This is the second highest deforestation rate
in the history of Brazil. Mega projects such as hydro dams and the
Transamazonian Highway seldom consider social or environmental aspects
that threaten communities, wildlife, and the forest. Those living
in the already-created reserves continue to defend themselves against
illegal invasions while the state authorities react slowly, if ever.
The northern state Pará is still in the hands of big landowners,
its justice system corrupt and a life easily lost. Challenges are
also encountered within the reserves. Many lack adequate schools
and access to health care and communities have difficulties with
market access, administration, and budgets. Many have to work in
small huts without electricity.

For 20 years CNS has been trying to convince outsiders that Amazonia’s
people are not poor, uneducated farmers that have no idea what development
and politics are all about. They know very well, if not best of
all, what is good for the communities and the forest they live in.
They don’t need sympathy and pittances. They deserve our respect,
recognition, and support to continue protecting and preserving this
wonderful, unique source of life called the Amazon Rainforest. 

Kendlbacher works with the Brazilian Amazon Working Group in Belém.
For information on CNS: www.cnsnet. org.br.