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ACT 1: Conservation

Act 1


ACT 2: Pollution

Act 2


ACT 3: Radical Ecology

Act 3


ACT 4: Going Global

Act 4


ACT 5: Climate Change

Act 5


Act 4: Going Global

Act 4 is about the emergence of global environmental issues in the ‘80s, focusing on Chico Mendes and the rubbertapper’s fight to save the Amazon rainforest.


Chico Mendes was an unlikely environmentalist, the poor son of a rubber tapper from Acre, deep within the Amazon. Organizing a union of rubber tappers, he leads a movement to defend the forest they depend upon. They stage “empates”, where the rubber tappers surround and stop crews cutting down the forest. Acre is insulated from development by its isolation, but by 1985, the roads and the fires are fast approaching. Chico organizes the National Council of Rubber Tappers, and proposes a key idea: extractive reserves. Next, environmentalists bring Chico to the U.S. for a meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank; they manage to stop the loans that threaten disaster. Chico wins powerful friends and prestigious awards. As his star rises he also draws enemies who swear to kill him. In 1988 Chico begins what is to be his last battle, over Cachoeira, an old estate that the rubber tappers want to make into a reserve. A rancher named Darly Alves is determined to clear the forest instead. It turns into an armed confrontation. The rubber tappers prevail, but Chico pays with his life – something he said he was willing to do. The assasination of Chico Mendes leads to an international outcry. In death more than life, Chico’s ideas gain attention and traction. Not only is the first extractive reserve created in his name. The Brazilian government comes up with a comprehensive plan that recognizes the rights of forest peoples and establishes an array of reserves, parks and protected areas. Like the Butterfly Effect, Chico Mendes’ work on behalf of the rubber tappers proves to be the turning point in the efforts to save the Amazon.

The Amazon is important for it’s wildlife and biodiversity. It is also where alarms were sounded about the extinction crisis. Struggles to save wildlife are a staple of environmentalism, from the American bison to the African elephant and the Asian tiger. In the ‘80s, the rise of conservation biology begins to shift the focus from charismatic megafauna to preserving whole ecosystems. One of the first studies to show how the web of life unravels is Tom Lovejoy’s Minimum Critical Size Project in Amazonas. More scientists rush into the rainforest to discover new species before they disappear. By 1990 experts are warning about an extinction crisis. All over the world species are crashing, teetering on the edge, nowhere else is there as much to lose as in the Amazon. So it becomes a center of conservation biology.

The Amazon also figures prominently in the first discussions of global climate change. It is the biggest carbon sink on earth. Deforestation, which has been greatly reduced but continues even now at the rate of a Massachusetts every year, has the potential to alter world weather patterns. Water cycling, the evapotranspiration that feeds the region’s rain clouds, has been reduced by deforestation enough to dry out the rainforest even more. Since the death of Chico Mendes nearly twenty years ago, much has changed for the better in the Amazon. Good people are doing the right things. But still the rainforest is unraveling. The fate of the Amazon and all the life it holds is very much in suspense.


Interviewees ACT 4

Barbara Bramble

Environmentalist working on international development who led opposition to World Bank loans and supported the rubber tappers struggle to save the Amazon rainforrest.

Adrian Cowell

British filmmaker and journalist who helped to bring Chico Mendes and the idea of extractive reserves to the world’s attention.

Tom Lovejoy

Conservation biologist who led the World Wildlife Fund’s efforts to set up biological reserves and has pursued the cause of biodiversity for forty years.


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