Case Study: Brazil, 1977–1988

IssueDecember 2019 - January 2020


GOALS: Establish extractive reserves. Better marketing and price guarantees for rubber. Better living conditions for rubber tappers. Better marketing policies and working conditions for those who harvest nuts. Industrialisation and marketing of other ignored forest products. Research on plants and resources of the Amazon.

GROWTH: 3 / 3

In the 1970s, ranchers from southern Brazil began to buy up huge tracts of land in the Amazon in order to clear them for cattle grazing.

Rubber tappers were forcibly evicted, cutting them off from their source of income.

In 1975, a trade union campaign was successfully organised in the municipality of Brasiléia. The secretary of the union was Chico Mendes, who later became the iconic figure of the movement.

Having undergone training sessions in grassroots organising, Mendes journeyed back to his hometown of Xapuri to establish a branch of the union there.

With the help of Marina Silva, Mendes successfully organised the Xapuri Rural Workers’ Union in 1977. In his speeches, Mendes drew a link between survival of the forest and survival of the rubber tappers.


The primary tactic of the campaign was the use of empates, or ‘stand-offs’. This involved groups of activists confronting labourers hired to clear the forests and convincing them to lay down their saws. Empates were overwhelmingly successful as many of the men hired to clear the forests had previously been rubber tappers.

This tactic often involved the destruction of the labourers’ camps and possessions, forcing them to return to their homesteads.

Participants in the empates were often beaten and arrested by military police. The campaigners met this treatment with nonviolence, such as singing hymns.

When imprisoned, the campaigners often exceeded the jail’s holding capacity and thus were soon released. As the campaign evolved, so did the empates, moving to encompass the entire rubber tapper community: men, women, and children. Women and children would move to the front of the group, discouraging the military police from shooting into the crowd.

In 1979, Mendes introduced a strategy to establish schools and co-operatives on the rubber estates. The schools were a huge success, but the attempt to establish co-operatives failed.

1980 marked the assassination of the president of the Brasiléia union, Wilson Pinheiro. This resulted in a shift in the axis of the movement from Brasiléia to Xapuri.

The next few years were marked by a series of empates and assassinations of union leaders. Then, in 1985, ranchers formed the Democratic Ruralist Union (UDR). The UDR hired large numbers of armed forces to combat the union movement and assassinated a number of union leaders.

Extractive reserves

1985 also marked the founding of the National Council of Rubber Tappers (CNS) by Mendes and other key union leaders. Later that year, Mendes organised the First National Rubber Tappers Congress. From this meeting emerged the proposal for ‘extractive reserves’, legally-protected forest areas held in trust for people who lived and worked in a sustainable manner.

In 1986, the Xapuri Rural Workers’ Union allied with the indigenous people of Brazil, who had also been historically discriminated against and overlooked.

This was particularly significant because the Indians and rubber tappers had traditionally been at odds with one another over forest resources.

In June 1986, Mendes organised a march of over 200 tappers on the federal forestry office of Xapuri. Upon arrival the group staged a sit-in but were quickly evicted by the police.

International recognition of Mendes with Ted Turner’s Better World Society Prize and the UN Global 500 Environmental Prize, both awarded to him in 1987, spread awareness of the campaign.


In October of 1988, following a renewed wave of empates, Mendes convinced the Brazilian government to declare a 61,000-acre tract of traditional rubber tapper territory to be off limits to logging.

This tract was declared the first-ever extractive reserve.

This victory for the union sparked a wave of assassinations of the movement’s leaders. The constant recipient of death threats, Mendes warned authorities for over a month of his impending assassination at the hands of the da Silva brothers, two local cattle ranchers.

These calls for protection were ignored. On 22 December 1988, Mendes was assassinated by Darli Alves da Silva.

Within the next decade, several of Mendes’ co-campaigners were elected to important government offices, creating a more receptive environment for legislation protecting the Amazon forests.

[As of 2018, there were 76 extractive reserves in Brazil covering 34 million acres, less than three percent of the Brazilian rainforest – ed.]