Cloud forest in Ecuador
In recent years here has been a lot of discussion of rewarding countries for preserving existing forests and reducing rates of deforestation and punishing those who don’t do more to reduce carbon emissions but coming up with a system that is fair and verifiable is elusive. For example, you can reward countries like Indonesia and Brazil for reducing their deforestation rate but what about countries like Guyana and Suriname that have maintained high forest cover.

Leaders of poor tropical countries have argued that the cheapest way to combat not only deforestation but also global warming is for rich, developed countries to pay poor, tropical developing countries not to fell trees. The governors of several Amazon states have signed agreements with California to sell carbon credits in California’s cap-and-trade market that would allow California businesses to meet their emission targets by donating money for rainforest protection.

Thomas L. Friedman wrote in the New York Times: “One million dollars? The question was asked with eyes wide and a voice of incredulity. The person asking was Antonio Waldez Góes da Silva, the governor of the Amazonian state of Amapá, which has the biggest national park in the world. I had just shared with Gov. Waldez Góes a recent news article in The Hill, the Congressional newspaper, which said the total cost of stationing one U.S. soldier in Afghanistan for one year is $1 million. [Source: Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times, November 14, 2009]

What if we kept just one soldier back from Afghanistan and gave you the money, I asked the governor? What would it buy you? Gov. Waldez Góes mulled that over: “If you kept three soldiers back, that would be enough for me to keep the State University of Amapá running for one year, so 1,400 students could take different courses on sustainable development for the Amazon.”

An intergovernmental working group for saving the rainforests estimates that for about $30 billion we could reduce deforestation in places like Brazil, Indonesia and the Congo by 25 percent by 2015. After that, financing from global carbon markets, plus these countries’ own resources, could save much of the rest. China now has $2.2 trillion in reserves. How about it, Beijing? Why don’t you step up and provide some public goods for the world for once---not because you get a direct benefit, but just because it would make the world a better place for everyone?

Sure, America should still lead such efforts. But China’s days as a global free-rider should be over. China should pay its fair share---and more---since it will benefit every bit as much as the U.S., Europe and Japan. Indeed, the U.N. Foundation estimates that because living tropical forests are such huge storehouses of carbon---which gets released when we chop the trees down---if we just stop deforestation, we get a big chunk of the carbon-emissions reductions the world needs between now and 2020.

“And forest-rich developing countries, like Brazil, are now ready to do their part because they depend on the water that the rainforests provide for energy and agriculture, and because they see a new model for growth based on their natural capital,” said Glenn Prickett, a senior vice president with Conservation International and my traveling companion here. “Brazil has developed the science, political will and basic rules and institutions for preserving its rainforests. What Brazil and other rainforest nations like Indonesia lack, though, are the funds to take this new economic model to scale.”

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Power Plant in Tianjin, China

Efforts by Local Governments to Protect Rainforests

Thomas L. Friedman wrote in the New York Times: “I was struck by how many of the building blocks for “natural capitalism” that Gov. Waldez Góes---whose state sits at the mouth of the Amazon---is putting in place, so that he can have an economy based on preserving the rainforest rather than stripping it. He’s building on the three P’s---creating protected forest areas, improving productivity on lands that have already been cleared so farmers there will not need more, and establishing property rights for Amazonian lands, which are a legal mess, inviting Wild West land grabs and scaring off investors in sustainable agriculture.

Gov. Waldez Góes has already protected 75 percent of his state as rainforest and has enacted the laws and created a technical college to provide for sustainable logging and eco-tourism and for developing medicinal and cosmetic products from rainforest plants. But he needs funds to implement and monitor at scale and prove that “natural capitalism” can deliver more than the extractive version.

“I am the son of a rubber tapper,” he explains. “I was born and raised in the jungle, so even before becoming a politician I had a strong connection to nature.” The world is facing this relentless “development path that brings pollution and degradation and deforestation,” he added. He and other Brazilians want to prove you can do better by bringing “conservation and development together.”

CO2 responsibility 1950-2000

REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation)

Under the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programs approved at the climate change summit in Copenhagen governments of industrial nations such as the United States will auction emission allowances and the money raised (as much as $3 billion) will go into rainforest protection.

Under the REDD agreement contributors pay about $6.59 for each ton of carbon dioxide they save by reducing deforestation. In contrast, fitting carbon capture and storage systems on a coal-fired plants cost $82 for each ton saved. The first test of these system was an agreement in which Norway will pay Guyana $247 million for preserve trees with payments made on condition that Guyana prove is holding up its end of the bargain and not wasting the money on corruption. Norway also has a deal with Indonesia to pay it $1 billion for preserving its forests and peat lands.

At the UN-sponsored COP16 climate conference in Cancún, Mexico, in December 2010, The Economist reported: “delegates reached agreement on a long-debated program known as REDD...The basic idea is for rich countries to pay to preserve forests in poor ones, which can be cheaper than reducing their own carbon emissions. Economic development both causes deforestation and slows it. In the early stages of development people destroy forests for a meagre living. Globalisation is speeding up the process by boosting the demand for agricultural goods produced in tropical countries. At the same time, as people in emerging countries become more prosperous, they start thinking about issues beyond their family’s welfare; their governments begin to pass and slowly enforce laws to conserve the environment. Trade can also allow the greener concerns of rich-world consumers to influence developing-world producers. [Source: The Economist, September 23, 2011]

cloud forest jungle

It is increasingly common for governments and companies to pay for forest and other ecosystem services. To protect its watershed, New York pays farmers in the Catskills not to develop their land. REDD schemes aspire to do this on a much larger scale. The only notable success of the Copenhagen climate-change conference in 2009 was a commitment to pursue them. Half a dozen rich countries, including Norway, America and Britain, have promised $4.5 billion for starters.

That recognition, and advances in satellite imaging and carbon measurements over the past decade, have made REDD, an important part of the climate treaty talks. Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times, REDD “compensates countries for preserving forests, and in some cases, other natural landscapes like peat soils, swamps and fields that play a crucial role in curbing climate change. Environmental groups have long advocated such a compensation program because forests are efficient absorbers of carbon dioxide, the primary heat-trapping gas linked to global warming. For poorer countries, the payments will provide a much-needed new income stream. For richer nations, the lure of the program is not cash but carbon credits that can be used to cancel out, in part, their industrial emissions under a carbon trading system. [Source: Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times, December 15, 2009]

Cloud forest
Forests “have become a pot of money or a get out of jail free card,” said Peg Putt, a consultant to the Wilderness Society. “Either way, there’s the prospect of financial benefit now, as opposed to just being told, “Do the right thing,” like it was two years ago.” The new plan represents an important shift from earlier United Nations climate programs, like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, in which countries committed to curbing their industrial emissions but got no credit for reducing emissions through changes in land use.

A major shortcoming of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change was its failure to address the huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the destruction of the world’s rain forests. REDD was an attempt by the rich nations to address this problem. Before the Copenhagen climate change conference President Luiz Ino Lula da Silva of Brazil said that rich Western nations should pay to prevent deforestation in the Amazon rain forest because those countries have caused much more past environmental destruction than the local loggers and farmers.He said he did not want rich nations ''asking us to let an Amazon resident die of hunger under a tree...'We want to preserve, but they will have to pay the price for this preservation because we never destroyed our forest like they mowed theirs down a century ago.'' [Source: Associated Press, November 27, 2009]

< The Copenhagen conference in December 2009 supported the idea of reducing carbon emissions by paying countries to conserve their forests. Norway and Indonesia signed the first such deal for $1 billion in May 2010. Under the terms of the deal signed by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono Indonesia promised a two-year moratorium on new forest-clearance permits, in exchange for $1 billion from Norway. Environmentalists welcomed the deal, saying such innovative financing could potentially bring huge benefits to biodiversity, but warned that huge areas already designated for destruction might not be covered.

Problems with REDD

The New York Times reported: “A big effort will still be required to resist the loggers, miners, ranchers and politicians who have had their way with the rain forests for years. And any plan must include safeguards and inspection mechanisms to ensure that the allowances and offsets are being used properly.” [Source: New York Times, May 28, 2009]

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Puentes Colgantes, Costa Rica
The Economist said: “The difficulties are immense. REDD projects will be effective only in places where the government sort-of works, and the tropical countries with the most important forests include some of the world’s worst-run places. Even in countries with functioning states, some of the money is bound to be stolen. Yet with sufficient attention to monitoring, verification and, crucially, making sure the cash goes to the people who can actually protect the forest, REDD could work. That will cost much more than has so far been pledged. The most obvious source of extra cash is the carbon market, or preferably a carbon tax. Since saving forests is often the cheapest way to tackle carbon emissions, funding it this way makes sense. [Source: The Economist, September 23, 2011]

With global climate-change negotiations foundering, the prospects of raising cash for REDD that way look poor. But the money must be found from somewhere. Without a serious effort to solve this problem, the risk from climate change will be vastly increased and the planet will lose one of its most valuable, and most beautiful, assets. That would be a tragedy.

Some countries including the United States have proposed raising funds for the REDD scheme through carbon trading. In 2009 the United States said it was planning to set up a carbon trading system that could raise $60 billion annually through the sale of pollution allowances. Five percent of that would be set aside to help prevent deforestation, either through a special international fund or as bilateral grants to poor countries. In recent years though carbon trading schemes have been dismissed as ineffective in tackling global warming and are being dropped as a policy strategy.

Guyana and Its REDD Deal

Erica Gies wrote in New York Times, “In Guyana, where pristine rain forest still covers 75 percent of the land, and barely 750,000 people live in a country roughly the size of Britain, a young economist-turned-president is pushing a development model based on conservation that has earned his government international recognition in the United Nations talks on a climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. [Source: Erica Gies, New York Times, December 8, 2009]

Guyana’s minister of foreign affairs, Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett, said that the world’s growing motivation to tackle climate change could mean sustainable economic opportunity for her country as well as a cost-effective investment for the world. “The fastest way of reducing carbon emissions is keeping the forest standing,” she said in an interview here in September, ahead of this month’s Copenhagen conference on climate change. “All of the other measures we could take would take technology, time. But this we can do immediately. We just stop. We just stop cutting.”

Guyana argues that forest conservation is critically important. If incentives are aimed only at encouraging countries with high deforestation, like its neighbor Brazil, to curtail logging, timber clearance will simply migrate from protected to unprotected countries, it says. Pursuing that concept, President Bharrat Jagdeo commissioned the international management consulting firm McKinsey in 2008 to help calculate deforestation’s economic value to his nation---that is, the amount Guyana could earn by selling its forests for timber and using the land for agriculture. After all, said Mr. Jagdeo, a former finance minister who studied economics in Moscow, deforestation is not a result of irrationality or ignorance; people get economic benefits when they log and farm. For preservation to work, “the incentives must be at a level that will outcompete alternative activities,” he said in an interview.

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strangler fig
Critics protest that the value calculated by McKinsey---$580 million annually over 25 years---amounts to blackmail. But Ian Craddock, a British expatriate who runs an adventure tourism company in Guyana, disagrees. “Guyana is a small, impoverished country that’s trying to develop itself,” he said. “And if the Western world isn’t going to protect the rain forest and start coughing up money to countries like Guyana, then they’re going to have to start using their resources. Just like England did for thousands of years, just like the States is doing and Canada is doing. You can’t be hypocrites about it.”

To help convince developed countries, Guyana has undertaken a pilot project, largely funded through a partnership deal signed last month with Norway. The agreement will provide Guyana $30 million in 2010 for forest conservation and up to $250 million by 2015, based upon its success in limiting emissions. Guyana will use the money to begin protecting its rain forests and implementing its low-carbon development strategy.

Elements of the partnership that might offer lessons for others include the setting up of a transparent financial transfer mechanism that allows Guyana to maintain sovereignty over its resources; the creation of a system to measure, monitor and report changes in forest cover; and the organization of consultations with all Guyanese, including indigenous people, to generate nationwide support.

The Guyana project promises to allow Amerindians to continue their traditional way of life in the forest where, Mr. Allicock said, they are an integral part of the ecosystem. When they cut trees to farm, they use the land for about three years and then let it go fallow. “You would be amazed to see after five, six years, that different types of trees that were not even there---but seeds were probably in the ground---are now able to evolve,” he said. “That sort of understanding with the forest is what we have.”

Problems with the Guyana REDD Deal

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strangler fig
At the COP16 conference in Cancun in December 2010, a bitter, public debate emerged between Guyana's president, Bharrat Jagdeo, and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg about how long it's taking Norway to compensate Guyana for preserving its forests. Juliet Eilperin wrote in the Washington Post, Norway had “already agreed to provide $250 million to Guyana over the next four decades if it manages to preserve its entire tropical forest, which is larger than the size of England. But in the opening panel, Jagdeo complained that his country is still waiting to get paid for its efforts.” "The international community has a very poor track record of delivering help," he said, adding that he appreciates Norway's generosity. "But I can't get the money." [Source: Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post, December 8, 2010]

In an interview after the panel discussion, Jagdeo explained that, while his government proved in January it had fulfilled the first part of its commitment to Norway, it was just on the verge of getting the first $30 million of Norway's pledge. He placed the blame for the delay squarely on the World Bank, which he said has repeatedly stalled in handing over the money.

In one meeting where Norway, Guyana and World Bank officials met to discuss dispersing the money, Jagdeo said, his country sent two representatives, Norway sent half a dozen, and the World Bank sent three dozen. "It's a waste of money," Jagdeo said of the World Bank's role as an intermediary. When it comes to turning on the spigot for the funds, he said, "It's not Norway. They can't get it."

During the panel discussion, Stoltenberg responded by explaining that Norway was willing to disburse its forestry funds only once the country in question had proven it had sequestered carbon in its trees. "Results is what we're looking for," said Stoltenberg, who noted that his country finances its large foreign aid budget through high taxation on petroleum, among other things. "It's hard to win elections on a message of high taxation." If he and others can prove developing nations are saving their forests, he added, it will "show Norwegian voters they're getting something back." As Stoltenberg noted, "We won election last year but you never know, elections are uncertain things."

But Jagdeo wasn't done. Turning to White House aide Joe Aldy, the Guyanan president urged him to get President Obama to read the recent report by the U.N. task force on international climate aid, which said the industrialized world will only be able to mobilize $100 billion a year in aid to poor nations if the world put a price on carbon ranging between $20 and $25 per ton."Could you please give President Obama a copy of that executive summary?" he asked.

WWF’s Global Forest Protection Effort’s Criticized

London-based Global Witness alleges that participants in a global, landmark effort to save the world's shrinking forests are instead trading in illegally sourced timber and razing jungles in Borneo that are home to endangered orangutans. According to an AP report Global Witness said in a report that “some companies in Asia, Africa and Europe are allowed to reap benefits of associating with the World Wide Fund for Nature, which authored the project, while continuing to destroy forests and deal in illegally sourced timber. [Source: AP, July 25, 2011]

WWF says its network links some 300 companies, communities and NGOs in more than 30 countries. The Switzerland-based WWF, one of the world's prominent environmental organizations, rejected the allegations. In a statement, WWF said the report contained a number of errors and misleading remarks and rejected its main allegations.

Global Witness said one network member, Malaysia's Ta Ann Holdings Berhad, has clear-cut rain forests at the equivalent of 20 football fields a day in an area that overlaps WWF's own 'Heart of Borneo' conservation project. The region, in Malaysia's Sarawak state, is home to orangutans, gibbons and clouded leopards.

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'When a landmark scheme created in the same of sustainability and conservation tolerates one of its member companies destroying orangutan habitat, something is going seriously wrong,' Tom Picken, a staffer at Global Witness, which investigates the corrupt exploitation of natural resources, said in a statement. It was one of the first to expose the 'blood diamond' trade in Africa.

Global Witness said the WWF project was 'opaque, with little or no information in the public domain about the performance of individual participating companies, or the impact of the scheme itself'. It called for an independent evaluation of the network's rules and its impacts on forests and called on the WWF to 'publicly dissociate itself from any company using timber from illegal or unethical sources'.

Image Source: Mongabay ; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: The Private Life of Plants: A Natural History of Plant Behavior by David Attenborough (Princeton University Press, 1997); National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2012

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