In preparation for Pope Francis's late-July visit to Brazil for World Youth Day, local Catholic Church leaders have chopped down more than 300 ancient trees from the endangered rainforest in Serra da Tiririca State Park to make way for large numbers of pilgrims expected to attend.
The deforestation—exposed by Brazilian media over the weekend—stirred outrage among Brazilian authorities and environmentalists, who believe World Youth Day would be better celebrated by showing a commitment to the earth's future.
Axel Grael, deputy mayor of Niterói—near the site of the deforestation—blasted the mass tree felling to the media. "The incident is lamentable," Grael told O Globo Newspaper. "An event for youth should be educational and demonstrate a commitment to the environment and the future. This removal is a criminal act."
The tree cutting scandal comes on the heels of controversy over the soaring costs of the pope's visit. The pope had planned to fund his visit by charging pilgrims a hefty price to attend World Youth Day events. However, when fewer pilgrims registered than expected, the Catholic Church asked Brazil to make up the difference by chipping in $39 million.
So far, the state has said no to these requests.
The exorbitant costs of the pope's visits come as Brazil faces sustained and mass protests against state funding of public spectacles like the World Cup and Olympics, while public services face devastating cuts.