All About Animals: Secondary Teachers: Lesson Plan 3: Rainforests: Use or Abuse?

Teachers’ Note: Read these passages to the class or copy the sheet and hand them out for individuals to read in their own time. They should research the three views further, either by private research or through discussion in the classroom and then produce a written piece about the differences in each view and whether any group’s needs can be reconciled with others. Each pupil should give his or her own views as to whether the rainforests should be managed or utilised at all and if so, to what extent and with what provisos.

Rainforests have been called the “lungs of the planet”, drawing in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking it into their structure while giving life-sustaining oxygen in return. Some people state that the rainforests are indispensable and should be left entirely as they are; to others they are a resource that can be renewed and replenished; others again say they are simply using up too much space that could be used in other ways and they should be cleared.

The Amazon rainforests cover 2.7 million square miles and run through nine countries. The forests are richly layered and impenetrable in places. The trees create a tiered landscape ranging from 15 to 45 metres. Over fifty per cent of all species on this planet live within the forests and any shift in the ecosystems can set off a chain of events that undermines an entire niche. Each tree may be home to as many as 1700 species of insect and a single square metre of leaf litter will house as many as 50 species of ant alone. Scientists estimate that there might be as many as 15,000 plant species still undiscovered in the tropical rainforests. Yet 200,000 acres of rainforest are still burned and felled every single day.

Take a look at the three views below. Research each view further and document these views, how they differ and whether any of those views can be reconciled with one another. Give your own views about whether the rainforests should be managed at all and if so, to what extent and with what provisos.


In less than 50 years over half of the world’s rainforests have been torched or felled for timber and cattle grazing. Despite our knowledge of what we are losing, the rate of destruction is accelerating. With 150 acres lost every minute of every day we could see the last of the rainforests in our life-time. As each day goes by another 130 species of plants, animals and insects are also lost forever. This is a sad loss to the planet, the species we share this planet with and to the people who live within the forests.

Rainforests are home to 50 million indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples worldwide make up just 4 per cent of the world’s population but constitute 70-80 per cent of the world’s cultural diversity. Cutting down the forests or even having large companies move in to manage the forests in sustainable ways changes their lives forever. With these changes come the loss of ancient traditions and the history of tribes created over thousands of years.

Forest tribes have lost land, experienced genocide and died as a result of Western diseases such as flu and smallpox brought to them by the “conquering army” of businessmen and multinational corporations.

Traditionally, indigenous peoples practice shifting agriculture. Their intimate knowledge of plants, soils, animals, climates and seasons allows them to exploit nature in a wholly sustainable way. This knowledge is lost as the forests are felled or managed and the people become displaced.

Sustainable Development

Using the forests’ bounty in a sustainable way is perfectly acceptable. The rich biodiversity within the forests offers hope for future generations in the form of foodstuffs, pharmaceutical products, and energy sources.

Seventy per cent of the plants identified as having anti-cancer properties can be found in the rainforests and the forests’ rosy periwinkle has helped leukaemia sufferers to live. Drugs like quinine, muscle relaxants and steroids have also been found in the forests.

As for foodstuffs, we have the rainforests to thank for bringing these delicacies to our attention: avocados, coconuts, figs, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, bananas, guavas, pineapples, mangos, tomatoes, corn, potatoes, rice, black pepper, cayenne pepper, chocolate, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, sugar cane, turmeric, coffee, vanilla and nuts including Brazil nuts and cashews.

Rubber tapping is also a sustainable use of the rainforests but in 1987, Chico Mendez, the leader of the Rubber Tappers Union was shot and killed by cattle ranchers in a dispute over the use of the rainforests.

Research has shown that using one acre for cattle grazing yields the landowner £33. If the timber is harvested, that yields £220 per acre. But if the renewable resources are harvested this yields £1350 per acre year after year. And it provides employment for indigenous people too.


Since 1960 more than 25 per cent of Central America’s forests have been cleared to create pastureland for grazing cattle. By the 1970s two-thirds of all agricultural land in Central America was taken up by livestock, most of it destined to be exported to North America.

Felling trees for timber may not be a sustainable use of rainforests but it does yield huge financial benefits now and also allows us to produce more food. Mining for minerals and seismic testing for oil also takes place in forests and these businesses require fewer trees to be felled than for commercial and subsistence farming.

The felling of large swathes of rainforest does have an impact on the environment, wildlife, climate and indigenous peoples but it also creates jobs and allows us to produce more food when the land is cleared. It also provides timber for houses to be built locally and for furniture and crafts that can be sold abroad. We don’t advocate the whole of the forest being felled but why not use what we can to increase wealth in the region and provide work for local people?

A few facts for you:

  • Each and every hamburger made from cows imported from Central America needed 5 square metres of forest to be cleared.
  • Over half the rural families in Central America are now landless or own too little to support themselves.
  • In Costa Rica, the landed gentry cleared and enclosed 80 per cent of tropical forests in just 20 years.
  • In Mexico 37 million acres of forest have been destroyed since 1987 to provide grazing land for cattle.
  • In 1966 the Brazilian government initiated a programme called Operation Amazonia which provided tax incentives to encourage domestic and foreign corporations to invest in the region. Multinational organisations flocked to Brazil and over the next 17 years, 40,000 square miles of Amazon forest were cleared, 38 per cent of which was for cattle grazing.