Chico Mendes (1944-1988) was a Brazilian rubber-tapper who became a campaigner for his people and for sustainable use of the rainforest. He built links between politics, trade unions and environmentalists and won international awards for his work. He was murdered by a local rancher who wanted to clear-cut an area of rainforest that was designated as a nature preserve.
Francisco Alves Mendes Filho (Chico Mendes) was the son of rubber tappers and became one himself at age 9. Life was hard and the arrival in the 1970s of ranchers who wanted to clear the forest for grazing was set to make it harder. Mendes became a leader of the non-violent resistance to the ranchers and called, successfully, for the government to set up forest reserves in which only sustainable harvesting would be permitted.
He became a highly effective organiser helping to establish the local and national rubber-tappers unions and the (left-wing) Partido dos Trabalhadores. He worked for better education, stronger communities and the development of new sources of income, including nuts, fruit, oil and fibre. He also built links with the environmental movement both in Brazil and internationally.
Mendes won the United Nations Environmental Program Global 500 Roll of Honor Award in 1987, and the National Wildlife Federation's National Conservation Achievement Award in 1988.
He summed up his philosophy as follows: “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity.” He saw defence of the people and of the forest on which they depended as a single struggle.