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Rain forest activists put their lives on the line

The survival of the world's eco-system is tied to the survival of rain forests, but those fighting to protect them are being systematically slaughtered. Everyone working to defend the Amazon from illegal activities knows their lives are in danger.

Loggers, ranchers and big farmers have organised the killing of more than 1,150 rural activists since the assassination of Chico Mendes, the Brazilian trade union leader and environmentalist in 1988.

Now Obede Lovia Souza has become the sixth forest activist killed this month alone. He was a 31-year-old family man, a member of the settlement of Esperanca, which occupied unused farmland in the Amazon in 2008. He was shot dead and his body dumped in the forest.

The loss of the Amazon would tip the global climate into chaos but the Brazilian government has a schizophrenic position in relation to it. Brazil has invested resources to prevent illegal logging, and is bringing in a new legal framework for protection. But its commitment to continued rapid agricultural development actually benefits from logging. Once an area is cleared of timber, the ranchers move in.

And now there have been huge finds of oil in the Amazon basin and the question is whether the Brazilian government will allow these to be exploited whilst preventing the Amazon basin suffering the same ecological fate as the Niger delta.

In Guatemala, the drug barons and ranchers have been working together to cut down the world's second-largest area of rain forest. More than a fifth of the 2.1m acres has been burned and cleared by settlers working for drug barons. Hundreds of airstrips have been carved out for the use of small planes delivering cocaine as close to the Mexican border as possible, where it completes the journey by road.

The Guatemalan government of the 1960s encouraged forest clearance and settlement, but the present government claims to want to protect it for the benefit of tourism and the environment. As a result, some of those early settlers are being forced out with no alternative land to farm. It is little wonder they choose the protection of the drug barons, working with them to clear land where the government's writ doesn't run.

The government of Ecuador has adopted an entirely different approach, forging a ground-breaking agreement with the UN, whereby it will not exploit oil finds in the Yasuni National Park in return for $3.6bn of international funding. This amount is only a fragment of the value of almost a billion barrels of oil, but the initiative is now foundering, as Germany announced it is going back on a pledge to contribute $50m to the scheme.

The reality is that the dirtiest end of capitalist production – illegal logging, drug dealing, oil extraction – continues to rule in the forests. Some governments are unable to stop it and others are complicit. The UN's 2011 declaration of the Year of the Forest is turning out to be a sad farce. The text adopted by the UN Forest Forum is entirely non-binding, and will not make any difference at all. The rate of destruction in the Amazon has actually speeded up this year.

Quite apart from being the key to regulating the world's climate, rain forests may contain not only plants that potentially cure disease, but also the food crops that could address increasing hunger as the climate changes and existing food crops fail. It is estimated that we are currently using only 7,000 of the 75,000 edible rainforest plants.

Indigenous people are courageously putting their lives on the line to protect this resource for us all. Since our survival is linked to the forest's continued existence we must find ways to ensure the victory of these front-line troops in the battle against climate change.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
16 June 2011

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Fiona says:

But of the 7,000 edible plants we are now using from the resources of the rain forests, how are they being harvested? And if we extract many more of the estimated 75,000 plants that surely will have a negative impact on the forests and on the people and animals who currently depend on them for food and who depend on the, relatively undisturbed, continuation of the rain forests themselves for sustinence and shelter.

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