The Amazon, 1988-1990

The Capitalist Miracle

Operation Amazon

But resistance and defiance, on the one hand, and final victory, on the other, are two different things. Unfortunately, the destruction is escalating. The increase can be traced to 1964 when a military coup installed a dictatorship that promised to provide a “capitalist miracle” for Brazil. With advice from the staunchest capitalists in the United States and internationally, the military generals embarked on a campaign to make the rainforest profitable.

First, the generals destroyed the peasant leagues and outlawed all strikes. To please foreigners, they passed laws that required minimum wages for workers and health benefits, but these laws were never enforced. In order to keep meat and food prices down while continuing major exports of beef, the generals opened the Amazon to “development.” Called Operation Amazon, the program gave tax breaks and investment credits to investors. The onslaught of fortune seekers drove the indigenous off the land they had held for centuries, bulldozed forests, and burned the valuable Brazil nut trees. Guns, threats, and the ever-present legal document led the charge.

Twenty thousand Brazilian soldiers trained in counter-insurgency warfare wiped out the communist guerrillas, who mobilized to stop the destruction. The generals developed a new slogan: “A land without men for men without land.” The themes and ideologies of the first invasion were being repeated. The idea that the land was vacant and that the indigenous were not human gave the invasion its moral right to proceed without concern for the fate of the people or of nature.

Settlers flooded in, some buying the land, others grabbing it through fraud or intimidation. The small settlers eventually failed because the larger economic forces of capitalism favored the large landowners who snapped up the land of the fails small farmers. In a third of the case, the large landowners use threats and violence to run the small farmers off.


Acre, Brazil, 1988: Chico, the Man

Chico Mendes

Chico Mendes has cut rubber full-time for twenty-eight years. Since 1980 he has been full-time head of the union of rubber tappers. He still spends hours playing with his two children, Sandino, named after the Nicaraguan hero, and Elenira, named after a Brazilian guerrilla leader.

I became an ecologist long before I ever heard the word. The tappers take from the forest what can be replenished. They know that the forest is their partner, their sustenance. Devour it and the source of life is gone. Take what is given and there will be more tomorrow.

The tappers love him. The middlemen and plantation owners hate him. Chico hates violence. He pleads against it. I don’t believe in bodies. The tappers say, he never [gets] mad at anybody… he never [gets] a thing for himself. He has a magnetic presence and a real way with words.

Alex Shoumatoff, The World Is Burning, 8,23,28,29




New York, 1988: Fire

The headlines of the New York Times scream out a warning

Vast Amazon Fires, Man-made, Linked to Global Warming

Satellite studies of Amazon fires in 1987 finally make the international news a year later. The mathematics of destruction are almost inconceivable:

  • Eight thousand fires per day in the Amazon;
  • Two hundred thousand square kilometers of forest burned;
  • The fires may account for one-tenth of all man-made carbon dioxide (five hundred million tons), the cause of the greenhouse effect and global warming;
  • Smoke clouds rising to twelve thousand feet

Marlise Simons, the Times reporter, writes: From the flames, tons of fumes and particles are hurled into the sky… and at night the forest looks to be at war.

Alex Shoumatoff, The World Is Burning, 127-128


Chicago, 1988: Indigenous Fight Back


Paulinho Paiakan

Paulinho Paiakan is a Kayapo militant who speaks before the World Bank and international audiences to stop the destruction of the forest, to stop the building of dams, and to gain recognition for the rights of the indigenous. At the University of Chicago he says:

The forest is one big thing; it has people, animals and plants. There is no point in saving the animals if the forest is burned down; there is no point in saving the forest if the people and the animals who live in it are killed or driven away. The groups trying to save the races of animals cannot win if the people trying to save the forest lose; the people trying to save the Indians cannot win without the help of the Indians, who know the forest and the animals and can tell what is happening to them. No one is strong enough to win alone; together we can be strong enough to win.

Alex Shoumatoff, The World Is Burning, 220


Xapuri, 1988: Chronicle of a Death Foretold

On the night of May 24, Chico receives an anonymous call telling him that he will not live out the year. He is now anunciado. The anuncio is a peculiar form of Brazilian torture in which a killer derives a certain pleasure in telling the victim that he or she will die, and then watching the psychological pain as the victim wonders when and where.

Chico has already survived five assassination attempts. The first was just after the head of the tappers’ union, Wilson Pinheiro, was gunned down on the porch of the union hall. Knowing he is next, Chico hides for ninety days, sleeping in a different place every night.

With this latest phone call, everyone knows who is out to kill him. Darli Alves is the owner of the land that he planned to clear. An empate organized by Chico just a month before stopped that clearning and made the land an extractive reserve. From then on Darli has gone around publicly telling people he is going to kill Chico.

Chico’s friends go to the police. The police do nothing. All efforts to arrest Darli or protect Chico are blocked by the authorities.

We all knew it would happen around Christmas time, says one of his friends later. His friends and co-workers try to convince him to go to Sao Paulo for the holidays. Chico wants to stay with his family in Xapuri for Christmas. Like all great leaders he resists giving in to fear. Give in to it once and soon it dominates and defines your life. Alter your plans this week and soon the whole direction of your life is changed forever—led more by fear than hope and justice. The great ones keep their eyes on the prize. But he is no martyr: Public gestures and a well-attended funeral will not save Amazonia. I want to live.

On December 18, Chico tells his brother, The situation is ugly. The circle is closing. On December 22, Chico returns from an organizing trip. Late in the afternoon he visits a mother whose son was almost killed by a bus. He sits with her at the kitchen table consoling her. He returns home and by 6:00p.m. it is dark. He throws a towel over his shoulder to go out in back to the outhouse. He opens the back door; it’s so dark he sees nothing. As he steps out the door an explosion rocks the house. Chico staggers back into the kitchen, his chest and right shoulder filled with buckshot. Careening from the table to the wall to his bedroom, he finally collapse face up on the floor. His wife Ilza runs in. He clings to life a few more seconds, his eyes peaceful. Damn, they got me. And then he is gone. His blood, his red fingerprints cover the table, the plates, the wall.

His life, an now his death, spread like an empate throughout the world, creating an international standoff that slows and at times stops the destruction of the forest he loved so much.

Alex Shoumatoff, The World Is Burning, 109-113