A Two Part Story: The Brazilian Rainforest

While large-scale environmental degradation is often seen as a strictly modern issue, it is necessary to recognize cases of habitat destruction in the past. One of the most striking examples of natural overexploitation is the Atlantic Coast Rainforest of South America. Once one of the world’s largest rainforests, the Atlantic Forest stretched from northeastern Brazil to northern Argentina. This was one of the first New World environments that European colonizers encountered; Portuguese explorers began to settle the area in the mid-16th century. Over the course of the next 450 years, 85% of the Atlantic Coast Rainforest disappeared from logging, urbanization, and especially single-crop agriculture plantations such as sugar cane. Today this unique environment survives in fragmented pockets. The loss of an entire rainforest has changed eastern South America’s entire climate, with deserts expanding across northeastern Brazil. The famous green mountains that make places like Rio de Janeiro so beautiful are simply pockets of a once expansive habitat. Even in its reduced state, the Atlantic Forest remains one of the richest habitats on Earth. The fragmented pieces still have more biodiversity and higher endemism than the Amazon Rainforest. Places – or former places – like the Brazilian coast are reminders that environmental degradation has been a continuous force throughout human history, instead of simply a novel threat. Enacting conservation reform is a process that will require fundamental changes in human attitudes towards the world that have deep roots in history.

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Now an homage to an environmental legend - In the 1980s the fate of the Amazon rainforest turned on an unlikely environmental hero: Chico Mendes (1944 - 1988), a poor rubber tapper and union organizer in Brazil. As cattle ranching and logging threatened the rainforest with deforestation, Mendes formed a workers union that aligned itself with environmentalism. With the support of powerful allies such as the Environmental Defense Fund and National Wildlife Federation, Mendes and the rubber tapper workers succeeded in creating the first extractive reserve in the world. An extractive reserve is a protected area that allows public land to be managed by local communities, with rights to harvest forest products. It marked an important step forward for the conservation community. The forest was therefore conserved. Mendes received international recognition and awards by environmental groups, but he paid for his achievements with his life. A local Brazilian cattle rancher angered by Mendes’ activism murdered Mendes at his home. When Chico Mendes was gunned down in the Amazon, the two policemen who were supposed to protect him were playing dominoes at his kitchen table. It was 22 December 1988. Rest In Peace Chico, may your work never be forgotten

Writers: Gabriel Silva Collins and Anna Chahuneau

Sources: The Guardian, The New York times and PBS 

Photography: Miranda Smith

Anna Chahuneau