March 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBER 3
L A B O R
Labor Rights and Ecology in the Rain Forest
by Samantha Sparks
When Fransico Mendes Filho was assassinated in the Brazilian Amazon last December, U.S. environmentalists responded with a barrage of protests. Mendes, leader of a local rubber tappers' union, had become a powerful symbol in the battle to halt destruction of the world's largest rainforest. What many of the eulogies for Mendes missed, however, was that his was first and foremost a trade union struggle--a fight to save jobs and protect workers' rights in the Amazon. Saving trees came second. "We became ecologists without even knowing the meaning of the word," Mendes told the New York Times last year.
"Chico Mendes didn't start as an environmentalist," said Stan Gacek, assistant director of international affairs for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). "He started as a trade unionist. But Chico Mendes, probably more than any other Brazilian unionist, linked the issues of labor and the environment."
The UFCW and Mendes' union are loosely linked through their affiliation to the International Federation of Plantation and Agricultural Workers. And the UFCW has maintained a "fraternal relationship" with Mendes' Rubber Tapper Union of Xapuri for several years, says Gacek. It was Mendes' union work that prompted the AFL-CIO and several U.S. unions including the UFCW, the International Longshoremans Union on the West Coast, the Carpenters Brotherhood, the International Union of Electricians and the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union to send telegrams demanding investigation of the Mendes killing.
Mendes had also garnered support from many quarters outside of organized labor. Republican senator Bob Kasten of Wisconsin, known for his anti-union track record in the United States, publicly mourned the death of the union leader. And the Environmental Defense Fund, a U.S. environmental organization, established a fund to continue the unionist's work. The EDF, however, did not appoint a single U.S. Iabor representative to the fund's board.
Although Mendes' death has attracted unprecedented attention, it was not the first of its kind. Last year alone, 95 rubber tappers were murdered, according to the church-based Pastoral Land Commission, says Gacek. During a recent trip to Washington, Raimundo de Barros, who replaced Mendes as president of the Xapuri union, said that he is, as Mendes was, on a death list. Since 1980, more than 1500 assassinations have taken place in rural areas; about one half of these occurred after 1985, when a civilian government replaced a 20 year military dictatorship. "In the rural sector, human rights have gotten worse" since the new government, pledging democracy, took power, says Gacek.
The reason for the killings is simple: rural workers have begun demanding their rights to land that cattle ranchers and other investors want for themselves. Mendes was shot, local sources charge, on the orders of Darly Alves, a cattle rancher in Acre, Mendes' home state. The cattle ranchers feared that Mendes and his union were beginning to gain control of forest land. His death was not unexpected: he had been under police protection for more than a year because of repeated death threats. Less than three weeks before his death, Mendes denounced the Acre State Police and cattle ranchers in a national newspaper for conspiring to kill him.
While local landowners want to clear the forest for cattle grazing, logging and land speculation, the rubber tappers union is fighting to keep it intact. Members' jobs depend upon the rainforest's survival. "It's very much a class issue," says Gacek. "You have a labor/capital struggle with the rubber tappers trying to preserve their livelihood. The ruling classes feel more threatened and are reacting more violently."
Mendes was one of about 500,000 rubber tappers remaining in Brazil. Most of them are descendants of migrants who came to the forest during the rubber boom of the late 1800s. The rubber tappers have never had it easy: from the very first they were cheated by avaricious landowners and middlemen who taxed them heavily for their use of the forest and bought their rubber at much lower prices than its market value.
Today, rubber tappers may appear to be a dwindling group plying an archaic trade but in fact, domestic rubber continues to play an important role in the Brazilian economy.
For over a century, Brazilian governments have recognized this role, but until recently government policies favored the land- owners who profited from the rubber tappers' work. A state monopoly guaranteed landowners a minimum rubber price, and imported rubber was taxed to make it cost as much. Over the past decade, however, national rubber policy has begun to strengthen the rubber tappers' hand. According to EDF anthropologist Steven Schwartzman, in 1980 the government began to encourage the rubber tappers to sell their product directly to industry, for higher prices than they could get from the middlemen.
Other recent developments have tipped the traditional balance of forces in the Amazon more abruptly. Most importantly, ownership of the forest has changed dramatically. As a result of a state government drive to attract investment and develop the region, land values shot up more than 1,000 percent during the 1970s. Most of the old land-owners sold their estates to wealthy investors from outside the Amazon states. The newcomers quickly realized that the rubber tappers and the forest stood between them and the faster and bigger profits they could earn by clearing the land and opening it up to cattle ranching.
What the new investors ignored, however, was a Brazilian law enabling anyone who occupies land for more than a year and makes improvements on it to lay claim to that land. Thus, the rubber tappers, as squatters of sorts, could claim legal rights to the land. When they demanded these rights, the bloody battles ensued. In a recent paper Schwartzman writes that, "tactics used to evict rubber tappers and clear land for sale included threats, violence, burning of houses and destruction of crops." The union movement which Mendes led since 1980 was born of the rubber tappers' resistance to these attacks.
By 1980, rubber tappers had organized unions in more than 60 percent of the municipalities in the state of Acre, and a state federation of unions was formed. There are now an estimated 30,000 union members in the state, of whom about 80 percent are rubber tappers.
In part because of a strategic alliance forged with U.S. environmentalists, rubber tapper unions in the Amazon have made impressive gains. Out of the spontaneous resistance to landowners' attempts to evict them some 20 years ago, the unions have developed a coherent strategy with a specific goal. They want substantial parts of the rainforest set aside as "extractive reserves"--places where the rural workers can continue to live and work by harvesting rubber and Brazil nuts without destroying the forest.
The rubber tappers have received support from U.S. environmentalists and, increasingly, development institutions like the World Bank, because their call for extractive reserves makes long-term economic sense. Their plan preserves the resources of the forest instead of exploiting them for short-term profits.
At the urging of the rubber tappers unions, 12 extractive reserves, totalling more than five million acres, in five Amazon states are being created, according to EDF. "The immediate goal of the rubber tappers is to set up reserves," notes Gacek. "But like all unionists, they have wider concerns, such as their rights as salaried workers, and rights for those who are small- scale land-owners."
Despite their gains, the future of the rubber tappers' work appears uncertain at best, and it is likely that more people will die in the fight to protect worker rights in the Amazon. Meanwhile, recent reports from Xapuri indicate that the investigation into Mendes' death is proceeding very slowly.