Published on Tuesday, December 23, 2008 by The Guardian/UK
• Study marks 20 years since Mendes murder • Environmentalists divided over activist's legacy
by Tom Phillips
RIO DE JANEIRO - Twenty years after the killing of Chico Mendes, one of the world's most prominent rainforest defenders, hundreds of human rights and environmental activists still face the threat of assassination in Brazil, a new study claims.
The report, compiled by Brazil's Catholic Land Commission (CPT) and due to be released in full early next year, reveals that at least 260 people, among them a Catholic bishop, live under the threat of murder because of their fight against a coalition of loggers, farmers and cattle ranchers.
Indians of the Makixi tribe protest during a juridical dispute against large-scale rice farmers in Brasilia, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008. More than 1,100 activists, small farmers, judges, priests and other rural workers have been killed in disputes since
The list names Frei Henri des Rosiers, a French priest based in the Amazon town of
In February this year, Francisco da Silva, a 51-year-old leader of the landless movement in the Amazon, was killed with a single shot to the head. He had been named in a previous CPT report about rural leaders receiving death threats.
On Monday night the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is expected to address the country on television to pay homage to the life of Mendes, a rubber tapper turned environmentalist who was gunned down outside his home on 22 December 1988. Lula's address is part of a wave of tributes across Brazil, from marches on the streets of
In September this year government figures showed that deforestation in the Amazon had risen by 64% over the previous 12 months. Earlier this month, members of
Sirkis said: "I won't say that nothing has improved," but he added that the last 20 years had seen a "continuation of this project of devastation".
Born in the remote Amazon state of
By the mid-1980s he was spearheading protests against local cattle ranchers and their gunmen, who sought to tear down the forest and drive out the impoverished rubber tappers. Renowned for visionary views on sustainable development, Mendes quickly became a poster-boy for the international green movement, travelling to the US to lobby against infrastructure projects he believed would devastate the Amazon.
"He knew how to talk to the rubber tapper in the middle of the forest in the same way he knew how to talk to a technocrat from the World Bank," said Sirkis. His murder turned him into an eco-martyr both at home and abroad, and catapulted the issue of rainforest destruction further up the international agenda.
She added: "He was a guy that spoke of things which were ahead of his time ... [and he] made me want to be part of that fight."
Bishop Krautler agrees: "It was never in vain. In death he [Mendes] spoke even louder than when he was alive."
Soon after his death,
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs