A Plan for Conserving Rainforests
A plan for conservation on a continental scale
Eugene Linden, Thomas Lovejoy and J. Daniel Phillips
International Herald Tribune
Monday, June 14, 2004
The world's huge forests
WASHINGTON The Ndoki rainforest, nestled in the northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was long so inaccessible that its animals were na´ve of humans. In recent years, though, it has come under threat from logging, political upheaval and civil war. Fortunately, the forest has also received protection as part of the Nuabale-Ndoki National Park. Given the tumultuous politics and endemic corruption of the region, the protection of the Ndoki would seem a conservation triumph.
There's just one problem: The forest appears to be drying out. Various signs point to a serious decline in moisture levels, and with logging consortia continuing to cut other unprotected forests throughout the Congo Basin - reducing the system's capacity to store and recycle moisture - regional rainfall may soon drop below the threshold needed to sustain a tropical forest.
The Ndoki's situation is not unique. Deforestation in Sumatra and Kalimantan, in Indonesia, has contributed to regional drought and wildfires; in Brazil's Mato Grasso, the rainy season has diminished, some believe as a result of the retreat of the Amazon. These worrisome developments show that protecting only parts of an ecosystem is not sufficient. Conservationists must find ways to preserve the systems that protect a forest, not just the forest itself, lest factors such as regional climate change trump even the most effective legal protection.
Since the early 1990s, this problem of scale in conservation has risen into bold relief. Despite efforts at forest protection, the annual rate of wet tropical forest loss and degradation has accelerated. Yesterday's nightmare scenarios are becoming today's realities.
Even as the disparity between the scale of the problem and the scale of conservation efforts has become clear, the international response has been, to put it kindly, anemic. Endless negotiations produce unwieldy agreements with minimal funding commitments that are never fulfilled.
No one knows how much of a giant system must remain intact to avert a self-reinforcing drying cycle. But given that the fate of the world's tropical forests is at stake, prudence suggests preserving as much of the world's great forest systems as possible. This means that environmentalists must look well beyond current efforts to landscape-scale initiatives.
Consider a huge forest like the Congo Basin or the Amazon, spanning several countries and shrinking steadily in the face of timber operations, agricultural conversion, urbanization, illegal cutting, land invasion and out-of-control burning seasons. What is urgently needed is a plan comprehensive enough to provide coverage of an entire rainforest system; simple enough to be rolled out quickly, bypassing the usual rounds of endless study and negotiation; and bold enough to draw in new kinds of donors to areas currently starved of funds. We propose a continental-scale, market-like conservation plan that would minimize the possibility for negotiation while attracting major new donors and funneling resources into every part of a forest system.
Our plan would be to divide the forest into 100 blocks, and then solicit commitments from international environmental groups, development institutions, corporations and other credible donors. The blocks might be allocated by simple lottery or a more complicated bidding process, but the key would be to find an entity that would take responsibility for maintaining forest cover and forest health in each block of the entire forest system.
A secretariat would oversee the bidding and monitor progress, but it would be up to each group to decide where to focus efforts. Those who won a block would have no supervisory authority but would have to win over local authorities and groups already working in the area. A nongovernment organization might want to pour resources into existing projects, while an American utility or corporation might want to buy carbon credits and thus provide an economic incentive for preserving the rainforest.
Could such an approach really work? Ecologists won't like the grid approach because it ignores biogeographic realities. But that is precisely the point: a simple grid severely limits opportunities for studies and negotiations. Moreover, the plan is cheap and easy to deploy.
Most important, there is simply no other strategy on the table for ensuring conservation on a continental scale. And unless one is put in place soon, all the smaller-scale efforts of the past may turn out to be for naught.
Eugene Linden is author of "The Future in Plain Sight." Thomas Lovejoy, a tropical biologist, is president of the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment. J. Daniel Phillips is a former U.S. ambassador to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he worked on tropical forest conservation projects, including the creation of the Nuabale-Ndoki National Park. A longer version of this article will appear in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs.
Copyright 2004 The International Herald Tribune. All rights reserved.
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