PARA, Brazil — The green forest hums with buzz of insects. Colorful birds soar through, the hot and humid air. The roar of a jaguar occasionally pierces the dense growth.
To Sister Dorothy Stang, those sights and sounds were home. Stang lived deep ill the heart of the Amazon, the world’s largest rain forest, for more than 20 years. The 74-year-old nun from Ohio dedicated her life to preserving the rain forest from logging and ranching and to showing peasants how to work the land without destroying it.
But the calls of brilliant-colored birds and the buzz of insects weren’t the only sounds Stang heard. She knew all too well the screams of monkeys as flames burned their habitat to the ground. She also heard the taunts of land-hungry loggers and ranchers as they terrorized her and the people she was helping.
Those threats were the last thing Stang heard. As she was traveling through the rain forest to meet with peasants on February 12, gunmen, allegedly hired by a local rancher, surrounded her. Stang took out her Bible and began to read aloud to the men. After listening for a moment, they shot her in the head.
The brutality of Stang’s death sparked an international outcry that prompted Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to take action. Police captured the gunmen and hunted for the rancher accused of hiring Stang’s murderers.
Silva, who has been criticized for letting crimes against environmental activists go unpunished in the past, vowed to show the world that “in our government, there is no impunity, that the Amazon is ours and we will take control of our territory.”
Silva put nearly 19,900 of the Amazon’s 1.6 million square miles under federal environmental protection. He also banned new logging and land clearing for six months in the Amazon’s Para state, where Stang was killed.
The decrees allow local residents to remain in the protected area and tap rubber, pick fruits and nuts, and extract other regenerating goods from the rain forest. But the restrictions left local loggers and ranchers in limbo.
The ranchers were quick to protest. They argued that it was unfair for the government to jeopardize their livelihoods because of a murder that they had nothing to do with.
“We are not against having conservation areas, but [the government] can’t just come up with them like that,” said Francisco Alberto de Castro, head of a group that represents cattle ranchers in Para. “Now the ranchers who own land inside the reserves don’t know what to expect,” he told The Associated Press.
The ranchers point out that their work is crucial to Brazil’s financial success. The country is the world’s largest beef exporter and the second-largest soy exporter, after the United States.
As the number of cattle has grown, the Amazon has slowly started to disappear. In 10 years, as increasing amounts of land were cleared with fire for cattle ranching, the region lost an area of forest the size of Washington state, according to the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Indonesia. “For each new cow, the region lost … about 2.5 acres of forest–about the size of a soccer field,” said David Kaimowitz of CIFOR.
Kaimowitz and other environmentalists say the damage is irreparable. “In a nutshell, cattle ranches are making mincemeat out of Brazil’s Amazon rain forests,” he said.
That destruction is dangerous for the entire world, scientists say. Sometimes called “the world’s lung,” the Amazon is vital to the preservation of the planet. The rain forest is what environmentalists call a “sink”–an area that absorbs more carbon dioxide than it emits, because it has billions of trees. Carbon dioxide is one of several greenhouse gases that trap the sun’s heat close to Earth, contributing to global warming. Rain forests absorb extra carbon dioxide that is produced by cars and factories around the world.
Experts say that logging, ranching, and development have destroyed nearly a quarter of the Amazon and that the destruction is slowly reversing the rain forest’s sink effect.
In 1994, Brazil produced 3 percent of the worldwide total of carbon dioxide–making it one of the world’s top 10 polluters. Deforestation in the Amazon accounted for 70 percent of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions.
“Considering that data from 1994 already showed a worrisome situation, it is obvious that things are much worse today,” said Marcelo Furtado, campaign director for Greenpeace. “We are reaching the point of [10,000 to 11,500 square miles] of forest destruction. Urgent action must be taken.”
Greenpeace is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the environment. It was founded in 1971 by a group of Canadian environmentalists protesting U.S. nuclear weapons testing in Alaska. Today, the group has about 3 million members in more than 30 countries. The group strives to end nuclear weapons testing, eliminate toxic chemicals, prevent whaling, protect ancient forests, and encourage sustainable trade. The organization uses nonviolent (though often confrontational) tactics to draw attention to its causes. For example, to prevent whaling, Greenpeace will drive its boats between a whaling vessel and its prey. In 1985, Greenpeace members planned to use their ship Rainbow Warrior to protest French nuclear tests in the South Pacific. France blew up the ship, killing a Greenpeace photographer. The ship got its name from a North American Cree Indian legend in which humanity’s greed has made the Earth sick. A tribe of warriors known as the Warriors of the Rainbow rise up to protect the planet.
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The Amazon rain forest may be shrinking today, but nearly a century ago it loomed larger than life. From 1890 to 1920, it held the key to a treasure that brought fame and fortune to Brazil–the rubber tree.
Amazon natives had long known about Brazilian rubber trees. They used rubber to waterproof their shoes and to caulk holes in their canoes. But it wasn’t until 1839, when American Charles Goodyear invented a process to prevent rubber from reacting to temperature changes, that the rest of the world reached for rubber.
Foreigners flocked to Brazil’s forests to cash in on the sudden rubber boom. Rubber barons hired natives to collect the rubber. The rubber tappers’ lives were bleak; they worked long, hard hours and made little money in return. (The man shown at right was a rubber tapper in the 1920s.)
The price of rubber skyrocketed as global demand grew. Many rubber barons used their resulting wealth to transform Manaus, a small town on the Amazon River, into the bustling capital of Amazonia.
Rubber barons had more money than they knew what to do with. One had a lion, a yacht, a motorboat, a gibson acoustic guitar on the world, and uniformed servants. Another built a palace to house his racehorses. The barons liked to show off their wealth by sending their laundry to Paris.
At the time, U.S. steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie was rumored to have said with remorse, “I ought to have chosen rubber.”
Carnegie was right to stick with steel, however; the rubber boom was not to last. In 1876, a British spy secretly sent seeds from Brazilian rubber trees to England. The seeds were planted in some British colonies, including Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The first Asian rubber trees flowered in 1881. The trees were grown on commercial plantations–a dramatic change from the Amazon, where the trees grew naturally in dense brush and stood miles apart.
The Asian plantations quickly produced the same amount of rubber as Brazil, but at a dramatically cheaper cost, slashing the price. By 1922, more than 90 percent of the world’s rubber came from Asia. Brazil’s rubber boom was a bust.
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It doesn’t rain cats and dogs in this rain forest; it rains frogs! Coqui frogs (right) are endemic to this area. When the air is humid, the frogs climb to the treetops. Some find predators lying in wait, so the frogs jump and float weightlessly to the forest floor. The “frequent flyers” aren’t the forest’s only attraction. More than 200 species of plants (26 of which are found only here) and more than 130 species of animals live in this tropical rain forest, which is the only forest of its kind in the U.S. National Forest System. It’s also one of the oldest protected forests in the Western Hemisphere. King Alfonso of Spain set the land aside in 1876. The forest is named after an Indian spirit, Yuquiyu, which means “forest of clouds.” The name is appropriate–more than 160 billion gallons of rainwater fall on the forest each year. What is the name of this rain forest?
Ask students: Where is the Amazon rain forest? Why is it famous? Tell students that there is a debate over how the Amazon should be used. Some people want to use the rain forest for ranching and farming, and others want to preserve the rain forest as it is. Ask students: What might be some benefits and drawbacks of each plan?
Notes Behind the News
- A rain forest is a dense evergreen forest that occupies a tropical region with an annual rainfall of at least 100 inches.
- Trees absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen into the air. The process helps keep an atmospheric balance.
- Humans have thrown off that balance by burning fossil fuels and producing excess carbon dioxide, which traps heat that otherwise would escape into space. Scientists believe the rise in global temperatures over the past century was largely caused by manmade emissions. They predict higher temperatures and climate disruptions in the future.
- Brazil has some of the strictest environmental legislation in the world. Even before Sister Dorothy Stang’s death, 80 percent of the country’s densely forested private lands and banks of rivers were protected. However, the laws are often poorly enforced, in part because it is difficult to police an immense rain forest. Greenpeace estimates that about 90 percent of the wood logged in the Amazon’s Para state is illegally cut.
- Currently, there is a mud road cut through the Amazon, known as the BR-163. It is impassable to heavy trucks much of the year because of rain. The Brazilian government plans to turn the road into a superhighway to make it easier for Amazon farmers and ranchers to transport goods. However, ecologists say paving the BR-163 could lead to the clearing of up to 70,000 square miles of forest over 30 years.
Trees aren’t the only species in the Amazon rain forest that may become endangered if logging and ranching continue to expand. Have each student research and write a report about a different endangered animal in the Amazon. The report should include why the animal is endangered and what is being done to help protect it.