“Happening Now — Environmental Activists Assassinated in the Brazilian Amazon”

June 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

The da Silvas, who were killed by gunmen for protesting the illegal deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil

In late May, two environmental activists from the northern region of the Brazilian Amazon were killed by a gang of gunmen. José Claudio Riberio da Silva and his wife Maria do Espirito Santo da Silva were rubber tappers who not only depended on the abundance of the rainforest for their own livelihood, but also opposed illegal deforestation on an ethical level.

The two were active in their community against local loggers and ranchers who bypassed restrictions to cut down large regions of the forest. Jose was well known for his opposition to such activities and was reputed for going to considerable lengths to make himself heard. One such tactic he employed was to create roadblocks to prevent  loggers and ranchers from accessing the regions they wanted to cut down.

The da Silvas certainly knew that their lives were in danger because of their active dissent. They had received numerous death threats over the last six months or more. However this didn’t deter them from fighting for the protection of the rainforest. Jose continued to report illegal activities and spoke out against the control that powerful loggers and ranchers had over the forest. It was most likely powerful figures such as these who demanded that the da Silvas be killed. In fact, this sort of occurrence is pretty frequent, as corrupt and powerful men hire assassins to get rid of any opposition. More often than not, they are neither tried nor punished in court for these murders. In the last 20 years, over 1,000 activists and environmentalists have been killed with fewer than 100 cases having gone to court. Less than 15 of the men who hired the assassins have been convicted and only one is currently serving jail time.

Despite the numerous and frequent death threats that Jose received over the last several months, he was never granted police protection. Although he was aware of the danger his life was in, he refused to stop acting against the loggers, insisting that his voice must be heard. “[People] ask me, ‘are you afraid?’ Yes, I’m a human being, of course I am afraid. But my fear does not silence me. As long as I have the strength to walk I will denounce all of those who damage the forest.” (guardian.co.uk)

He and his wife were found early last week; Jose’s ear had been cut off, presumably to serve as proof that he had been killed. Adelino Ramos, another environmental advocate who similarly spoke out against the destruction of the rainforest, was also  killed in the same region of Brazil, making it the third murder within a week.

Despite the deep tragedy of these unfair events, they certainly have been gaining international attention. Perhaps these deaths will bring to light the fact that the forest needs safeguarding and that the current state of affairs in the Brazilian Amazon doesn’t allow for sufficient protection of a very important ecosystem.

How this relates to climate change:

Deforestation is a very significant contributor to global warming. In fact, it is responsible for about a quarter of the global emissions of heat-trapping gases, making it the second greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions behind the energy sector (according to a 2007 report by the Oxford-based Global Canopy Programme).

When trees are cut down, they release Carbon Dioxide to the atmosphere, and once the trees are gone, they can no longer absorb greenhouse gases and the sun’s rays. Instead of being absorbed, these gases simply remain in the atmosphere and trap heat.

Furthermore, the destruction of the rainforest causes thousands of important and rare species to lose their habitat and fall prey to extinction. Tropical forests are home to more than 50% of the life on earth and yet they cover less than 7% of the earth’s surface, making these forests a very vital and fragile environment.

Billions of people living along the equator and near such tropical forests also rely on them for subsistence, so destroying forest affects not only our climate, but plants, animals and humans alike.

The problem with deforestation is that the best solution to the issue is simply to put a halt to the cutting down of trees—which would mean much reduced activity within the Brazilian economy. Loggers and ranchers depend on this deforestation to grow their crops, feed their livestock or sell their timber. It would not be financially rewarding for them to stop cutting down trees. Since there is no incentive, it is unlikely there would be much cooperation with a demand to stop cutting the forest.

Tropical forests along the equator tend to be situated in developing countries where much of the income depends on the use of the land. We have no alternative to offer, unlike in developing countries where their industries and businesses have many eco-friendly technologies they can consider in order to reduce their carbon output.

Sadly, although the forests are an important solution to the issue of climate change, it doesn’t seem that an agreement to stop the logging will be arrived at quickly or easily. In an ideal world, if we could offer monetary compensation to those who stopped cutting trees, we could potentially help preserve the forests and largely mitigate the effects of climate change, but until a more viable opportunity presents itself, I’m not sure what can or will be done.

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