CHICO MENDES was a gentle man - very different from the rough, ``macho'' stereotypes of what a leader of Brazilian rubber-tappers might be like. The strength he exuded came from a stillness within him. It came from the love he freely demonstrated for his people and for the beautiful, fragile rain forests they live in and depend on. And it came from his calm conviction that the cause he was living for - the preservation of those forests - was also worth dying for. For an internationally acclaimed activist, Mr. Mendes was extremely modest, unassuming - even, at first, a little shy. Yet he liked to laugh and joke with the exuberance of a true Brazilian.
One day last September, Mendes and his cousin Miguel took two journalists on a walk through the jungle. He showed us the towering rubber trees he loved as if they were human, the diagonal incisions in their bark carved by rubber tappers like himself, and the milky latex that drips out into cups made from another forest product - sturdy, thick Brazil nut shells.
After a while, as we wandered down a rubber tappers' path, marveling at the beauty and power of the forest, we came to a mysterious barrier: long filaments of springy rubber tied from tree to tree blocked our way like the beginnings of a giant cobweb. Suddenly we realized Mendes had disappeared and the forest was still. Well, not quite. Laughter was coming from somewhere deep among the trees.
MENDES was shot to death at his home in the little jungle town of Xapur'i in the state of Acre on Dec. 22 by a hired gunman. His death is an immeasurable loss to those who knew and loved him - and, because of the scope and impact of his work, to millions who have never even heard of him.
His full name was Francisco Mendes Filho, but everyone in Acre knew him as Chico Mendes. For 10 years, he had been the leader of the National Council of Rubber Tappers (CNS), representing some 150,000 people who live in, and off, the rain forests that cover 87 percent of Acre.
In 1987, he received the Global 500 Award from the United Nations Environmental Program for his nonviolent, yet remarkably effective, efforts to halt the destruction of the rain forest. Twelve percent of all Brazil's rain forests have already been destroyed, mostly in the last decade, by cattle ranchers, small-scale farmers, and speculators.