Saving the rainforest with cold, hard cash

Posted on May 12, 2010 by Anne Basye

In Guyana and Suriname, it’s hot. Mosquitos and rain are my constant companions. Right now, I’ve got one eye on the sky, so I can grab the sheets and towels from the line before the rain begins. The longer they can hang outdoors, the better, because it’s so humid, it can take two days for clothes to dry. It rains so often and so copiously, I don’t feel guilty taking several showers a day.

I’m sweating inside the “Lungs of the Planet”–the Suriname-Guyana portion of the Amazon rainforest, home to a multitude of plant and animal species, and an important ally in fending off global warming, as these trees recycle carbon dioxide into 20% of the world’s oxygen.

95% of Suriname and 75% of Guyana are covered by rainforest. Considered developing countries (scoring  #97 and #114 respectively on the Human Development Index, out of a possible182), they are urged by conventional economists to increase their wealth by kissing their forests goodbye. Guyana listened to the World Bank and the IMF in 1991, and awarded a 50-year, gazillion-dollar contract to a Malaysian logging company. That’s one reason why it has so much less forest than Suriname today.

Now that contract has been revoked, and Guyana’s president, Bharrat Jagdeo, is promoting an alternative point of view. Instead of earning money by destroying our rain forest, he’s asking, why not keep our forests intact, and focus on harvesting their renewable products like nuts, fruits, medicinal plants? Better yet, how about paying us to leave those forests alone? For his advocacy, Mr. Jagdeo was recently named a “Champion of the Earth” by the United Nations.

In Guyana, people are very proud of the president's new title and international recognition

What Mr. Jagdeo is talking about is a concept called ecological or ecosystems services. From this perspective, the rainforest doesn’t have to be turned into furniture in order to have value. It’s intrinsically economically valuable, because it takes carbon dioxide out of the air, and sustains animal, plant, and human life. Also, the services it provides would be expensive or impossible for humans to duplicate, like figuring out how to turn all that CO2 back into oxygen by ourselves.

The concept of paying something to do nothing with a natural asset is hard to grasp for people like us, who are used to paying for something in order to consume or do something with it.  By contrast, this is not buying, but paying just to let something… be.

I’m excited about it, though. In my view, the economic paradigm that demands continual growth is going to have to change if we are to adopt more sustainable ways of living. Ecosystems services is an early sign that our whole idea of what constitutes profit and success will shift.

You can read more about payments for the ecological services of rainforests here For rainforest countries, these are important tools for preserving the forest and earning much-needed income.

Consumers like us need tools that help reduce our consumption of rainforest products. At the website of Rainforest Relief: exposing and challenging rainforest consumption you can learn how to avoid buying tropical wood products,  and see who the world’s biggest buyers are. How astonishing to learn that the government of New York City is the biggest consumer of tropical hardwoods in the US! It uses the wood for outdoor boardwalks.

It’s a two-step process. As Suriname, Guyana and other countries get paid for the intrinsic ecological value of their resources, fewer tropical wood products will be sold.  Demand will go down as we convince NYC and others to replace tropical wood with recycled plastic lumber, but income in rainforest countries will rise as alternative compensation becomes more common.

I look forward to the day when I can profit in all senses from the very existence of the rainforest. Meanwhile, I’ve got a couple more weeks of sweaty, firsthand appreciation ahead of me!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

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