In 2019, at a synod in Rome for the bishops of the Pan-Amazon region, a special memorial recalled all those martyrs who have laid down their lives in defense of the Amazon and its poor inhabitants. Chico Mendes was among them.
Living in the state of Acre in northwest Brazil, Mendes organized a union of the region’s rubber tappers and other poor families who earned their meager living by extracting the renewable resource of the rain forest. Mendes was himself the son of tappers who arrived in the Amazon in the 1940s to take advantage of the rubber boom. In time the fate of such workers was threatened by giant landowners and ranchers who preferred to burn and clear the forests to make way for cattle.
Mendes began organizing the rubber workers in 1977, with the initial aim of simply protecting their livelihood. But he gradually expanded his concerns to encompass a wider ecological vision. The burning of the forest contributed to the “greenhouse effect.” It ruined the land and ultimately threatened the survival of the planet. Thus “the cry of the earth” was connected to the “cry of the poor.” Though the owners resorted to threats and violence to break the union, the workers’ nonviolent tactics gradually attracted international attention. Mendes was awarded the United Nations’ Global 500 Award for Environmental Protection. But it was not enough to protect his life. He was shot and killed on December 22, 1988.
“Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”
—Pope Francis, Laudato Si’