Protecting the Rainforests: for Whom?

By Professor Chris Armstrong, Politics & International Relations

Should we protect the rainforests? Unless you are an illegal logger, most likely your answer is going to be a resounding yes. There are three excellent reasons to do so. Firstly, we are familiar with the idea that rainforests are tremendously important for their role in absorbing and storing greenhouse gases. If we were to destroy them phenomenal amounts of carbon would be released, providing a neat short-cut to ecological catastrophe. Secondly, they are remarkable havens for biodiversity. We care about wildlife itself, and we may also care about the potential medical treatments that the flora and fauna of the forests may hold the key to. Thirdly, they are havens of another kind, this time for indigenous peoples. If we think that indigenous people have a claim to maintain their distinctive ways of life, then we must be aware that deforestation will represent, for them, its own kind of catastrophe.

So most of us are convinced: deforestation is bad, and forest protection is good. Fortunately, though protecting rainforests has costs (including the opportunity costs of those who would like to develop them), mechanisms are emerging which would bankroll protection. The Global Environment Facility channels money to countries with rainforests – many, though not all of them, in South America – in order to make protection a reality. Although these facilities are chronically underfunded, they are a start.

There is, however, a fly in the ointment. Existing facilities tend to reward those who have formal rights over land, and very few of the benefits have percolated down to indigenous peoples. Moreover, funding tends to flow according to accounting procedures which value undisturbed forests most highly. This means that there is no incentive to protect biodiversity, or to protect the ways of life of indigenous peoples. There may even be an incentive to minimise biodiversity, and even to force indigenous peoples from the forest: if trees are all that count, then plants – or people! – who do not count will be squeezed out.

The challenge, then, is not only to ensure that protection is properly funded (the subject of a paper I presented recently at an excellent conference on global environmental protection), but to produce a formula for funding which properly values everything we have reason to value: trees, biodiversity more generally, and people too.

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