Our Chico in heaven


This December, environmentalists the world over remember Chico Mendes, a Brazilian unionist and rubber tapper who fought tirelessly to stop the felling of trees by cattle ranchers in his beloved Amazon, and gave his life to his cause.

"At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity."

His fight ended exactly 20 years ago when those opposed to him savagely murdered him. He made a sacrifice to protect the environment long before it became fashionable and inspired many, including popular Mexican band Mana, which penned a moving Grammy-nominated tribute to him "Cuando los angeles lloran" (When the angels cry).

Cuando el asesino huía Chico Méndez se moría la selva se ahogaba en llanto

El dejó dos lindos críos una esposa valerosa y una selva en agonía

Cuando los ángeles lloran es por cada árbol que muere cada estrella que se apaga

Un ángel cayó

Un ángel murió

Un ángel se fue

Y no volverá

When the killer fled, Chico Méndez laid dying,

The rainforest gasped, crying

He left two beautiful children, a precious wife and a rainforest in agony

When the angels cry, it is for every tree that dies, every star that extinguished

An angel fallen

An angel dead

An angel gone

And never to return.

There is an Indonesian man who, too, gave his life to a similar cause. His name was Abi Kusno. brings you the story of Asia's own Chico Méndez.

- Dan-Chyi Chua

Till the Last Tree Falls

By Debby Ng

Abi Kusno is a Dayak, an ethnic group native to the interior of Borneo Island, born of the rainforests of Kalimantan, Indonesia. In 2001, the independent journalist took it upon himself to confront one of Indonesia's most notorious logging companies, the Tanjung Lingga Group. In the tranquil environs of the world-renowned orangutan sanctuary of Tanjung Puting National Park, Abi Kusno met the ominous forces of Abdul Rasyid, a man said to be the "epitome of the regional illegal logging barons".

Indonesia's logging business goes beyond the felling of trees; it's also a basis for social conflict in logging areas. Two million hectares of forest are lost every year. Already around 70% of the country's original "frontier" forest has been lost. In the middle of February 2001, more than 500 Madurese, an immigrant population in Central Kalimantan, were slaughtered when the Dayaks broke long-simmering tensions over forest rights. The Dayaks were also disturbed by then-President Soeharto regime's handing out of vast parcels of Kalimantan's forests to logging companies, many of which were connected to members of the leader's family, his cronies or the military. Many forest-dwelling Dayaks were driven from their traditional habitat. A 1979 law providing for uniform structures of local government throughout Indonesia also had the effect of undermining the authority of traditional village leaders and the cohesion of Dayak communities.

Amidst the tension between the natives and the immigrants, Abi was intensifying his efforts to pressure the Tanjung Lingga Group into ceasing its illegal logging activity in Tanjung Putting National Park. Because of the Group's notoriety, Abi was the only person who had the mettle to overtly urge the Group to stop its export of illegal logs to China, or risk being reported. The Group, motivated by the high profits from illegally logged timber, seemed to take no heed of his advice, but would later begin to take his words seriously.

The potential shipment of 54,000 cubic metres of illegally harvested timber onto three Chinese ships at Pangkalan Bun, the gateway to Tanjung Putting National Park, was eventually reported to the Minister of Forests in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. This led to their seizure in November 2001. The plot had now reached its critical point. Abdul Rasyid thought he had secured his security apparatus in the region by buying out the police, but his operation was now being undermined by an unflinching journalist.

Twenty days after the seizure, on November 28, Abi left Semarang for home because he'd received relentless phone calls warning him that his life was being threatened. When he arrived, he met his friend Mustika Alam, and set off by motorcycle. One kilometre from the airport, he and his friend were ambushed by 20 men armed with machetes, spears and hydrochloric acid. As soon as he fell, the armed men began to strike him with their weapons. The damage: 17 gashes, 20 cm long and 4 cm deep. His friend suffered comparatively minor injuries to his abdomen.

Believed to be dead, Abi was sent to the morgue. On the cold stainless steel table, Abi mustered the strength to twitch his foot to a nurse's attention, and was rushed to the operation theatre. Seven and a half hours, 27 bags of blood and 209 stitches later, Abi was saved from the dead to report his ordeal. He persevered in his struggle against the illegal loggers in Indonesia. Short of a hand and an ear, Abi continued his forest work and was awarded the Dr.-Goetze-Geo-Preis in recognition of his work on the environment in July 2003.

Abi Kusno's work was significant not only in that he sought to protect the rights of the indigenous living in the Borneo rainforest.

Despite only covering 1.3% of the earth's land surface, Indonesia contains a disproportionate amount of global biodiversity. It is home to 10% of all plant species, 12% of mammal species (second behind Brazil), 16% of reptiles, and 17% of birds.

The fact that Indonesia has a longer list of endangered species than any other country is a stark illustration of the heavy toll exacted on its unique flora and fauna by decades of unrestrained forest exploitation. It has also been disastrous for the estimated 60 million Indonesians who depend on forests for their livelihood.

An area the size of Switzerland is lost in Indonesia every year to illegal logging and those attempting to circumvent legislation smuggle their timber across to Malaysia and getting it exported there.

To the cause of the environment, Abi Kusno dedicated himself and made his sacrifice, till he was killed in a traffic accident in July 2006.


First Published: 
December 2008


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debby ngDebby Ng is an environmental photojournalist whose work has been published in several regional and international magazines, including the award-winning Lebanese magazine, Environment & Development. She has also worked with numerous Asian and international non-government organisations such as the TRAFFIC, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

[email protected]