Last of the Amazon

As Brazilian forest land is cut back, a single tree remains
standing in an empty field.

On the morning of February 12, 2005, on a secluded path deep in Brazil’s Amazon rain forest, two gunmen confronted a 73-year-old nun named Dorothy Stang. The nun¹ warned the gunmen that the forest was not theirs and that they had no right to clear-cut the trees to plant grasses for their cattle.

“So, you don’t like to eat meat?” one of the men taunted.

“Not enough to destroy the forest for it,” she replied.

“If this problem isn’t resolved today, it’s never going to be,” the man said.

According to a witness, who later appeared at the two men’s trial², Stang saw him reach for his gun. She opened her Bible and read, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.” As she turned to go, one of the men aimed his gun at her and pulled the trigger.

The Battle for the Amazon

“The death of the forest is the end of our lives,” Stang would tell her followers, mostly poor family farmers who had settled small plots of land along the Trans-Amazonian Highway, the largest road cutting through the Amazon rain forest. Stang encouraged farmers to live and work in harmony with the Amazon ecosystem, in contrast with large-scale cattle ranchers and land speculators³ whose widespread tree-cutting often results in the destruction of entire ecosystems. She worked to educate poor farmers, organizing them and encouraging them to resist the ranchers and speculators who want the same land—and who are sometimes ready to use violent methods to obtain it.


Brazilian women wear T-shirts with photos of Dorothy Stang, murdered for trying to protect the forest. Their shirts read “The death of the forest is the end of our life.”

During the past 40 years, close to 20 percent of the Amazon rain forest has been cut down— more than in all the previous 450 years since European colonization began. Scientists fear that an additional 20 percent of the trees will be lost over the next two decades. If that happens, the forest’s ecology may begin to fall apart. Intact, the Amazon produces half its own rainfall through the water it releases into the atmosphere. Eliminate enough of that rain through clearing, and the remaining trees dry out and die. The natural result is an increase in forest fires burning out of control.

Much of the destruction of the Amazon is done illegally. Incredibly, there are more than 160,000 kilometers (100,000 miles) of illegal logging roads throughout the forest. Once the trees have been cut down and taken away, the logging roads provide access to the forest for ranchers, farmers, settlers, and others attracted by the promise of free land. There is great competition, and gunmen are frequently recruited as a way to protect settlers’ claims.

The production of fake, illegal titles to Amazon land has become so common that Brazilians have a name for it: grilagem, from the Portuguese word grilo, which means “cricket4”. In order to make fake land titles look older and therefore more authentic, grileiros, as the people who steal land by creating false titles have come to be known, put the documents in drawers full of hungry crickets. The crickets eat some of the pages and make the documents look older. The practice is certainly widespread: in just three years, the Brazilian government discovered 62,000 questionable land titles.

Large industrial farms, like this 400-square-kilometer (150-square-mile) soybean farm in Mato Grosso, help make Brazil the world’s second largest exporter of the bean.

A Clash of Ideals

“What’s happening today in Amazonia is a clash5 between two models of development,” said Felicio Pontes, one of a new group of government lawyers seeking to prosecuteland fraud and environmental crimes in the Amazon. The first model is based on logging and cutting down trees to create large cattle ranches and plantations7, usually undertaken by big business. It devastates the forest. The alternative model, advocated by Dorothy Stang, is what Pontes calls social environmentalism. This newer model encourages small-scale family farms that work together and manage the forest in sustainable ways.

Perhaps the best-known representative of the first model is Blairo Maggi, the governor of the state of Mato Grosso. Maggi is often portrayed by the environmental movement as representing big business and rapid destruction of the rain forest. The non-governmental organization Greenpeace has given Maggi, who is known as “the King of Soy” because the company he founded is the world’s largest single producer of soy beans, its Golden Chainsaw8 Award for leading Brazil in deforestation for three straight years.

Sawdust flies as a logger illegally cuts a hardwood tree on private land. “The Amazon is too big for police to shut down all illegal operations,” says Enrico Bernard of Conservation International.

Not all environmentalists see Maggi in a completely negative light, however. He is known for respecting private property, he doesn’t allow any land to be cleared illegally, he doesn’t make use of slave labor, and he is careful not to use agricultural chemicals within 500 meters (0.3 miles) of a stream. “We’re very responsible environmentally and socially,” Maggi says.

To Maggi, deforestation is an exaggerated issue. He thinks people fear it because they do not understand how enormous the Amazon really is. “All of Europe could fit inside the Amazon,” he says, “and we’d still have room for two Englands.”

And what does Maggi think of Dorothy Stang’s vision of small growers living and farming in harmony with the land? “Totalmente errado—completely wrong,” Maggi says. He believes that such projects as Stang’s won’t succeed because they don’t take the laws of business into consideration. He believes that it is useless to fight the big business model because it makes the most efficient use of the land and can maximize production. As production grows, prices fall to levels such that it is no longer feasible for small producers to compete without a great deal of financial help from the government.

A Cause for Hope

Stang would have been pleased when in February 2006, coinciding with the one-year anniversary of her death, Brazil’s president announced the protection of 65,000 square kilometers (25,000 square miles) of rain forest. Although grileiros still operate freely over wide areas of the Amazon, they will be kept out of the protected area. Some environmentally responsible logging will be allowed, but no clear-cutting or settlements will be permitted.

Additionally, an older law that restricts farmers to clearing no more than 20 percent of their land is finally being enforced. If properly followed, this law could radically change the current patterns of deforestation. While in the past most farmers have largely ignored the law, in the years since Stang was murdered government pressure has increased on grileiros and farmers who have cleared too large a percentage of their land. In Mato Grosso, Governor Maggi helps such farmers by allowing them to buy up forest areas adjacent to their farms in order to supplement their percentage of forested land. Thanks to these and other efforts, recent forest surveys seem to indicate a decrease in the rate of deforestation of the Amazon. However, the fight to protect the forest is not over yet. There is a long way to go before Dorothy Stang’s dream of a protected and sustainable Amazon is realized.

¹ A nun is a member of a female religious community.

² A trial is a formal meeting at a law court, at which a judge and jury
listen to evidence, and decide whether a person is guilty of a crime.

³ If someone speculates financially, they buy property, stocks, or
shares, in the hope of being able to sell them again at a higher price
and make a profit.

A cricket is a small, jumping insect that produces short, loud sounds
by rubbing its wings

When people clash, they fight, argue, or disagree with each other.

If the authorities prosecute someone, they charge them with a crime
and put them on trial.

A plantation is a large piece of land, where crops such as rubber, tea,
or sugar are grown.

A chainsaw is a tool powered by an engine used to cut down trees.

© National Geographic 2017



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