Telegraph21 is a curated video magazine that showcases international documentaries. Today and tomorrow, Telegraph21 will feature Children of the Amazon on their site. The clip they’ve chosen shows the story of Chico Mendes, a rubber tapper from the state of Acre in Brazil who became famous for his work in protecting the forest.
The clip begins with Chief Itabira Surui describing how Chico Mendes first forged the alliance between the rubber tappers and the indigenous peoples. The story of what they accomplished, and at what cost, is told by Raimundo Barros and Chico’s wife Ilzamar Mendes, interspersed with historical footage and the last interview that Chico himself gave one month before his death. Maria Elena Barbosa sings “In Xapuri (Chico Rei)” a haunting ballad that was written about Chico after he was killed. We see historic footage of the successful stand-off which Chico organized to save an area of the forest from being cut down, and we see Raimundo Barros at that time — nearly 20 years younger — patiently explaining to one of the rancher’s workers why the forest must belong to everyone.
This clip exemplifies the work of Chico Mendes and his companions. Often called “the Gandhi of the Amazon,” Chico worked very peacefully, focused on non-violent action and finding common ground. His legacy has been an inspiration to many, including Marina Silva, who grew up in a rubber tapper community, worked closely with Chico, and went on to serve as Brazil’s minister of the environment until 2008. Marina is now a candidate for the presidency of Brazil.
I traveled to the Brazilian Amazon on several occasions between 1987-1990 to assist on television documentaries. During my journeys, I had the opportunity to visit many Indigenous communities, always with my camera by my side. What caught my eye were the children. Born to parents who had relied on the rainforest for their survival, these children were growing up surrounded by new ways—ways that were destroying the forest.
I was also drawn to the children of the rubber tappers…the people who harvest the wild rubber trees. The trees they relied on were also being cut down. I photographed the legendary rubber tapper Chico Mendes and his family. Chico had become renowned the world over for his nonviolent resistance movement to protect the rainforest.
15 years later—and a world away—I returned to these slides, which were never printed, never shared. The images brought back a particularly searing memory: a phone call from Chico in December 1988, asking me to film his funeral. I told him he was crazy, he wasn’t going to die, he had too much work to do. Two weeks later he was shot dead by a rancher. Stirred by faces of the children in my photographs and haunted by Chico’s untimely death, I was inspired to travel to the Amazon again—this time, to make a movie.
While I expected change, I was not prepared for the extent of it. So much of the forest had been destroyed. My response to the loss is the creation of Children of the Amazon — a tribute to a people struggling to save their forest home. But the goal of the film is more than to bear witness. I hope to offer insight to a distant and remote land while simultaneously drawing connections to our own lives. For we are—all of us— Children of the Amazon breathing the same air, walking the same planet, and in some sense that we have yet to understand, sharing the same fate.