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Rubber Tappers, Environmentalists Celebrate Conviction in Mendes Killing

December 17, 1990

XAPURI, Brazil (AP) _ The convictions and 19-year prison sentences handed down for the murder of environmentalist Chico Mendes are an important victory in the fight to preserve the dwindling Amazon forest, rubber tappers say.

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

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

Prosecutors had said the ranchers had ″stained the forest″ with Mendes’ blood and urged the maximum 30-year sentence. Brazil has no death penalty.

″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.

Defense attorney Ruben Torres said his clients would appeal.

Mendes, leader of the rubber tappers’ union, became internationally known in his fight against ranchers, who sought to expand their pastures by cutting down the rain forest. The rubber tappers gather latex from forest trees.

He 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 also drew world attention to a centuries-old battle over land in Brazil that has left thousands of people dead. Only too often, the perpetrators have gone unpunished.

″(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 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.

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, urban poor are flocking to the Amazon to try to forge a new life on the frontier.

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.

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