A screening of young Brazilian director Sérgio de Carvalho’s powerful new documentary film Empate was held at the European Parliament last night. The film charts the rise of the seringueiro, or rubber tree tapper, movement in Brazil in the 1970s and 1980s, led by the charismatic – and eventually assassinated – activist and unionist Chico Mendes. The film also describes, in often harrowing detail, the struggles that Brazilian rubber tree tappers continue to face today.
The seringueiro movement was conceived in the mid-1970s, when global demand for cheap synthetic rubber began to increase, causing a corresponding decline in the demand for the natural latex found in Brazilian rubber trees. Consequently, the Brazilian government, having deemed cattle farming to be more profitable than rubber tree tapping, began to incentivise cattle ranchers to purchase, and clear, rainforest land that had previously been used for the cultivation of rubber trees.
Massive deforestation of the Amazon rainforest ensued, as did the widespread forced displacement, beating, and even murder of numerous seringueiros.
The most famously effective, and symbolic, form of resistance used by the seringueiros against this government-sanctioned brutality was the empate, which translates, roughly, as “standoff”. Often accompanied by their wives, parents and sometimes even children, the seringueiros would form a human chain around those areas of the rainforest that had been designated by the government to be cleared by loggers.
“Empate means risking our lives, our wives’ lives, our children’s lives, our parents’ lives, in order to preserve our way of life,” says one seringueiro interviewed in the film. “That’s what empate means to us.”
During its peak period of international fame in the 1970s and 80s, the seringueiro movement won many plaudits, both in Brazil and internationally, for its non-violence and environmentalism. Nevertheless, the internationally renowned and recognised leader of the movement, Chico Mendes, was eventually assassinated by a rancher’s son – with possible Brazilian government complicity – outside of his home on December 22, 1988, in Xapuri, Brazil.
Empate is a deeply moving, often tragic, and expertly shot film, which makes for compelling, and occasionally unsettling, viewing.
In particular, one of the film’s core theses is that the seringueiro movement is, worryingly, far more fractured and isolated than it was 30 or 40 years ago. This is in spite of the fact that the movement, and the Amazon rainforest more generally, are possibly facing a more serious threat than ever before in the form of Brazil’s new anti-environmentalist President, Jair Bolsonaro, whose expressed intention is to open up the Amazon rainforest to exploitation for the benefit of Brazilian and international agribusiness.
“Forty years ago we were unified, connected,” explains one seringueiro during the film. “Now we feel disengaged, separated. People forget that what we achieved was not a gift, but a collective triumph. We need more empates.”
This sentiment was echoed during the Q&A which followed the screening, in which Angela Mendes – the daughter of the murdered Chico Mendes – spoke, as did Portuguese MEP Marisa Matias (who chaired the event) and the film’s director, Mr Carvalho. All of them emphasised the seriousness of the threat currently being posed by the Bolsonaro government to the inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest, many of whom are still being murdered, beaten, and forcibly displaced.
Furthermore, all of them stressed the need for the international community to act, and aid, those currently struggling to protect the rainforest, including the seringueiros. Mr Carvalho, in particular, warned of the “environmental catastrophe that await us” all if the international community fails to act.
The final scene of Empate symbolically – and beautifully – captures this alarming predicament: it is an aerial shot of a moonscape-like, completely deforested area, separated from the lush green of the Amazon rainforest by a thin dirt path, along which walk a small group of aging seringueiros: the last, vulnerable line of defence against further destruction of the rainforest, and a group which is, right now, visibly and painfully alone.
Undoubtedly, a luta continua: the struggle continues.