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organized a number of events in Chico’s hometown of Xapuri, including a forest products fair. The National Wildlife Federation and other organizations in the US are readying plans for observances in New York and Washington DC. For information see the Chico Mendes.
Central to this drama was the lingering presence of Mendes himself, the rubber tapper turned ecologist whose attempt to save the rainforest ultimately cost him his life. His story, told in a series of essays and interviews accompanied by Bishop’s vividly evocative paintings, is concise and exemplary. Above all, he was, in the words of his widow Ilzemar, “a man of the forest”–a rubber tapper, or SERINGUEIRO. The seringueiros harvest the rubber tree sap, yet leave the jungle trees and animals unharmed.
This was the lush green world Mendes was born to in 1945, the world he came to represent as an articulate champion of the forest, its people and its ways. A vast, verdant cathedral of greenery that remained unchanged for thousands of years, the rainforest in recent decades fell prey to misguided governmental and commercial attempts to convert it into farms and ranches. Rainforests that nature had taken millennia to create were burned off for fields and pastures that quickly eroded away. The mineral poor soil could not produce crops or even grass for very long, so the forest, in a seemingly endless cycle of burning and clearing, was transformed into a wasteland under a perpetual pall of smoldering flames and soot.
As his green jungle cathedral went up in smoke all around him, Mendes organized his seringueiros into a movement to save the trees and in the process became an internationally known crusader for environmental justice. Public and political opinion gradually began to shift in his favor which in turn led to his murder in the middle of the night by a shotgun wielding assassin. Even now, years after Mendes raised public awareness of the plight of the rainforest and its impact on global warming, the fires still rage on. Today only a fraction of the Amazon rainforest remains.
This is the story told in a various words and images spread throughout the book in alternately folksy, scholarly and passionate voices. Ranging from Bishop’s own tersely eloquent summation of her odyssey through the labyrinths of wild nature and human nature amid the tropical holocaust, to the earthy poetics of Mendes’ widow Ilzemar who laments that the ranchers “made a hole in his heart and his blood spilled all over the wall” as she concludes that