Lesson 16.3: Social Studies Connection

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The Burning Amazon

Think of a mysterious place where beetles are as big as teacups, where hairy spiders have 7-inch legs, and where some frogs are too poisonous for humans to touch.

This is an exotic place where trees are so tall that they blot out the sun and where one type of fish snacks on fruit.

None of that seems strange in the real world of the Amazon rain forest. At nearly 2 million square miles, the Amazon is the king of the world's rain forests.

Located in parts of six South American countries, the Amazon River region was once unspoiled dense jungle far from civilization. The only human inhabitants were tribes that respected and worshiped the land and what it offered.

Today, however, the region is under attack. Several decades of cutting down trees and farming have devastated the Amazon rain forest. Despite recent efforts to protect the area from further destruction, loggers and farmers still seem intent on clearing away vast sections of the exotic land.

Shrinking Rain Forest

In Brazil, where most of the rain forest is located, the sky is often thick with smoke as ranchers illegally torch acres of lush forest to create pastures for livestock. Meanwhile, farmers are clearing the trees from large tracts of land in order to grow soybeans and other valuable crops.

Big landowners are setting the jungle ablaze at a rate of more than 6,000 square miles a year. That is an area about the size of Connecticut.

Biologists estimate that over the past 30 years, the deforestation, or the removal of trees and other plant life, has destroyed about 15 percent of Brazil's rain forest.

Now loggers are moving into more remote areas of the Amazon rain forest. Engineers have plans to pave a 1,100-mile road through the middle of the rain forest. When finished, the highway will allow farmers to more easily transport their soybeans and other products to the Amazon River. The products can be carried down the river by boat and then across the ocean to Europe and Asia by ship.

Environmentalists fear that the road will inflict further harm on the already sensitive rain forest by tearing up the ground and disrupting the habitats of many animals.

Diverse Jungle

Why is the rain forest so important? For one thing, about one fourth of all medicines come from rain-forest plants. Scientists believe that more than 1,400 varieties of plants can be used as cures for cancer.

The tropical rain forest is also the Earth's most diverse ecosystem, or community of plants and wildlife. In the Amazon, more than 1,600 species of birds share the jungle with about 1,200 species of butterflies and more than a million species of insects.

Pink freshwater dolphins and a fruit-eating fish called a tambaqui swim in the rivers and streams of the Amazon region. Animals like the red-faced ucari monkey and the 4-foot-long capybara, the world's largest rodent, live there. Many animals found nowhere else on Earth inhabit the area. Biologists say the survival of all these creatures hinges on the vitality of the rain forest itself.

Making Progress

Scientists at the National Institute of Amazon Research say the raging fires release an estimated 400 million tons of harmful gases into the atmosphere each year, poisoning the surrounding countryside. Satellite images of the region show large blazes everywhere in the Amazon region, except in areas protected by native tribes.

In one part of the region, ranchers, and farmers who clear more than 20 percent of their land face heavy fines or jail sentences. Although there are laws against deforestation, enforcing those laws has proven difficult.

In northern Brazil, the government recently turned 9.6 million acres of forest into the world's largest tropical national park. In other parts of the Amazon rain forest, however, the fires continue to burn, and rare plant and animal species face an uncertain future.

Word Wise

Unusual or mysteriously different: I like to taste exotic foods that come from other parts of the world.

Person or animal that lives in a particular place: Some rain-forest inhabitants live in the trees and almost never come down to the ground.

Against the law: It is illegal to park in front of our school.

Move from one place to another: Many endangered animals are transported to zoos around the world for their protection.

To force upon someone or something: I have the flu and would not want to inflict it on you.

Strength that results from good health: He gets his vitality from eating healthfully and getting exercise and the right amount of sleep.

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Some words contain smaller words. For example, environmentalists contains these words: environ, iron, on, men, mental, is, lists.

Several of your vocabulary words contain smaller words.

  • List the vocabulary words that contain smaller words.
  • Then circle the smaller words in each.

Data Hunt

hectare chart

The area of an Australian sheep ranch is measured in hectares (ha).

  1. How large is 1 square meter in centimeters?
  2. How large is 1 hectare in meters?
  3. Suppose a rectangular ranch measures 12 hectares. What are its possible dimensions in meters?