Amazon, 1976-1980

Para, Amazon Valley, 1976: King Fires

Set fire in the Amazon

A fire as big as the state of Rhode Island rages out of control. The A.G. Ranch, a subsidiary of the King Ranch of Texas, is clearing more land, The fire is so intense that it creates its own thunder, lightning, and mini-tornadoes. A land rush of poor migrants looking for survival outside the poverty-stricken cities clears more and more land until much of the area is like a wasteland.

Without the forest the tappers cannot make a living and the indigenous cannot live. Without land the small farmers cannot survive. The large plantation owners live off the misery of all of those groups. The only hope for the tappers and indigenous is to organize.


Seringal Santa Fe, 1976: Empate

Wilson Pinheiro

Wilson Pinheiro, head of the rubber tappers’ union, creates a new tactic in the struggle to save the forest from being cleared and burned. The tappers learn about a clearing taking place on the plantation of Jorge Haracio. Forty tappers, all unarmed, stand in the way of the bulldozers. The workers doing the clearing, many of them as poor at the tappers, stop. It is an empate, a standoff.

In the next five years they organize forty-five empates. Chico Mendes adds another element, bringing women and children too to stand in front of the bulldozers and chain saws. When they hear of a part of the forest that is being cleared, they round up everyone and form a wall on the edge of the land. Even the pistoleiros, the hired guns, do not dare shoot. In all of the empates four hundred are arrested, a few are illed, some are tortured, but they succeed in saving three million hectares of forest from being destroyed. Chico says, thirty of our blockades failed and fifteen worked, but it was worth it.

Alex Shoumatof, The World Is Burning, 67


The Amazon, 1980: The Historical Actors


Four distinct groups living in the rainforest at the present time are the main actors in this historical drama.

Indigenous: two hundred thousand are defending their land, culture, and lives.

Garimpeiros: three to five hundred thousand miners, often portrayed as the villains, murdering the indigenous, polluting the rivers and lands. They are in turn victimized by the Brazilian economy and practices of the development “miracle” that made it impossible for them to make a living as farmers or in the crowded cities.

Extractors: two million—while keeping the forests intact they harvest nuts, rubber, resins, palm products, and medicines. The forest that they depend upon and they themselves are under attack. As gatherers, they have been the base of the Amazon economy for five centuries.

Settlers: two to three million drawn by government promises of land and loans. Some are adventurers, others simply trying to survive. They are refugees from the general economic devastation of Brazil.

See Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn, The Fate of the Forest: Developers,

Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon, 164-178