ARCHIVAL (ABC, 3-10-82):NEWS REPORT: It is called deforestation.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 10-19-88):PETER JENNINGS: One of the worlds most important environmental resources is vanishing day by day.
NARRATION: In the 1980s the Amazon rainforest was burning at an unprecedented rate.
The fires were set to clear the land as part of a government project to bring new settlers, including many cattle ranchers, to the region.
STEVE SCHWARTZMAN (SENIOR DIRECTOR, ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENSE FUND): The idea was, it will be progress. Thats not really the way it turned out. At the beginning of the 80s, there was not a whole lot of attention to deforestation in the Amazon. When it began to kind of attract more attention was precisely when remote-sensing scientists began using satellite images to show what was going on from space.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 10-19-88):SCIENTIST: We can locate about 7,000 fires every day.
STEVE SCHWARTZMAN: The images were dramatic. You looked at that and you had to think, how long can this go on before the people who depend on this ecosystem are destroyed?
NARRATION: People like the Kayapo, known for their distinctive lip plates, whose ancestral lands and people had long been under threat.
RAONI METUKTIRE (KAYAP LEADER): A long time ago, when I was a boy, there were no whites. When the whites came, there came the flu and other sickness and many people died.
NARRATION: Other groups also depended on the rainforest, including small farmers and rubber tappers, who had survived in the jungle since the 1930s by tapping latex from trees.
Francisco Chico Mendes came from a family of rubber tappers. As the head of a local union, Mendes helped to improve conditions for his fellow workers while protecting their livelihood the Amazons trees.
But his campaign to save tropical forests made him the enemy of cattle ranchers. After a series of assassination attempts, the governor of Mendes home state stepped in and assigned him two armed guards.
ARCHIVAL (FOOTAGE FROM GEOFFREY OCONNOR, 1989):CHICO MENDES: I have already escaped six attempts against my life from the enemy. Still, I have a moral commitment to myself. I cannot abandon the struggle even if one day I am struck by an assassins bullet.
NARRATION: But on December 22, 1988 the seventh attempt against Mendess life, this one by local cattle ranchers, was fatal.
STEVE SCHWARTZMAN: They thought, if they killed Chico and got him out of the way, nothing was going to happen. But it became a massive story in Brazil and internationally.
ARCHIVAL (NPR, 12-23-88):NEWS REPORT: The presence of bodyguards failed to protect him from gunmen police believe were working for a wealthy cattle rancher.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, EVENING NEWS, 12-27-88):BOB SHIEFFER: The victim was devoted to preserving Brazils irreplaceable rainforest and he paid for that apparently with his life.
NARRATION: The murder galvanized the international environmental movement, which was working to increase awareness that the burning of the rainforest was contributing to heating up the planet.
STEVE SCHWARTZMAN: Chicos assassination really brought about fundamental changes in the way people around the world thought about the process of deforestation.
NARRATION: As news of the Mendes assassination faded from the headlines, a new Amazon tragedy was unfolding: an estimated 35,000 gold miners had invaded the lands of 9,000 Yanomami Indians, triggering reports of spreading infectious diseases and the deaths of hundreds of indigenous people.
Angered by widespread death and destruction along Brazils frontier, rainforest inhabitants and environmentalists convened in a small Amazon town for a five day conference called the Altamira Gathering.
LARRY COX (FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, RAINFOREST FOUNDATION): What was at stake was not only the future of the people in the Amazon. Westerners were convinced that their future also was invested. Thats what was fueling the environmental movement at that time.
NARRATION: This alliance to save the forest confronted what it believed was the emerging threat of increased development on indigenous territory a proposed hydroelectric dam complex that would flood 480 square miles of rainforest, displacing 9,000 Indians. And the Kayap showed up in full warrior regalia.
ARCHIVAL (FOOTAGE FROM GEOFFREY OCONNOR, 1989):RAONI METUKTIRE: We dont want the dam. Our future generations need a place to live and hunt.
NARRATION: And at Altamira these warriors revealed they had international support, including from the rock star Sting. Their mission was to help demarcate, or establish legal boundaries, around the traditional lands of the Kayap.
ARCHIVAL (FOOTAGE FROM GEOFFREY OCONNOR, 1989):STING: If the rainforest dies, then my country is in danger. We are in as much trouble as the Kayap or the other Indians of the Amazon.
NARRATION: Within weeks of Altamira, World Bank funding for Brazils dam scheme was canceled, putting the dam on hold and giving the save-the-rainforest movement its first major victory. The growing awareness also helped pave the way for an unprecedented wave of over 200 indigenous land demarcations in the 1990s.
And over the next few years Brazil stepped up public efforts at environmental enforcement in the Amazon.
ARCHIVAL (BBC, 1-5-12):NEWS REPORT: The officers captured five loggers and their vehicles.
NARRATION: BY 2014, the rate of deforestation had been cut by 76%, and Brazil had become the world leader in the reduction of greenhouse gasses.
But these victories were short-lived.
ARCHIVAL (AL JAZEERA, 1-19-12):NEWS REPORT: This is the opening phase of the building of the Belo Monte dam.
NARRATION: The battle over the dam was eventually lost. And the rate of deforestation began to climb agaIn as Brazil faced political instability and a recession culminating in the election of pro-business politician Jair Bolsonaro in 2019 who relaxed environmental regulations.
ARCHIVAL (BBC NEWS, 9-16-20):NEWS REPORT: Jair Bolsonaro sees the Amazon as a cash cow, a way for Brazilians to prosper, but the way its going, this is what the future will be the slow death of the worlds biggest forest.
NARRATION: In 2022, despite some protection from the demarcations, the rate of deforestation reached the highest level in 15 years, driven largely by cattle ranching.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-26-19):MANUEL BOJORQUEZ: The Amazon produces a substantial amount of the world`s oxygen. It also stores carbon dioxide which can heat the atmosphere. Scientists are afraid that balance could be changing, speeding up climate change.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, NIGHTLINE,11-6-21):NEWS REPORT: Alarming news that the Amazon is now a net contributor of carbon dioxide and that it is perilously close to a tipping point beyond which it cannot recover.
NARRATION: And just like Chico Mendes once did, todays rainforest activists face assassination attempts.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 06-13-22):NEWS REPORT: Violence against indigenous peoples and people who seek to protect the rainforest is an ongoing issue in the Amazon.
NARRATION: Decades after his assassination, the legacy of Chico Mendes lives on.
STEVE SCHWARTZMAN: There are Chico Mendes parks and schools and institutions. Chico Mendes is anything but forgotten. Heshes a national hero.
NARRATION: And his fight to save the rainforest continues. Brazils president Luiz Incio Lula da Silva elected in late 2022 says hell change course and aim for zero deforestation by 2030. And a new generation of local activists are determined to make sure the international community works together to protect the rainforest.
ARCHIVAL (AMAZON WATCH, 5-24-19):SONIA GUAJAJARA: We need to join hands and say that the struggle for mother nature is the mother of all struggles.
ARCHIVAL (BBC NEWS, 11-5-21):TXAI SURU: The Earth is speaking. She tells us that we have no more time.