August 27, 1990 12:00 PM

by Alex Shoumatoff

The evening of Dec. 22, 1988, Francisco “Chico” Mendes was gunned down outside the back of his house in Xapuri, Brazil, a rubber-trading town in the steamy heart of the Amazon basin. The murder would surely have gone unnoticed but for the fact that Mendes, who helped organize Brazil’s first forest-workers’ union, had become a hero of the U.S. environmental community, which wined and dined him from Washington, D.C., to Miami.

Since 1977 Mendes’s Xapuri Rural Workers’ Union had regularly put themselves between the forest and the chain saws of wealthy cattle ranchers whose slash-and-burn policies were destroying up to 100 acres of the Amazon per minute. Mendes and his followers had already managed to drive two of Brazil’s biggest ranchers out of the state of Acre.

After Mendes’s death, the man most people suspected of being behind his murder was a rancher named Darly Alves da Silva, who lived on 10,000 acres in Xapuri with his wife, three mistresses, 30 children and a dozen or so hired pistoleiros. “We all knew it would happen,” a friend said of Mendes’s death. “He was like a steer that had strayed from the herd.”

No one expected an international furor over Mendes’s death. But the rain forest had become the ecological cause dujour; 1988 was the warmest year on record worldwide, and the words “global warming” were on everyone’s parched lips. Environmentalists, journalists and movie moguls swarmed over Xapuri.

Two years later we have the first large-scale literary results of that intense scrutiny. Environmental journalist Revkin’s The Burning Season (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95) is an impressively thorough account of Chico’s life—and his role in trying to preserve the Amazonian ecosystem and its estimated 15 million plant and animal species.

Revkin stresses that Mendes’s concern with the Amazon forests wasn’t future-oriented. “I’m not protecting the forest because I’m worried that in 20 years the world will be affected,” Mendes said once in frustration. “I’m worried about it because there are thousands of people living here who depend on the forest—and their lives are in danger every day.”

Shoumatoff’s The World Is Burning (Little, Brown. $19.95) is a more poetic, evocative account of Mendes’s murder (it calls him an ecomartyr) and of Brazilian society, a phantasmagoric setting where “so many things—cultural attitudes, even the continuously changing currency—conspire against the vision of a stable, fixed reality.”

Shoumatoff. author of three other books on Brazil, uses the case to study America’s reaction as well. (“The single greatest contributor of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is in fact the United States, but in the curious way such things happen, everyone became very concerned about the rain forest.”) He sketches frantic efforts by filmmakers Robert Redford, David Puttnam, Jon Peters and Peter Guber, Dino De Laurentiis. Ted Turner and William Shatner to gain rights to the story (Shoumatoff is consulting on Redford’s film): “Tappers who had never seen a movie before were treated to screenings of…The Mission and A World Apart, to The Color Purple, Batman, Rain Man and Gorillas in the Mist.”

In the end, both writers suggest that given the ranchers’ influence in Acre, it is doubtful whether Alves da Silva and his two sons, formally charged with Mendes’s murder, will ever come to trial. (Alves da Silva denies any involvement.)

“There was something about the image of this gentle, heroic man being killed in cold blood because he was trying to save the forest that was particularly saddening and outrageous,” says Shoumatoff. “It wasn’t, moreover, just any forest…. It was the Amazon…the holiest natural sanctuary on the planet. And this sanctuary had been violated; the man who had been guarding it had been cynically assassinated. The murder of Chico Mendes was far more than an ordinary murder. It was as if a high-ranking man of the cloth had been cut down. It was murder in the cathedral.”

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