Saving What Remains


July 22, 2012

To best meet the complex requirements for rainforest conservation, it is imperative that we balance conservation efforts between the local, national, and international sectors. Empowerment over forests and their resources should begin on the local level of individual communities with municipal governments overseeing parks. State agencies—with guidance and assistance from intergovernmental institutions and non-government organizations (NGOs)— need to help formulate broader conservation strategies and provide expertise in protecting and managing protected areas. Partnerships between participants are necessary to fuse scientific, economic, and social information and formulate an overall plan for the use and conservation of tropical rainforests.

Today many government agencies responsible for biodiversity conservation in the developing world find themselves financially strained. In addition, in an era of increasing democratization, these organizations are under mounting pressure from locals demanding access to the large tracts of otherwise productive land held in socially exclusive reserves. To best address these financial and social pressures, other organizations—foreign governments, intergovernmental institutions, NGOs, and "green" groups—must step up and provide expertise and financial assistance. However, government agencies cannot expect to be bailed out completely. They will need to become more accountable to the needs of local people and to establish measurable objectives, which can be evaluated on a regular basis. In short, these agencies must increase their productivity and become accountable to their shareholders much like publicly traded companies.

Governmental Agencies and Policy

Until recently, most governments have sided with the interests of rapid forest exploitation using subsidies and economic incentives to accelerate the process and earn quick returns. The interests of the local people have been largely ignored, as have the environmental consequences. These methods are economically flawed because they fail to weigh the environmental costs of deforestation ranging from soil erosion to disruption of weather cycles, to drought and floods, to outbreaks of disease. For example, India estimates that it loses 10 percent of its annual income to environmental degradation, a significant portion of which results from deforestation-induced soil erosion. If governments starting treating their forests as depreciable natural capital instead of non-renewable income, they could better determine the costs of deforestation.

Some governments are now listening to scientists, economists, human-rights activists, Indigenous peoples, and environmentalists, and are adopting more responsible approaches of managing forests. Developed, industrialized nations see their chance to help the cause by donating financial support and technical expertise to help initiate new conservation policies.

Industrialized nations

Some governments are willing to make loans and even cancel debts owed by tropical nations in exchange for environmental protection (essentially debt-exchange programs). For example, the U.S. has canceled more than a quarter billion dollars of debt owed by tropical countries to fund forest conservation projects. In the 1990s, Germany cleared Kenya of its $400 million debt when the East African nation agreed to pass environmental legislation.

In the late 1990s, Germany was perhaps the biggest supporter of rainforest conservation among G-8 nations, with Chancellor Helmut Kohl demanding action by other wealthy countries to take action against deforestation. However since the late 2000s, Norway has emerged as the leader on rainforest conservation, pledging 3 billion krone ($500 million) a year to the effort, a sum disproportionate to the small Scandinavian country's size.

But assistance goes beyond financial. Industrialized nations have conservation expertise and technology that can improve reserve management and monitoring.

Hawaiian rainforest canopy including tree ferns. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Review questions:

  • Why do government agencies responsible for biodiversity conservation in the developing nations need reform?

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Continued / Next: Conservation Role of Developing Nations

  • Cornwell, S. ("Big Powers Plan to Save Forests," Reuters, 5/9/98) reports on the G-8 announcement that it would encourage developing countries to protect their forests by offering aid to countries that made forest preservation a priority.
  • EDF (Making the Label Stick, The Environmental Defense Fund, 1997) and Myers Myers, N. ("The world's forests: problems and potentials," Environmental Conservation 23 (2) p. 158-168, 1996) believe that eliminating subsidies for activities that promote forest clearing would probably have the widest ranging effect on curbing deforestation in the tropics.
  • According to Hurrell, A., ("The politics of Amazonian deforestation," Journal of Latin American Studies 23: 197-215, 1990) the Amazon was thought to have great investment potential.
  • MacNeill, J. ("A commentary on the politics of prevention," in Tropical Forests and Climate, N. Myers, ed. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1992) notes that there are serious conflicts of interests within government departments in many developing countries (MacNeill 1992)
  • Daily, G.C., Ehrlich, A.H., and Ehrlich, P.R., ("Socioeconomic Equity: a Critical Element in Sustainability." Ambio Vol. 24 No. 1, Feb 1995) note that poor nations have little incentive to cooperate in maintaining the lifestyles of the rich through conservation efforts while they remain mired in poverty.
  • According to the Rainforest Action Network (1993), in 1987 the World Bank granted loans exceeding US$15 billion to tropical countries.
  • The box describing the ecological corridor project is taken from an Associated Press report, "Ecologists Trying to Restore Brazil's Dwindled Atlantic Forest," February 22, 1997.
  • The Global Environment Facility is evaluated in Horta, K. "Band-aid for a battered planet: evaluating the GEF," Environmental Defense Fund, 3/21/98.
  • According to Phillips, M.M. ("World Bank Board Agrees to Weaken a Watchdog Panel," The Wall Street Journal, 4/21/99) the World Bank opted to weaken the inspection panel.
  • Information on RAN boycotts is provide by the Rainforest Action Network.
  • EDF (Making the Label Stick, The Environmental Defense Fund, 1997) notes the effect of the Friends of the Earth "mahogany is Murder" campaign of mahogany imports to the United Kingdom.
  • Epstein, J. in "Corporations enlisted in battle to save rain forests," San Francisco Chronicle, 7/7/99, notes the work of private corporations in funding and supporting rainforest conservation.
  • A survey of the trend towards "green business" in American corporations is found in Arnst, C. "Green Business," Business Week Online, 1997.
  • "Views on Conservation: Western vs. Indigenous" is taken from Cox, P.A. and Elmqvist, T., "Ecocolonialism and Indigenous-Controlled Rainforest Preserves in Samoa," Ambio Vol. 26 No. 2, March 1997.