Hedge funds for forests?

Protecting rainforests is now almost as lucrative as cutting them down. Mark Anslow reports on a commodities-centred approach to stopping deforestation

Last year brought a shock to Indonesia. From being the 14th largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, it took a precipitous jump to third position, just shy of greenhouse behemoths China and the US. Its land mass is just a fifth the size of its new carbon neighbours; its GDP is one-seventh that of China and one-13th that of the US.

The reason for Indonesia’s rise to infamy? Deforestation. Between 2000 and 2005, its rate of deforestation increased by a staggering 19 per cent, as rainforest made way for palm oil plantations. It is clear that while there is a market price for a palm olive tree and not for a native Kapok tree, slash-and-burn agriculture will always be the quickest road to riches.

In 2005, NGOs and policy-makers began to flesh-out the REDD initiative – Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation – which would award countries carbon credits for every ton of rainforest left uncut.

They ran into problems instantly. Would it become a massive offset scheme, with Western governments shirking carbon targets by buying tracts of virgin rainforest? How to account for the methane from rotting trees? Most contentious of all, what about rewards for countries that already had policies and measures to preserve their forests?

Frustrated by the achingly slow progress of the UN negotiations, side initiatives began to spring up. The Brazilian government proposed an international fund to buy the new forest credits. The Coalition of Rainforest Nations wanted the forest credits to be incorporated into the current Kyoto system, and the World Bank proposed the Forests Carbon Partnership Facility scheme, with ‘sellers’ in rainforested countries and ‘buyers’ in rich nations.

Alongside them, a proposal known as the Forests Now Declaration has begun to garner support. Run by the Global Canopy Programme, it calls for forest credits to be created for all forests deforestation and, uniquely, for governments to acknowledge the value of ‘ecosystem services’ – such as clean air, rainfall generation, soil stabilisation and food, fuel and habitat provision – and incorporate this into a trading system.

Counting among its signatories veteran ecological campaigner Wangari Maathai and primatologist Jane Goodall, the declaration has won support by promising to acknowledge the wider value of forests, not as mere carbon sinks, but as rich habitats providing more value to mankind than anyone has realised.

‘My worry is that REDD is so complicated it may never get off the ground,’ says programme founder Andrew Mitchell. ‘It’s also open to abuse. You could spend years cutting down trees, then suddenly reduce your deforestation and earn money on carbon credits. It offers nothing to local communities. Our scheme calls for a valuing of the entire forest ecosystem, with local communities as the custodians.’

Rather than trade carbon internationally, the Global Canopy Programme proposes bundling up forest ecosystems into ‘funds’ to be traded by long-term investors, with profits split between them and the communities managing the forests. Such funds may be 10 years from market, but a legal framework is already being drafted, and is attracting the attention of hedge and pension fund managers.

This commoditisation of ecosystems is raising hackles, however.

‘Trading schemes promote an “offsetting mentality” – that the West can pay someone to reduce emissions for us,’ explains Friends of the Earth international climate campaigner Tom Picken. ‘On an economic level, the price of carbon is simply too low for them to work. The West would need to make serious carbon cuts of its own before the price of carbon became high enough to trade in tons of forest.’

Picken also warns an awful lot of people are waiting to make an awful lot of money from ‘driving forests to market’. He foresees logging companies, many of which, with state consent, have built up vast land banks, cashing in on land that may not even be their own.

He points instead to Costa Rica, where deforestation rates have tumbled through state intervention. By offering families $50 a month not to log their land, it makes sense to become a forest custodian. Picken is insistent solutions should come from the grassroots.

‘These people have acted as guardians of the forests since time immemorial, and have done a pretty damn good job of it,’ he says. ‘And the Costa Rican programme has cost a fraction of an equivalent carbon market programme.’

Mitchell agrees community participation is the way to proceed, but argues the Costa Rican experience simply isn’t ‘scalable’.

‘Wringing hands and raising money using pictures of pretty animals won’t do it,’ he says. ‘I’ve been a conservationist for 15 years and we need investor capital to make a difference.’

As Guyana offers up its rainforests to UK protection and Norway pledges an annual $500 million preservation fund, it is clear that forests mean money in a way they never have before. In whose pocket the money ends up, however, and whether it can preserve what is left of the world’s rainforests, will depend largely on whose voice is loudest at the next UN climate conference in 2009.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2008

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