January 15, 1990 12:00 PM

A year ago last December, Chico Mendes was getting ready for a party on his 44th birthday. But standing with his wife, Ilzamar, in their shack in the town of Xapuri, deep in the Brazilian Amazon, Mendes was far from festive. “He took me in his arms,” Ilza recalls, “held me very close and said, ‘This will probably be my last birthday with you.’ ” When she began crying, Ilzamar says, “He hugged me tighter.”

They both knew his pessimism was not paranoia. As an activist dedicated to preserving both the livelihood of simple rubber tappers and the natural splendor of his beloved rain forest, Mendes had earned the hatred of local ranchers and developers bent on exploiting the vast jungle wilderness. Seven months earlier he had received an anonymous threat In Brazil it is known as an anúncio—formal notification that a victim has been marked by thugs for execution.

For Chico, this dire prophecy came true all too soon. A week after his birthday, he was relaxing one hot evening at his house, playing dominoes with two police bodyguards who had recently been assigned to protect him. Excusing himself from the game, he went for a shower before dinner. He draped a rainbow-patterned bath towel over his shoulder, walked through the kitchen to the back door and shone a flashlight into the dark toward the cinder-block outhouse. Suddenly a shotgun blast rattled the house. Mendes staggered backward, gasping, “Puxa vida! [Damn it!] They got me!” He fell dead, his right breast and shoulder riddled with pellet holes. From the outside gloom, Ilza heard only the thrashing of the killers as they fled through the thicket

In one sense there was nothing unusual about the murder of Chico Mendes. During the past 10 years, enforcers allegedly hired by landowners and cattle ranchers have gunned down more than 1,000 Brazilian laborers, clergymen and politicians who dared to oppose development in the Amazon, the earth’s largest and most abundant storehouse of natural life. Yet Mendes’s murder provoked international outrage. That was partly because Mendes had become famous for his efforts to save the rain forest. At a deeper level, though, the reaction seemed to suggest the yearning for a martyr to reflect the world’s increasing preoccupation with the environment More recently the killing has touched off controversy over more mundane concerns—the film rights to Chico’s life. And it has forced Ilza, 26, a retiring, down-to-earth woman, to take, on the mantle of her husband, the hero.

As even his enemies might grudgingly concede, Chico Mendes was a remarkable man. He was the oldest of eight children born near Xapuri, which lies nearly 2,000 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro, to illiterate rubber tappers, whose job consists of gouging inverted V-shaped marks in rubber trees and collecting the latex that oozes out. By the age of 8, Chico was already working the trails of his family’s small grove. At 18, he began learning to read and write from a Marxist ex-army officer who had taken refuge in the forest.

With education came the conviction that the tappers could only improve their lot by organizing into a union, a goal that became all the more urgent after Brazil started opening up the Amazon to development in the 1970s. Lured by tax breaks and cheap loans, ranchers began acquiring huge tracts of property, often through bribery, and then clearing away much of the jungle in order to use the land for grazing their herds. Over the past 20 years, the onslaught has claimed some 230,000 square miles of Amazon rain forest—an area larger than California and Florida combined—threatening the fragile tropical ecosystem and displacing the tappers.

In response, Chico formed Xapuri’s first Rural Workers Union. Aside from raising money to build schools and medical clinics, his main achievement was in pioneering the use of nonviolent tactics to block deforestation. When men with bulldozers and chain saws threatened a tract of land, Chico would round up all the rubber tappers’ families he could, sometimes as many as 300 of them, who would form a human barrier against the work crews. All told, his peaceful blockades saved an estimated 3 million acres from destruction. He also promoted the idea that large sections of the rain forest should be permanently set aside as rubber-tapping preserves.

It wasn’t long before his notoriety—and influence—spread far beyond the rugged outback and into the world’s financial centers, the source of the money that fueled deforestation. In 1987 Chico flew to Miami to address the directors of the Inter-American Development Bank; his impassioned plea persuaded the officials to halt funding for a highway then being cut through the rain forest. That same year, Chico won the Environmental Award from the Washington, D.C.-based Better World Society, and he received the 1988 National Wildlife Federation’s National Conservation Achievement Award. Eventually even the Brazilian government fell into line, agreeing in 1988 to designate 5 million acres for permanent preservation. Despite the relatively small amount of land involved, the move was viewed as an important symbolic step.

Like Gandhi, Chico drew his effectiveness from his moral authority. He showed himself willing to make any sacrifice for his ideals, giving to the cause virtually all the money he received. At times his socialist ideology seemed to tip over into zealotry—he named his daughter, Elenira, now 5, after an Uruguayan guerrilla leader, and his son, Sandino, 3, after the legendary Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto Sandino—but his incorruptibility was his followers’ inspiration. “Chico had no personal ambition,” says Julio Nicacio, an old friend who is now one of Ilza’s closest advisers. “He didn’t think about himself at all. He could have been rich. Farmers were always trying to buy him off. But he turned his back on all of them.” Ilza says she begged him to flee Xapuri once he had received the anúncio, but he refused. “He said he couldn’t, that if he left, he’d be a coward,” she recalls. “He said he would probably die, but he would die as a man.”

In the end, it was that courage and thorny integrity that probably got him killed. From the start the police suspected the Alves clan, a prominent Xapuri ranching family, of being involved in the murder. Several months before, Chico and 200 supporters had prevented Darli Alves from clearing 300 acres of forest. After the shooting, authorities went looking for the 60ish Darli and his 21-year-old son, Darci. Within a few weeks, both had surrendered, and Darci even confessed to the crime. Their willingness to come forward may have stemmed from confidence that they would never be punished. Under Xapuri’s wild-West system of frontier justice, no murderer has faced a jury trial in 23 years, a precedent that seemed unlikely to be broken given the Alveses’ political and financial clout. Indeed, when Darci later recanted his confession, the case was handed over to the state tribunal of justice in Rio Branco for review, raising the possibility that all charges might be dismissed.

Meanwhile the apparent moral clarity of Mendes’s story had caught the attention of Hollywood. Within weeks of his death, a number of studios and producers, including Warner’s, Columbia and Robert Redford’s Wildwood Enterprises, were inquiring about movie rights. None moved faster than José Padilha, a retired Rio real-estate broker who had recently bought a half interest in a Brazilian production company called J.N. Filmes.

Although Padilha had never made a movie, he brought to the enterprise a speculator’s keen eye for salable property. Rushing to Xapuri, he approached Ilza with an offer to act as her middleman. There was no doubt that she needed one. Living in the Amazon, she knew a thing or two about piranhas, but nothing could have prepared her for the feeding frenzy over the film rights to Chico’s life. Unfazed by the competition, Padilha kept up his pursuit and slowly began making headway. “I said to her, ‘Why not sell to a Brazilian company and make them answerable to you?’ ” he recalls. He promised Ilza that he would protect Chico’s image and that he would be able to broker a lucrative deal with an international film company. Last April, Ilza signed with J.N. for $1.3 million plus 25 percent of the royalties from a book to be written on Chico, and her choice of 10 percent of the worldwide movie profits or 100 percent of the Brazilian profits.

To her credit, Ilza did not try to keep the windfall for herself. She stipulated that 70 percent of the money would go to the Chico Mendes Foundation, an organization set up to continue his work, with most of the remaining funds earmarked for her children and Chico’s four brothers. Even so, there was grumbling. Several of Chico’s political and environmental allies thought they had an agreement with Ilza that the decision on movie rights would be made collectively. Also, some activists privately complained that Ilza was far more involved with Chico’s life and work after his death than she had been when he was alive.

Ilza doesn’t dispute that assessment but points out that she hadn’t much choice. The daughter of rubber tappers who lived near Xapuri, Ilza first met Mendes when she was 9. Chico, then working as an itinerant tapper and teacher, had stopped in her village, where he taught her to read the alphabet and sign her name. But when his union called, he left for the city of Brasiléia to serve as president of the Rural Workers’ local. Six years and a brief marriage later, he returned to Ilza’s hamlet, this time becoming her lover. What captivated Ilza was Chico’s gentle nature and respect for the land. “I never saw him cut down a single tree,” she says. (Shortly before his murder, Chico wrote to a friend, “I wish no flowers after I die, for I know they would be taken from the forest.”)

Like most people obsessed with a cause, Chico wasn’t always easy to live with. His union work kept him away from home most of the time, and the family had barely enough money to get by. They were so poor that Chico would sometimes have to gather Brazil nuts in the forest and sell them to raise a little cash. “For seven years, we had no home of our own,” says Ilza. “We stayed with relatives and friends, moving from house to house.” She says it pained Chico to see his family destitute, but that he never considered giving up his work, leaving her no choice but to devote all her attention to rearing the children and presiding over the household. “Chico never should have had a family,” says Ilza without rancor. “He had only one concern—the struggle for the workers. He used to say that although he’d like to give his family more, his heart was with the seringueiros—the rubber tappers.”

Signing the deal with Padilha didn’t mean the end of Ilza’s involvement in the struggle over the rights to Chico. She had retained final approval in the selection of an international production company that would actually make the movie. Last summer, Padilha had winnowed the field from 15 to five contenders, who then came to Brazil to court Ilza. Among those vying was Hollywood heavyweight Peter Guber. Playing his hand shrewdly, Guber supplied Ilza with a VCR and a selection of tapes featuring blockbuster hits like Batman, Rain Man and Gorillas in the Mist, all of which he had produced with partner Jon Peters. “I loved them,” she recalls, “especially Gorillas in the Mist.” She gladly gave her backing to Guber-Peters, who agreed to pay J.N. $1 million for the story rights, plus $800,000 and a percentage of the profits to serve as associate producers on the project. (Last week saw Guber-Peters negotiating with Warner’s, who likely will take over the project, with filming to begin in Brazil next summer.)

If she hoped that cutting the final deal would put controversy behind her, however, Ilza was mistaken. Realizing that they hadn’t been given a slice of the pie, some of Chico’s supporters suddenly accused Ilza of betrayal. “This was not a decision of the movement,” said a spokeswoman for the country’s National Council of Rubber Tappers. “Our idea was that she would discuss with Mendes’s companions the proposals for the film and we would decide together which would be the best one. But she didn’t respect this.” Their complaint seemed to be not that Ilza was taking too much money, but that she was grabbing too much power. The dispute has left the movement divided and Ilza unhappy. “If Chico were alive, this bickering wouldn’t be happening,” she says. “With just a few words, he was always able to resolve differences and bring people together.”

As it happens, the deal with Guber-Peters does not preclude the possibility of other films, over which Ilza may have no control. Author Alex Shoumatoff, who wrote a piece on Chico for Vanity Fair magazine, has sold the rights to the article to Twentieth Century Fox for Redford’s Wildwood production company, for a film that may be directed by Steven Spielberg. (In a bit of casting that may not displease Ilza, the stunning Brazilian actress Sonia Braga, who has been romantically linked with Redford, was rumored to be under consideration to play her.)

From a material standpoint, Ilza’s life has changed in the past year, but not drastically. She still dresses in the same modest fashion and keeps company with the same friends. She bought a small three-bedroom house just three doors down from the shack she shared with Chico. Ilza used some of the movie money to buy a green Ford minipickup and, after a few driving lessons, she now zips around Xapuri with the horn-honking abandon of a veteran cab driver. She also refurbished a storefront in Xapuri, which she opened as a restaurant called Floresta (the Forest). “With money I can live in a better, safer house,” she says. “I can have food every day. But the rest of the money is not for me. It’s for the future of Elenira and Sandino, so they can learn about the struggle and be like Chico. I don’t want them to be spoiled. I want them to know what it means to be a worker.”

She herself is just finding out what it means to be an environmental and union activist. The process began, she says, the moment of her husband’s murder. “When I saw him dead on the ground,” she recalls, “I said to my heart, ‘I’m going to enter the struggle. It’s my answer to everybody, including the ones who killed Chico.’ ” The transformation hasn’t been easy. One of her first duties as a martyr’s widow was to travel to Washington, D.C., to pick up Chico’s award from the National Wildlife Federation, a journey both harrowing and exhilarating. “I had never been on an airplane, an elevator or an escalator,” she says. “It was difficult for me. I had never given an interview. Then, at one time, there were eight journalists at my door.”

Recognizing her own inexperience, Ilza has not laid claim to the leadership of Chico’s movement. Instead she simply preaches his gospel, occasionally braving crowds to participate in demonstrations “Month by month you can see her growing,” says a friend. “She’s stronger, more articulate, more mature. It’s ironic that Chico’s death was, in a sense, Ilzamar’s birth.” Yet that passing of the torch may well have made her a target. Ilza says she has seen several dubious characters hanging out around her house, apparently in an effort to intimidate her. “Anybody who becomes involved in defending the forest will become endangered by the landowners,” she says. “But I’m not going to stop. I’m sure I’m already on their list, but I’m not afraid.”

Thus, on an oppressively hot November morning, Ilza, dressed in black, clambered onto the open bed of a rubber-hauling truck. She and more than 60 other activists were heading for the town of Rio Branco, 116 miles away, to attend the tribunal that would determine whether Darli and Darci Alves must stand trial for Chico’s murder. After a 6½-hour hearing, the judges voted 2 to 1 to charge the suspects, whose trial could begin in Xapuri this year, pending the outcome of another appeal. It was just after 11 P.M. when Ilza rode the flow of elated spectators out of the courtroom and into the night air. Bathed in the glow of television lights, she raised both fists in triumph, a wide smile eclipsing the dark circles under her eyes. Her words were brief, but hopeful. “I’m beginning to believe,” she declared.

—Bill Hewitt, Jack Kelley in Xapuri

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