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Rubber Tappers, Environmentalists Celebrate Conviction in Mendes Killing

December 16, 1990

XAPURI, Brazil (AP) _ Rubber tappers on Sunday hailed the convictions in the murder of environmentalist Chico Mendes, calling the verdict a landmark for those seeking to preserve the Amazon rain forest.

″Now (landowners) know that every brother rubber tapper or environmentalist who dies will be avenged,″ said Francisco Barbosa de Aquino, president of the Rural Workers Union in this remote town.

A seven-member jury determined that rancher Darly Alves da Silva planned the Dec. 22, 1988, slaying and that his son, Darci Alves Pereira, fired the shotgun that killed Mendes, an Amazon unionist and rain forest defender.

The defendants were each sentenced to 19 years in prison. The prosecutors said the ranchers had ″stained the forest″ with Mendes’ blood and urged the maximum 30-year sentence.

Defense attorney Ruben Torres said his clients would appeal.

″This conviction is a landmark″ for environmentalists, said prosecutor Sueli Bellato.

Mendes, 44, a rubber-tapper organizer who led a movement to stop destruction of the world’s largest rain forest, was gunned down on the back porch of his humble wooden house in this backwoods Amazon river town 2,650 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro.

The four-day trial drew world attention to a centuries-old battle over land in Brazil that has killed thousands of people.

To many in the United States and Europe, Mendes became a martyr, because he was killed at a time of rising world concern for the rapidly disappearing rain forest.

In Brazil and most of South America, however, Mendes was more a symbol in a struggle for agrarian reform that pits rich, powerful landowners, businessmen and speculators against native Indians and the rural poor who seek collective ownership and use of the rain forest.

″(The convictions) are an important victory not only for the rubber tappers, but for all the rural workers’ movements in Brazil,″ Aquino said.

The Amazon is the world’s largest rain forest and the only habitat for many plant and animal species. Rubber tappers - who commercially harvest latex, nuts and other forest products - depend on the forest for their livelihood.

Once the jungle is cleared it becomes barren of most vegetation within a few years. The race for development and quick profits wiped out vast swaths of the 2-million-square mile wilderness.

Land reform is a deeply divisive issue in this nation of 150 million people, larger in area than the 48 continental United States. Four percent of the population controls 60 percent of the arable land, government surveys show.

The problem goes back nearly 500 years. From the year the Portuguese first landed here in 1500 to Brazilian independence in 1822, the Portuguese crown handed out land the size of European countries to nobles. For the next 60 years following, Brazil’s own monarchy did likewise, though on a smaller scale.

In 1985, civilian former President Jose Sarney pledged to distribute a tract of land the size of California among 1.4 million peasant families by 1989. He said 5.7 million other families would be settled on expropriated land by 2000.

It didn’t happen. Only 20,000 families wound up with plots, and the ranks of landless peasants have swelled to more than 25 million.

President Fernando Collor de Mello, who took office March 15 as Brazil’s first freely elected leader since l960, promised to give 500,000 families land by 1994. But he has not moved to fulfill the promise.

As Brazil’s economy crumbles under the weight of four-digit inflation and a $119 billion foreign debt, urban poor are flocking to the Amazon to try to forge a new life on the frontier.

That sets the scene for confrontation with large landowners. Ranchers with little fear of reprisal from a corrupt justice system hire ″pistol men″ for as little as $25 to kill peasants, or the Roman Catholic priests and other leaders who organize them.

Since 1980, more than 1,000 people have been killed in land disputes in Brazil, according to surveys by the Pastoral Commission for land.

In the first 11 months of this year, 60 people died - most of them poor farm hands - and 403 were injured in battles over land, the commission says.

Convictions were achieved in only two cases, the international human rights organization Amensty International says.

Satellite surveys show ranchers annually destroy an area the size of Louisiana in the Amazon, which constitutes one-third third of the world’s remaining rain forest.

Scientists say the chopping and burning of the Amazon is worsening the ″greenhouse effect″ and leading to a gradual warming of the earth’s temperature and changing weather patterns globally.

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