THE BURNING SEASON attempts to be several books at once. It is the story of the ecology of the Amazon rain forest and an account of the rubber tappers who live there. But it is also the story of Francisco “Chico” Mendes, born the son of a tapper in 1944, and his eventual awakening to the worldwide environmental movement.
Revkin claims that governmental policies which encouraged economic development in the great Amazon ecosystem—leading to government-approved “burning seasons” that created ranchland the size of California—upset the balance of nature always maintained by the rubber tappers and the Brazilian Indians. Though Revkin’s sympathies are clearly with Mendes, his chronicle of how environmentalists from the United States and other countries created a man larger than life is unintentionally chilling. By the mid-1980’s the empates (in which groups of tappers would descend on a ranch to drive out the occupants) were a symbol of the environmental movement. Yet Mendes, a union organizer, was murdered not for some great principle, but by a family of ranchers with a personal grudge against him. (After THE BURNING SEASON was published it was reported that Darly and Darci Alves, father and son, had received a sentence of nineteen years in prison for shooting Mendes to death at his home in Xapuri, a rubber trading village in the Brazilian state of Acre.)
Revkin, who did not know Chico Mendes, relies on extensive family interviews to piece together Mendes’ personal story, from which he never achieves adequate distance. Though something of a hodgepodge, THE BURNING SEASON offers a detailed look at the clash of cultures in an ecosystem containing a third of the world’s remaining rain forests.