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Fighting to Save Brazil's Rain Forest

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FAR from the jungles of northern Brazil, where she works much of the time, Mary Helena Allegretti hails a new martyr. And official Washington, like influential people in her own country, is paying more attention to his death and his cause.

Her former colleague - labor leader and environmentalist Francisco (Chico) Mendes - was murdered Dec. 22 as he left his home. Mendes had worked for 12 years to protect the Amazon rain forest and its indigenous people. Leader of a rubber tappers' union in isolated Acre State, he fought against the encroachment of cattle ranching.

[Reuters reported Monday that the main suspect in the murder, Darli Alves da Silva, surrendered to police over the weekend. Mendes had said before his death that cattle ranchers Darli Alves da Silva and Alvarino Alves da Silva were out to kill him.]

``He was a simple man and a very intelligent man,'' remembers Ms. Allegretti, head of the Institute for Amazon Studies in Curitiba. She speaks warmly of the eight years she worked with him in the impoverished, but biologically rich interior of Brazil.

But now, three weeks after his death, she works not only to preserve his memory but also for his cause: developing Brazil's rain forest region in a manner that is environmentally sound.

Together, Allegretti and Mendes had begun organizing the nation's rubber tappers - subsistence forest dwellers who harvest latex from trees in the Amazon jungle to make natural rubber. Such harvests do not harm the forest, because tappers give the trees enough time to replenish before the next harvest.

They had won support within the international development community for establishing the so-called ``extractive reserves.'' These are zones set aside for the exclusive use of rubber tappers, much like national forest areas are managed for timber in the United States.

In the absence of such zones, tappers continue to be the object of intimidation - as farmers and ranchers raze vast swaths of land in the Amazon region. Such agricultural development, though entirely unsuited to the fragile soils of the tropics, continues at a breakneck pace.

For the moment, the push for more extractive reserves is on hold while Allegretti and others push for a thorough investigation of Mendes's murder. Allegretti says that Brazilian press reports have incorrectly characterized the slaying as a dispute between families, rather than the result of an intensifying political conflict between landowners who wish to develop the rain forest and peasants who wish to conserve it.

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