The Burning Season

Every religion needs saints and martyrs, perhaps none so urgently as the crusade to save Holy Mother Earth. Hence the rush to sanctify the slain Brazilian militant Chico Mendes, who gave his life in the effort to prevent the destruction of his beloved Amazon rain forest. American journalists, in particular, have rallied to the cause in countless articles and books. And now that the film rights have been purchased by David Puttnam, Hollywood too is eager to tell the story of Mendes’ 1988 shotgun slaying at the hands of angry cattlemen.

None of which is to imply that Andrew Revkin’s The Burning Season is anything other than a sincere and excellent book. Merely to note that for all of the author’s passionate commitment, there remains something just a bit smug about the zeal of North Americans to sanctify and preserve a wilderness at no cost to themselves. Actually accomplishing that task will be a far more dif cult job. As Revkin himself makes clear, environmentalists must first persuade Brazilians that their self-interest is at stake.

That much said, The Burning Season has a great deal to recommend it. Revkin blends an impressive amount of biology, history, sociology, and anthropology into a narrative that reads like a true-crime mystery. Perhaps the most praiseworthy aspect of the book is its recognition that conserving the ecological balance of the Amazon basin isn’t a case of innocent nature versus wicked man. Rather, it’s man against man — with competing views of how best to deal with Brazil’s crushing poverty.

Chico Mendes came late to environmentalism. As the self-taught leader of the Brazilian rubber tappers’ union, he had far more in common with labor leaders like Lech Walesa and Cesar Chavez than he did with the celebrities who became his international sponsors. Mendes’ first concern was to prevent the economic and cultural ruin of his people-whose little-known existence in the Amazon basin dated back to the great rubber boom of the 19th century, or to a second boom in World War II, when thousands of patriots from Brazil’s arid northeast answered the call to save democracy by harvesting latex.

Eking an arduous existence out of the jungle, the seringueiros, as they were called after the local name for the rubber tree, did little to alter its balance, collecting latex sap for part of the year and harvesting Brazil nuts for the rest. Like the indigenous Indian tribes with whom Mendes ultimately formed an alliance — the first of its kind in Brazilian history — they rarely owned or had legally defensible titles to the land they inhabited. The cattle industry, however, propelled by the nation’s massive poverty and aided by all manner of chicanery and violence, began to push its way along newly slashed dirt highways into the nation’s remote interior. By organizing an effective grass-roots resistance, Mendes made himself a target for the sort of rancher who viewed even collectively financed schools — let alone the tappers’ physical obstruction of deforestation — as a Communist plot.

It made matters no better that the tough, charismatic Mendes actually was a Marxist, though of the nondogmatic sort. Despite his heroic status among his own people, moreover, the union leader’s campaigns for various political offices in his native state of Acre brought him only about three percent of the vote — a fact Revkin does an unconvincing job of explaining away.

Actually, the soil-poor Amazon makes remarkably bad cattle country anyway. Despite the clearing of millions of acres, the thinly populated region still has to import beef. Even so, and despite a growing environmental and pro-Indian movement, Brazilians clearly didn’t buy Mendes’ line. Though Revkin can’t bring himself to say so, he may yet achieve more as a martyr than as a political leader. B+

The Burning Season
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