Nearly twenty years after the assassination of Brazilian rubber tapper leader Chico Mendes, this book provides a welcome reminder of his remarkable life and accomplishments, at a moment when the struggles he defended are more important than ever. Originally published in Portuguese as Caminhando na Floresta com Chico Mendes, the core of this unique volume is a moving memoir, written in the author’s authentic and distinctive voice, raw and first-hand, including reflections on the sweep of Amazonian and Brazilian history. The translated version also includes a foreword by Marina Silva, an authoritative introduction by Bion Maybury-Lewis that contextualizes the personal history of Chico Mendes and his friend and companion, Gomercindo Rodrigues, as well as an Afterword by Linda Rabbin, who put together this team project, serving as translator, editor (adding footnotes) and contributor. The result is a primarily popular book which, however, contains important documentation on the rubber tapper movement’s development in Acre, description of the rubber tapper way of life, and the place of these events within Amazonian history, as well as analysis of Mendes’ murder.
Rodrigues, affectionately known as “Guma,” now a combative attorney who champions human rights causes in the western Amazonian state of Acre, began his association with Chico Mendes in 1986 when he participated in an assessment of a failed cooperative effort among the rubber tappers in that state. The agronomist from Mato Grosso do Sul, described in an Afterword by Linda Rabbin as “an intensely serious young man,” thus began a life-long commitment to supporting the unique struggle of the rubber tappers to defend their rights as workers and as members of rural communities inextricably connected to the Amazonian forests where they lived and made a living tapping rubber, collecting Brazil nuts and other forest resources. Over the next two decades Rodrigues dispassionately devoted himself to organizing and implementing a strong grass-roots proposal for a new cooperative to free the tappers from the exploitation [End Page 176] of the trading post owners, proudly showing me the plastic bag of dues money he collected on June 30, 1988, the day the coop began, when we crossed paths in the local union office in Xapuri. The book recounts Rodrigues’ experiences beginning in January of 1986, walking nearly 3,000 kilometers of the rubber trails as he worked tirelessly to organize the cooperative.
This is not a biography of Chico Mendes, of which there are several listed in the editor’s bibliography. Rodrigues instead tells the history of this struggle from his own personal perspective and in his own unique voice as a key witness and participant -- a sometimes anguished recounting of injustices (many of them still not addressed), alongside gentle, humble and humorous reflections about his experiences learning and living among the rubber tappers as he walked in the forest communities. Rodrigues’ account begins with the story of his own actions in the moments just before and after Mendes’ murder in December of 1988, detailing the many unanswered questions about the crime – including the role of the state’s federal police chief and the possible involvement of other local elites as financiers and intellectual authors of the murder. At the time, Guma himself figured prominently on the death lists circulating in the hands of the dozens of gunslingers who lounged ostentatiously in the charged climate of the town of Xapuri.
Without a doubt the most moving passage is the description of the non-violent “empate” near Cachoeira in 1988, when men, women and children who had gathered to block the progress of forest clearing by workers protected by the local police, spontaneously launched into singing the national anthem – as police lowered their arms or saluted and stood respectfully with the hands over the forest. His stories of learning to match the rubber tappers’ agile pace, to string...