Above: Ilza and Chico Mendes
Image Source = Miranda Smith, Miranda Productions, Inc.
FRANCISCO ALVES MENDES FILHO (DECEMBER 15, 1944-DECEMBER 22, 1988)
“Gandhi of the Amazon”
The Amazon rainforest is crucial to the well-being of the global ecosystem; this is a scientific fact. Another fact is that both are in peril due to greed and short-term thinking. A third fact is the mounting body count as certain landowners and their agents murder defenders of the rainforest. This post tells the story of one of those martyrs.
Francisco Alves “Chico” Mendes Filho, born at Xapuri, Acre, Brazil, on December 15, 1944, was a lifelong rubber tapper in the Amazon rainforest. He was a son of rubber tappers, his father having moved from northeastern to northwestern Brazil in 1943 to become part of the “rubber tapper army” supplying rubber to the Allies during World War II. One did not become wealthy performing this work, so Mendes grew up a part of the working poor.
Our saint, influenced by his Roman Catholic faith and by Liberation Theology in particular, resisted non-violently the burning of parts of the rainforest for the purpose of clearing the land for cattle ranching or other reasons. In 1977 he founded a union of rubber tappers. This threatened the interests of many landowners, some of whom not only threatened but committed or authorized violence. Mendes knew that someone might kill him, but he persisted in his efforts anyway. His widow, Ilzamar “Ilza” Gadelha Mendes, recalled:
Sometimes I’d say to Chico, “Chico, they’re going to kill you! Why don’t you take care of yourself and go away?” But Chico wasn’t afraid of death. He told me that we would never stop defending the Amazon forest–never!
–Quoted in Robert Ellsberg, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (1997), page 558
Mendes came to understand the link between the “cry of the poor” and the “cry of the Earth”:
At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”
–Quoted in The Guardian, December 20, 2013
In 1987 the United Nations recognized Mendes with its Global 500 Award for Environmental Protection. Shortly thereafter the Brazilian government declared four areas of the Amazon rainforest protected. Mendes had protection too, at least theoretically. On December 22, 1988, he was home when rancher Darcy Alves killed him. The police officers assigned to guard Mendes were playing dominoes at the kitchen table. Alves likened murdering Mendes to shooting a jaguar.
Ilza stated later:
Chico had a lot of faith. When he died, I was filled with despair. But God comforted me and inspired me to work alongside others to carry on Chico’s work. They killed him, but they didn’t kill his idealism or crush the struggle.
–Quoted in Ellsberg, All Saints (1997), pages 558-559
The struggle continues.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
NOVEMBER 9, 2016 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF WILLIAM CROSWELL, EPISCOPAL PRIEST AND HYMN WRITER
THE FEAST OF JOHANN(ES) MATTHAUS MEYFART, GERMAN LUTHERAN EDUCATOR AND DEVOTIONAL WRITER
THE FEAST OF MARTIN CHEMNITZ, GERMAN LUTHERAN THEOLOGIAN
God of grace and glory, you create and sustain the universe in majesty and beauty:
We thank you for Chico Mendes and all in whom you have planted
the desire to know your creation and to explore your work and wisdom.
Lead us, like them, to understand better the wonder and mystery of creation;
through Jesus Christ your eternal Word, through whom all things were made. Amen.
2 Corinthians 13:1-6
–Adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 738
This is post #1500 of SUNDRY THOUGHTS.