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Justice in the Rainforest

The recent conviction of landowners for the murder of labor leader Chico Mendes should herald a new era for the Amazon region

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ALMOST two years after the assassination of rubber tapper union leader Chico Mendes in Brazil's Acre state, cattle rancher Darly Alves da Silva and his son, Darci Pereira Alves, were convicted last December of planning and executing the murder. It was the first time any landowner had been convicted of ordering the murder of a rural activist, though more than 1,000 such assassinations have occurred in the Brazilian interior since 1980. The jurors' decision was based on evidence, arguments, and their own estimate of personal danger if they found the accused guilty. But the implications of their decision for the future of the Amazon and its peoples go beyond any steps taken so far to preserve the forest.

On trial in the town of Xapuri were two visions for the future of the Amazon and Brazil. One, represented by the defense (including notorious torturer Joao Lucena Leal), argued that Chico was an agitator who got what was coming to him: ``Chico Mendes was fooling around with a pile of rocks, and one hit him on the head.'' Darly Alves, in this scenario, was a hard-working rancher who ``put food on the table of a lot of people in Acre.'' Lucena and his colleague Armando Reigota have made their careers in Rondonia defending cattle ranchers and drug traffickers. Theirs is the Amazon where money and power for the elite equal progress and prosperity, and the status quo is justice.

The other vision, Chico's vision, is a Brazil where basic rights of citizenship apply to all, rich or poor, powerful or powerless, Amazon peasant or Sao Paulo businessman, and where government is an instrument of public policy, rather than of private prerogatives. The distinction seems, from the vantage of the United States, almost trivially obvious. But the immediacy and enormity of the conflict between these two visions is suggested by one of the key pieces of evidence in the case.

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