The shotgun blast that tore through the chest of Chico Mendes made the Brazilian rubber tapper an environmental icon and his fight to save the Amazon a global crusade.
But the battle against clear-cutting in remote jungles hasn’t gotten any safer in the 20 years since two gunmen hid in Mendes’ backyard and patiently awaited their target.
More than 1,100 activists, small farmers, judges, priests and other rural workers have been killed in disputes over preserving land since Mendes’ murder, according to the Catholic Land Pastoral, a watchdog group known as CPT.
Of those killings, fewer than 100 cases have gone to court. About 80 of the convicted were merely hired guns for powerful ranchers and loggers seeking to remove obstacles to expanding their lands, according to federal prosecutors and the CPT, founded by the Catholic church to fight violence and unequal land distribution.
About 15 of the masterminds were found guilty, but none is serving a sentence today.
“In the Amazon, deep in the forest, far away from the state, cities and institutions, you don’t have anything,” said Andre Muggiati, an Amazon campaigner for Greenpeace, who is based in the jungle city of Manaus. “Sometimes all you have is the power of a gun.”
Mendes, who died on Dec. 22, 1988, was not the first rain forest defender murdered. But in death, he became the most famous.
He first organized a union to stop the destruction of rubber trees near his home in Xapuri, deep in jungle state of Acre.
His crusade then expanded to Amazon preservation, working with environmental groups and then his own government to create reserves where people could make a living from the forest without destroying it.
His death made front-page news around the world.
Local rancher Darly Alves da Silva and his son, Darci, who pulled the trigger, were sentenced to prison for killing Mendes. They are now free after serving a third of their 19-year sentences.
The lawlessness continues, activists say, illustrated in the 2005 murder of Catholic nun Dorothy Stang, native killed while fighting to protect land in Para state.
The gunman in her case is in prison. But the ranchers accused of ordering the act are free.
The conflict between developing and preserving the vast rain forest is constant as Brazil struggles to balance the health of the planet with its need to raise millions of its own people from poverty.
But the standoffs between environmentalists and farmers or loggers seeking to illegally clear land are very local affairs, and attempts to mete out justice get tangled in bureaucratic detail.
Felicio Pontes, a federal prosecutor in Para state for 12 years, noted that Brazil’s legal system lets defendants appeal cases five times. Trials are delayed for years. Witnesses die. Evidence is lost.
Those convicted or suspected in the killings say they are acts of self-defense as the activists foment or engage in violence. Stang was accused of arms trafficking by her opponents.
Under local conspiracy theories, nonprofit Amazon groups are fronts for foreign nations that want to invade the region.
Loggers and farmers also say the issue of violence in the region is overblown.
Elenira Mendes, Chico’s daughter, was just four years old when she watched her father bleed to death in the family’s home. She says the global attention devoted to his killing resulted in concrete changes in Acre state, which now registers the lowest rate of activist killings in Amazonia, CPT said.