Nearly 20 years ago, a rubber worker in the Amazon was assassinated. His name was Chico Mendes, an indigenous rights activist and environmentalist. Mendes had asked the government to set up a reserve to protect the rainforest, actions that were not enough for Mendes. A ranch owner named Darly Alves da Silva, who was logging in the rainforest, was a target for Mendes and Co. They set up roadblocks to prevent da Silva’s operation.
Mendes was killed by da Silva’s son, the nineteenth activist to die that year and not the first at the hands of da Silva. Whilst father and son were sent to prison for 19 years, the true legacy of Chico Mendes was the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve. Mendes’ death led to a large section of the rainforest being protected, a legacy he’d surely be proud of:
“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.”
- Mendes, 1988
The fight to protect the rainforest has been decades in the making, and one that could soon fail, if recent events are anything to go by. Recently, a drought in Brazil has revealed petroglyphs (pre-historic rock carvings) near the bank of the Amazon River. These petroglyphs are estimated to be 1-2 millennia old, and were previously sighted in 2010.
Whilst the revelation of the prehistoric depictions has provided greater insight into the history of the indigenous people of the Amazon, the reason they are now visible is due to frighteningly low water levels. In one port near the rainforest, water levels reached their lowest level in 121 years.
This, along with tributaries drying up — cutting off vital food and water supplies to remote jungle villages — is one of many signs that manmade impact on the rainforest has reached disastrous levels. Already, rising water temperatures have caused the death of endangered river dolphins, with the drought having affected over half a million people.
The importance of the Amazon rainforest should not be lost on us. This forest is a feature of our planet that came about nearly fifteen million years ago, the uniqueness of its creation (still a great mystery of speculation) allowing for the most unique biome on the planet, being home to over three-million different species, as well as two-and-a-half thousand species of tree. Furthermore, the rainforest creates nearly 20% of the Earth’s oxygen and holds some 90-140 billion tons of carbon.
Sadly, since the 1960s, the region has been victim to deforestation, which increased by 92% under Brazil’s previous President, Jair Bolsonaro — decreasing by only 30% with da Silva’s return to power. In total, since 1978, one-hundred and fifty-seven square kilometres of the rainforest have been destroyed.
Brazil, despite having signed up for the Paris Climate Accord, has failed to meet the targets set — falling way below expectations, with too much focus on using fossil gas over clean energy, and with deforestation still rising.
There is still cause for hope in South America. Recently, citizens of Ecuador voted overwhelmingly to stop oil drilling in the rainforest — one of several countries which the Amazon resides in. The movement was primarily led by indigenous tribes, understandably as the rainforest is their home and has been for many generations.
As noted by Sônia Guajajara, indigenous tribes might only make up 5% of global population, occupying only 28% of Earth’s territory, they are 80% of those that actively protect areas of large biodiversity; though it should not fall to them solely to be protectors of these important natural resources. Whilst organisations such as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil raise awareness, it is only the wealthy who can end deforestation, and so it is the wealthy who must recognise their part in the undoing of the rainforest.
“In every corner of the world, it is fundamental that we fight for the preservation of our ecosystems and allow them to recover from the damage caused by excessive greed of those who, instead of forest, can only see profit.”
- Sônia Guajajara, 2022