Green shoots: protecting rainforests

Recent studies show that rainforests appear to be more resilient to climate change than first feared. Vision explores the role that these ecosystems play on a global scale and the measures that governments are taking to protect them

Once these impenetrable forests girdled the world, and people feared the diseases and animals that lay within.

These days tropical rainforests are considered the friends of the Earth. They may cover less than half the area they did just 100 years ago but the one billion hectares left – an area about the size of the United States and Australia put together – are seen as vital to the planet’s health, and our most important allies in the fight against climate change.

The world’s rainforests are still being felled at a rate of over 10 million hectares per year, causing billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide to be released, but governments now understand that forests can be worth more standing than felled. Exporting logs may earn immediate cash for countries like Brazil, Ecuador, Indonesia and Congo, but living forests support millions of people with food, water and incomes.

Government incentives

“When a value is put on nature, conservation makes complete economic sense. Nature replenishes fresh-water supplies and provides us with plants for food and pharmaceuticals,” says Tony Juniper – conservationist and author of What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? – on the economics of nature. “Peat bogs soak up rainwater that would otherwise cause flooding, while mangroves protect coast-lines from storms.”

Conservation has now become big business. A massive UN scheme to reward countries for not cutting down their forests is expected to be set up within two years, and could eventually pay rainforest countries billions of dollars a year.

But the world’s rainforests are difficult to manage and logging companies are frequently found to be flouting the law. Progress has been made in Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines through a combination of pressure from citizens, better technology to monitor destruction and stricter enforcement of laws.

In Indonesia, home to the world’s third-largest expanse of rainforest, the government was persuaded to stop companies logging by the offer of US$1bn compensation from Norway if they stopped giving new licences in primary forests. In just 25 years over a third, or 14.5 million hectares, of Borneo’s intact forests have been destroyed to make way for palm plantations. So far, the moratorium has held.

Demand for wood worldwide is set to triple in the next 30 years, oil and mining companies want to move in to the previously inaccessible forests of Latin America and Africa and there is an insatiable thirst for electricity from hydroelectric dams in India and many other developing countries. Meanwhile, the powerful soya, cattle and paper companies keep up the pressure to be allowed to log virgin forests because they do not have to compensate people.

New settlers

However, the problem is often only indirectly the companies. As industry moves in to the rainforests, it opens up new areas, building roads and bridges, which allow settlers to move deep in to the forest, which they clear. One 50-mile road through just about any part of the Amazonian forest can lead to tens of thousands of farmers flooding in, tens of thousands of hectares of forest being felled as new communities are set up.

How best to conserve forests is hotly debated. For the last decade, the best protection has proven to be giving communities control of forest areas, with a financial stake in their protection. Some “participatory forest management” schemes are vast, covering thousands of hectares.

New approaches to conservation are also being tried. When oil was found in the Amazon region of Ecuador 30 years ago, it was followed by pollution and a terrible loss of biodiversity. Now vast new deposits of oil have been discovered under a so-far undisturbed area of the Yasuni forest, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that is one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet.

The dilemma Ecuador faced was that if it allowed the oil companies in, the forest would inevitably be destroyed. But being one of the poorest countries in Latin America, it desperately needed the money oil could provide to develop. So two years ago it offered to not extract the oil, if the international community compensated Ecuador with around US$200m a year. Any money received was allocated to protecting other parts of the rainforest. So far, over US$300m has been pledged. The oil is still underground and the forest remains safe.

What rainforest conservation shows is that in order to protect the trees, countries need imagination, resources and political will. Governments cannot protect forests alone, nor can communities be expected to save the trees unless they are provided with incentives. The fate of the forests remains uncertain, but their prospects are better now than they have been in years.