Halting the ‘long defeat’ of the forests

Photo by Graham Watkins


Money deals offer a chance to halt the ‘long defeat’ of the forests


I have worked since 1975 in the “long defeat” of rainforest conservation. In that time, concern about carbon emissions and the extinctions of species and cultures has become a global anxiety. The seemingly unstoppable conversion of extraordinary forest realms, for example of Borneo or Sumatra, to fire-maintained grasslands and oil-palm plantations, makes the world poorer – less interesting and less healthy – by the day. Hence the Rainforest Coalition initiative (report, 28 November) to encourage tropical forests to be considered as tradable carbon stores is welcome, as is any other mechanism that allows those who control the fates of such ecosystems to be paid for conserving them.


There are many such mechanisms in embryo, but they need to multiply and grow quickly. One such is the use of trust funds to manage contracts with forest land-owners, to pay them regularly in return for their setting aside some of their forests as biodiversity refuges or carbon stores. Such open-ended transactions need to be sustained by the right laws, institutions and educational messages, and are often in competition with the short-term demands of logging and plantation companies. But they can be effective ways to harness global willingness to pay for wild species to local willingness to co-operate for a fair price. How to fix the price is a challenge, though, since in tropical forests most of the species that might be saved are completely unknown to science – are they therefore worthless, or invaluable, or must we adopt an arbitrary figure for each?


The challenge of conservation, in these end-game conditions, is to forage urgently for workable compromises, new incentives and win-win outcomes, and spread lessons on what works far and wide. But one thing is certain: that the survival of forests and forest species will cost someone, and we may as well commit ourselves to the most equitable, sustainable and effective mechanisms that we can find. For the route to sustainable development is, in fact, a toll road.


Julian Caldecott, published in The Independent, 1 December 2005.