By Elizabeth P. Valk/Publisher
Updated January 15, 1990 12:00 PM

The trip to Xapuri (pronounced shapu-REE), if you start in Los Angeles, is a 21-hour haul—flights to Miami, Rio de Janeiro and Rio Branco for the final 116-mile leg aboard a single-engine Piper that skitters above the treetops of the dense Brazilian rain forest. “It’s like a sea, and the clearings are little islands,” says L.A.-based correspondent Jack Kelley, who made the trip last November. “You can sec the forest breathing wisps of steam.”

Kelley’s mission was to interview Ilzamar Mendes, widow of Chico Mendes, the Brazilian rubber tapper and activist who was gunned down in December 1988 in the midst of a crusade to preserve his beloved rain forest and way of life. In the year since his murder, Mendes has become a symbol of the struggle, and Ilzamar, 26, has taken up his fight. She recently sold the film rights to her husband’s story.

With the help of a friend of Ilzamar’s who served as translator and guide, Kelley and photographer John Maier brought back the inspiring and alarming story that begins on page 28. Surrounded by the natural beauty of the Amazon and the warm, open ways of the people, Kelley was struck by the brutality Mendes encountered. “When you see the peaceful village, you can’t imagine that this violence could happen under the surface.”

Kelley’s adventure wasn’t the first he has had in pursuit of a story. In 1987 he crossed the Bering Strait in a walrus-skin boat when Lynne Cox swam from Alaska to Siberia; in 1988 he trekked with llamas and gourmet backpackers in the Cascade Mountains. Kelley has skied with former world champion Stein Eriksen and been knocked down by prizefighter Randall Cobb. “I asked him what it felt like to get hit by a heavyweight. He showed me,” says Kelley.

A native of Quincy, Mass., Kelley, 45, graduated from Boston College in 1966 and began his journalism career with a two-year stint at Army in Europe magazine as a lieutenant stationed in Heidelberg. Stateside, he reported for the Boston Herald from 1969 to 1971 and free-lanced for years, joining PEOPLE in 1984. His wife, Carrie, is operations manager of a chain of dress shops.

For Kelley, meeting Ilzamar put a global problem on a personal level: “Complex issues sometimes turn on the simplest human choices.”