As the Brazilian “miracle” began to lose ground in the early 1970s, the generals looked to large-scale capitalist development projects in the Amazon as their salvation. These massive projects created the greatest or potentially greatest ecological damage. Several huge dams flooded millions of acres of forest.
Mining polluted the waters, and deforestation destroyed the ecological balance of the forest, creating fires that added carbon to the atmosphere and increasing the greenhouse effect. These projects emphasized the maximum extraction of profit from the forest without any concern for the people or the ecological damage. For example, one of the proposed projects was to create the world’s larges rice plantation: another involved the manufacture of wood pulp on a massive scale. A charcoal project would have required 1,680,000 acres of eucalyptus plantations. Public colonization for the small farmer gave way to corporate colonization for the rich.
At present, farmers in the Amazon struggle to ship their crops to market. This is one of the key factors limiting deforestation. But the government wants to complete a 1,000 mile road which is cutting straight through the Amazon. As one driver states; "you will be able to get everything out so the rainforest will be totally destroyed".
The Continuing Drama
The forest people are struggling today to stop many of these projects. In 1980, the military dictatorship of Ernesto Geisel was under attack. The “miracle” was not happening. The standard of living of the average person had fallen, while inflation was rampant and the value of the Brazilian currency had declined rapidly. Brazil’s debt soared, and the “miracle” still needed billions in foreign capital to fuel its huge projects. The dictatorship was followed by a return to democracy, but the struggle for the Amazon rainforest is still being waged.
See Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn, The Fate of the Forest: Developers,
Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon
Amazon, 1990: Chico’s Legacy
The government of Brazil founds four large extractive reserves. Taken together they are the size of the state of Massachusetts. One of them is called the Chico Mendes Reserve.
But resistance and defiance, on the one hand, and final victory, on the other, are two different things. Unfortunately, the destruction is escalating. The increase can be traced to 1964 when a military coup installed a dictatorship that promised to provide a “capitalist miracle” for Brazil. With advice from the staunchest capitalists in the United States and internationally, the military generals embarked on a campaign to make the rainforest profitable.
First, the generals destroyed the peasant leagues and outlawed all strikes. To please foreigners, they passed laws that required minimum wages for workers and health benefits, but these laws were never enforced. In order to keep meat and food prices down while continuing major exports of beef, the generals opened the Amazon to “development.” Called Operation Amazon, the program gave tax breaks and investment credits to investors. The onslaught of fortune seekers drove the indigenous off the land they had held for centuries, bulldozed forests, and burned the valuable Brazil nut trees. Guns, threats, and the ever-present legal document led the charge.
Twenty thousand Brazilian soldiers trained in counter-insurgency warfare wiped out the communist guerrillas, who mobilized to stop the destruction. The generals developed a new slogan: “A land without men for men without land.” The themes and ideologies of the first invasion were being repeated. The idea that the land was vacant and that the indigenous were not human gave the invasion its moral right to proceed without concern for the fate of the people or of nature.
Settlers flooded in, some buying the land, others grabbing it through fraud or intimidation. The small settlers eventually failed because the larger economic forces of capitalism favored the large landowners who snapped up the land of the fails small farmers. In a third of the case, the large landowners use threats and violence to run the small farmers off.
Acre, Brazil, 1988: Chico, the Man
Chico Mendes has cut rubber full-time for twenty-eight years. Since 1980 he has been full-time head of the union of rubber tappers. He still spends hours playing with his two children, Sandino, named after the Nicaraguan hero, and Elenira, named after a Brazilian guerrilla leader.
I became an ecologist long before I ever heard the word. The tappers take from the forest what can be replenished. They know that the forest is their partner, their sustenance. Devour it and the source of life is gone. Take what is given and there will be more tomorrow.
The tappers love him. The middlemen and plantation owners hate him. Chico hates violence. He pleads against it. I don’t believe in bodies. The tappers say, he never [gets] mad at anybody… he never [gets] a thing for himself. He has a magnetic presence and a real way with words.
Alex Shoumatoff, The World Is Burning, 8,23,28,29
New York, 1988: Fire
The headlines of the New York Times scream out a warning
Vast Amazon Fires, Man-made, Linked to Global Warming
Satellite studies of Amazon fires in 1987 finally make the international news a year later. The mathematics of destruction are almost inconceivable:
Eight thousand fires per day in the Amazon;
Two hundred thousand square kilometers of forest burned;
The fires may account for one-tenth of all man-made carbon dioxide (five hundred million tons), the cause of the greenhouse effect and global warming;
Smoke clouds rising to twelve thousand feet
Marlise Simons, the Times reporter, writes: From the flames, tons of fumes and particles are hurled into the sky… and at night the forest looks to be at war.
Alex Shoumatoff, The World Is Burning, 127-128
Chicago, 1988: Indigenous Fight Back
Paulinho Paiakan is a Kayapo militant who speaks before the World Bank and international audiences to stop the destruction of the forest, to stop the building of dams, and to gain recognition for the rights of the indigenous. At the University of Chicago he says:
The forest is one big thing; it has people, animals and plants. There is no point in saving the animals if the forest is burned down; there is no point in saving the forest if the people and the animals who live in it are killed or driven away. The groups trying to save the races of animals cannot win if the people trying to save the forest lose; the people trying to save the Indians cannot win without the help of the Indians, who know the forest and the animals and can tell what is happening to them. No one is strong enough to win alone; together we can be strong enough to win.
Alex Shoumatoff, The World Is Burning, 220
Xapuri, 1988: Chronicle of a Death Foretold
On the night of May 24, Chico receives an anonymous call telling him that he will not live out the year. He is now anunciado. The anuncio is a peculiar form of Brazilian torture in which a killer derives a certain pleasure in telling the victim that he or she will die, and then watching the psychological pain as the victim wonders when and where.
Chico has already survived five assassination attempts. The first was just after the head of the tappers’ union, Wilson Pinheiro, was gunned down on the porch of the union hall. Knowing he is next, Chico hides for ninety days, sleeping in a different place every night.
With this latest phone call, everyone knows who is out to kill him. Darli Alves is the owner of the land that he planned to clear. An empate organized by Chico just a month before stopped that clearning and made the land an extractive reserve. From then on Darli has gone around publicly telling people he is going to kill Chico.
Chico’s friends go to the police. The police do nothing. All efforts to arrest Darli or protect Chico are blocked by the authorities.
We all knew it would happen around Christmas time, says one of his friends later. His friends and co-workers try to convince him to go to Sao Paulo for the holidays. Chico wants to stay with his family in Xapuri for Christmas. Like all great leaders he resists giving in to fear. Give in to it once and soon it dominates and defines your life. Alter your plans this week and soon the whole direction of your life is changed forever—led more by fear than hope and justice. The great ones keep their eyes on the prize. But he is no martyr: Public gestures and a well-attended funeral will not save Amazonia. I want to live.
On December 18, Chico tells his brother, The situation is ugly. The circle is closing. On December 22, Chico returns from an organizing trip. Late in the afternoon he visits a mother whose son was almost killed by a bus. He sits with her at the kitchen table consoling her. He returns home and by 6:00p.m. it is dark. He throws a towel over his shoulder to go out in back to the outhouse. He opens the back door; it’s so dark he sees nothing. As he steps out the door an explosion rocks the house. Chico staggers back into the kitchen, his chest and right shoulder filled with buckshot. Careening from the table to the wall to his bedroom, he finally collapse face up on the floor. His wife Ilza runs in. He clings to life a few more seconds, his eyes peaceful. Damn, they got me. And then he is gone. His blood, his red fingerprints cover the table, the plates, the wall.
His life, an now his death, spread like an empate throughout the world, creating an international standoff that slows and at times stops the destruction of the forest he loved so much.
A fire as big as the state of Rhode Island rages out of control. The A.G. Ranch, a subsidiary of the King Ranch of Texas, is clearing more land, The fire is so intense that it creates its own thunder, lightning, and mini-tornadoes. A land rush of poor migrants looking for survival outside the poverty-stricken cities clears more and more land until much of the area is like a wasteland.
Without the forest the tappers cannot make a living and the indigenous cannot live. Without land the small farmers cannot survive. The large plantation owners live off the misery of all of those groups. The only hope for the tappers and indigenous is to organize.
Seringal Santa Fe, 1976: Empate
Wilson Pinheiro, head of the rubber tappers’ union, creates a new tactic in the struggle to save the forest from being cleared and burned. The tappers learn about a clearing taking place on the plantation of Jorge Haracio. Forty tappers, all unarmed, stand in the way of the bulldozers. The workers doing the clearing, many of them as poor at the tappers, stop. It is an empate, a standoff.
In the next five years they organize forty-five empates. Chico Mendes adds another element, bringing women and children too to stand in front of the bulldozers and chain saws. When they hear of a part of the forest that is being cleared, they round up everyone and form a wall on the edge of the land. Even the pistoleiros, the hired guns, do not dare shoot. In all of the empates four hundred are arrested, a few are illed, some are tortured, but they succeed in saving three million hectares of forest from being destroyed. Chico says, thirty of our blockades failed and fifteen worked, but it was worth it.
Alex Shoumatof, The World Is Burning, 67
The Amazon, 1980: The Historical Actors
Four distinct groups living in the rainforest at the present time are the main actors in this historical drama.
Indigenous: two hundred thousand are defending their land, culture, and lives.
Garimpeiros: three to five hundred thousand miners, often portrayed as the villains, murdering the indigenous, polluting the rivers and lands. They are in turn victimized by the Brazilian economy and practices of the development “miracle” that made it impossible for them to make a living as farmers or in the crowded cities.
Extractors: two million—while keeping the forests intact they harvest nuts, rubber, resins, palm products, and medicines. The forest that they depend upon and they themselves are under attack. As gatherers, they have been the base of the Amazon economy for five centuries.
Settlers: two to three million drawn by government promises of land and loans. Some are adventurers, others simply trying to survive. They are refugees from the general economic devastation of Brazil.
See Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn, The Fate of the Forest: Developers,
As the 1990s began, the FMLN gained control of much of the countryside and showed their ability to carry out an effective armed struggle in the capital itself. In 1991, the United Nations began mediating negotiations between the Salvadoran government and the guerrilla forces. Guerrilla demands included a purging of the armed forces of those guilty of human rights violations and the integration of FMLN militants into either the armed forces or the police.
San Salvador, 1991: The Struggle Continues
The united people have not been defeated. The guerrilla army has fought the Salvadoran military to a standstill. Even though the Salvadoran military has received over four billion dollars in U.S. military and economic aid in the past decade, the FMLN and the popular organizations have something more important—the people.
More than seventy thousand civilians have been killed, the vast majority by government forces and right-wing death squads. The cost has been incredible, but the determination to continue the struggle is even more incredible. Liberated zones are everywhere.
El Salvador is awash in violence. Fifteen years after the end of a bloody civil war, the small Central American country has become notorious for its vicious street gangs, or maras, as they are called. Among the worst are the Mara 13 and Mara 18 which sell drugs, extort protection money and fight relentlessly for territory.
In Santa Anna, EL Salvador's second largest city, gang members are always on the lookout for new recruits. They pressure youth, many as young as 10, to participate in criminal activities and prove their worth as foot soldiers - or face the consequences.
Fear and economic pressures force many to become part of the gang life, setting them on a violent course that too often ends in jail time for capital crimes or tragic death.But an innovative organisation in Santa Ana, Barefoot Angels, has been battling for more than 10 years to shelter kids from violence and away from gang life.
Barefoot Angels staff run great risks, along with the children they help, and have witnessed dramatic results. Producers Steve Baum and Adam Raney documented Barefoot Angels' daily struggle for the hearts and souls of EL Salvador's youth.
Decapitated bodies lie in the streets every morning. Heads are found on poles along country roads. A business will one day develop selling heads at exorbitant prices to grieving families who want to unite the bodies of their loved ones for burial. Ten bodies a day appear as mothers gather with their small pictures of their sons or daughters outside the morgue.
Oscar Romero had been the oligarchy’s choice for archbishop three years ago. But he has had a conversion. The murder of his friend Rotilio Grande started it, but the people completed it. He sees into the humble lives of his flock and has gained courage to speak out. He writes a letter to President Carter: If you truly want to defend human rights… [then] guarantee that your government will not intervene directly or indirectly, with military, economic, diplomatic, or other pressure determining the Salvadoran people’s destiny.
And now as he stands in the Cathedral he addresses the army directly:
Brothers: you are part of our own people… God’s law must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God… It is itime to take back your consciences… In the name of God, and in the name of the suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!
Five times the applause of the people who love him so dearly interrupt him. He has to shout the last sentence as the cheering of the people lifts his words to heaven.
James Brockman, Romero: A life, 241-42
San Salvador, 1980: The Shepherd Murdered
It is March 24 and Romero is tired. So many are depending upon him for strength. Some try to dissuade him from saying the Mass at the hospital because it was publicized in the newspapers and there have been threats against his life. He has refused bodyguards because he says the people can’t have them. He wants to share the fate of the campesinos.
He begins Mass and reads from the Gospel: Unless the grai of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies it bears much fruit… He takes the body and blood of Christ and begins to pry. A bullet from a gun with a silencer pierces his chest. Blood pours from his mouth and nose. Some of the people rush up. They carry him to a hospital where he dies without regaining consciousness.
On a much earlier occasion he said, If I die, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.
James Brockman, Romero: A life, 244-45
Snipers from the National Army fire from the top of buildings during Romero's funeral in 1980 in the central San Salvador park.
San Jose, Costa Rica, 1980: Last Resort
It is May and on the stage of the theater stands the whole spectrum of Salvadoran society. On one end is Enrique Alvarez, a member of one of the fourteen families, now president of the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR). Rejecting his wealth and family breeding, he has joined the people’s struggle. On the other end is Juan Chacon, leader of El Bloque. A field hand and factory worker, Juan remembers his father, killed and dismembered by the National Guard for being a Delegate of the Word in the church. Alvarez announces to the crowd:
The Salvadoran people have had to take up arms to end the conditions we have been subjected to for the last fifty years—by military governments, by the oligarchy and U.S. imperialism. The people have risen in arms to say “Enough” and to take power the only way they leave us, they way of armed struggle.
The name of this new guerrilla army, a coalition of various forces, is the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN). Another name of a fallen hero takes its place in the continuing resistance of the people.
Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk, El Salvador: The Face of Revolution, 168
San Salvador, 1980: Adelante
Characterization of Maximiliano Hernadez Martinez
Members of the FDR and opposition groups decide to return to El Salvador. They are meeting at the Jesuit High School to plan a press conference. Two hundred police surround the building. Men in plain clothes and guns kidnap the five FDR leaders. It is the work of the Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez Brigade, named after the general of the matanza. Recently, they decapitated four young men, leaving their bodies on the Avenida Espana with a note: Long live El Salador! Long live the massacre of 1932!
Five bodies are found on the shores of Lake Llopango. Enrique Alvarez’s left arm is missing, Juan Chacon’s face is mutilated, his left fist clenched in defiance above his head as if to encode in his body in death, the very essence of his life: Adelante! Forward!
Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk, El Salvador: The Face of Revolution, 28-30
This music video describes the pain of war during the Duarte regime. Music provided by Midnight Oil, "Beds are Burning."
The repression was particularly acute in El Salvador. During the 1970s Father Rotilio Grande organized peasants in Aquilares and trained campesinos as Delegates of the Word, leaders of liturgical services.
The emphasis among these leaders was one of serve and collective leadership. At the same time, popular organizations were organizing throughout El Salvador. In 1977 the conflict came to a head. Security forces murdered Father Rotilio Grande and arrested, tortured, and expelled priests. A right-wing terrorist organization threatened to kill every Jesuit in the country. That was also the year that Oscar Romero was named archbishop of El Salvador.
The sealing of elections was common in El Salvador, so the vast majority of people had no hope in an electoral system filled with fraud. The popular organizations and then the guerrilla groups were the only hope most of the people had for fundamental change in El Salvador. The popular organizations were composed of peasants, workers, teachers, and students who were engaging in nonviolent actions to bring about change. These actions included demonstrations, land occupations, and strikes. The government responded with greater and greater violence and repression.
In 1980 the repression reached another height when Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while saying mass and four North American church women were raped and murdered on their way from the airport. In all, ten thousand civilians were murdered that year, the vast majority by right-wing death squads and government security forces.
Since then, seventy thousand civilians have been killed in El Salvador, most at the hand of their own government—a government which has received over four billion dollars in U.S. military and economic aid during those years. The year 1980 also saw the escalation of the guerrilla movement, fueled by the government’s killing of opposition leaders and students demonstrating in the streets.
God is not somewhere up in the clouds, lying on a hammock. God is here with us, building a kingdom here on Earth.
Father Rotilio Grande has brought the new theology of liberation to the poor communities of Aguilares, a town of ten thousand. Now a pastor near his birthplace of El Paisnal, he awakens the campesinos to their dignity. They are worth more thatn the $1.75 a day they get from the rich plantation owners. They are worth more than the rocky land they are forced to rent.
Government informers spy on his sermons. On March 12, he takes the parish jeep to drive to his birthplace to say mass. With him are two friends and three children. ON a lonely stretch of the road he notices that he is being followed. The car overtakes them and fires. Father Rotilio is shot twelve times by 9mm. armor-plated dumdum bullets from Mantzer automatic rifles, the kind issues to police. One campesino is killed in the barrage of bullets. The other is found with a bullet in his forehead fired at point-blank range. The three children escape to tell the story.
William J. O’Malley, The Voice of Blood, 43-46
Escalon, 1977: Being Patriots
In the plush neighborhood of Escalon, a flyer circulates throughout the summer: Be a Patrior, Kill a Priest.
In July, the White Warriors Union, a right-wing death squad, sends this note:
All Jesuits without exception must leave the country forever within thirty days… If our order is not obeyed within the indicated time, the immediate and systematic execution of those Jesuits who remain in the country will proceed until we have finished with all of them.
Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk, El Salvador: The Face of Revolution, 94
On July 20, students from the San Salvador National University stage a protest march against the army’s invasion of a branch campus. In Latin America the neutrality and safety of a university is nearly sacred. The student marchers go up 25th Street heading for the highway bridge just south of the U.S. Embassy. As they enter the bridge, soldiers take up offensive positions on the other side, blocking their advance. Not wanting to risk a confrontation, they turn around, only to see more soldiers blocking their exit. The soldiers open fire on the unarmed students. Some jump off the bridge, others lie flat. In a few moments, the army kills twenty students.
Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk, El Salvador: The Face of Revolution, 73-74
San Salvador, 1975: Remembering
El Salvadoran military
Blood can be washed from a bridge. Washing away the memory of those students proves impossible.
As word spreads of the massacre, hundreds converge on the cathedral in the capitol. Gathering both spontaneously and as the fruit of years of organizing, the diverse groups proclaim that unity is our strength. They shout El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido! (The people united will never be defeated!) Today they take a new name that reflects their unity. They call themselves the People’s Revolutionary Bloc (BPR) which becomes known as El Bloque. Composed of a variety of popular organizations, they offer the people an alternative to corrupt political parties. Emphasizing democracy, equality, and civil disobedience, they fight for higher wages, land for the landless, electricity for poor neighborhoods. They hate the oligarchy and the army. They simply pledge to end their rule.
Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk, El Salvador: The Face of Revolution, 28-30
Throughout Latin American, the 1960s brought tremendous changes within the church. For centuries the Catholic Church had sided with the wealthy against the poor. The church blessed the theft of lands and perpetuated the miserable conditions of the indigenous, saying that God meant them to be poor but they would get their reward in heaven.
There were, of course, some notable exceptions to this trend, including Bartolome de Las Casas and Bishop Antonio Valdivieso, both of whom defended the indigenous and Father Miguel Hidalgo, who was a leader in the Mexican independence movement. But for the most part, the institutional church was one of the main forms of cultural invasion in Latin America that stripped the native population of their gods, their dignity, and their very lives.
In 1963, after the second Vatican Council met, Pope John XXIII wrote an encyclical entitled Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) that led the way for priests, nuns, and lay leaders to see organizing for justice as a fundamental tenet of the Christian fait. The 1968 conference of Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia, further confirmed this direction, and the movement known as liberation theology began.
One of the great decisions of the conference was that the church would “make a preferential option for the poor”: the church would actively take the side of the poor and begin to view the world from their perspective.
In Latin America, priests and nuns left the safe confines of rectories and convents to actually live with the poor. They realized the daily injustices and indignities suffered by the poor at the hands of the rich. They read the Bible as a group and discovered together that God did not intend people to live in humiliating poverty.
All God’s children deserved basic human rights of food, clothing, shelter, and access to the land. The church began organizing cooperatives so that small farmers could get higher prices for their goods, helped organize land take-overs because the children of the campesinos were dying while the rich were growing weeds on their vacant land, and supported unions demanding better wages and working conditions.
All these actions were so threatening to those in power that the church itself became the target of repression. Catechists, priests, and nuns were kidnapped, tortured, and killed. The powerful considered the Bible a “subversive document.”