Recent photos of an "uncontacted tribe" of Amazon Indians on the border between Peru and Brazil have reminded us once again of how much we still have to learn about the world's tropical rainforests. The people, some of whom are painted bright red and are brandishing bows and arrows at the airplane from which the photos were taken, are believed to have so far avoided contact with the "outside" world. They are no doubt unaware that high-level global talks now taking place in that outside world could have a profound effect on their lives.
That's because of the important role forests play in global warming. We know that reducing carbon emissions is the primary way to slow climate change, but preserving forests is a key component as well. Forests are carbon sinks; that is, they absorb and store carbon. When trees are cut down, that carbon is released into the atmosphere, thus speeding up global warming. In fact, scientists estimate that about 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation. Governments and conservationists have considered a number of ways to protect the forests in ways that will allow the people who live in them to survive and even prosper.
One of the more admirable ideas is to increase the value of renewable resources from tropical rainforests, such as fruits, nuts, rubber, and medicinal plants, and to promote activities like ecotourism. But despite efforts of companies in the developed world to create new markets for rainforest products, it's simpler to cut down the trees for forestry and agriculture, including ranching. In a recent article in Conservation magazine, anthropologist Ricardo Godoy of Brandeis University is quoted as saying that "tropical rainforests are worth more for their global than for their local value."
Many believe that if we in the rich countries want to save the world's rainforests, we'll have to pay. It could turn out to be a comparative bargain. Some economists, including former World Bank chief economist Sir Nicholas Stern, have concluded that preventing deforestation is the most cost-effective method of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere.
But how do we go about it? One idea discussed at the United Nations climate change negotiations in Bonn, Germany, in June is referred to as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD. The initiative, introduced by the governments of Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica at UN climate change talks in Montreal in 2005 and included in subsequent discussions, is expected to be a major part of the agreement that will replace the Kyoto Protocol in 2013.
Two main strategies are being considered under REDD, both of which involve carbon credits and carbon trading. One would allow industrialized nations to meet Kyoto emissions-reduction targets by providing grants to developing countries if they reduce rates of deforestation. The other would allow countries that avoid deforestation to earn carbon credits that they could sell on the global carbon market.
Regardless of the method or methods, a lot of work still needs to be done to make sure the plans succeed in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in a way that benefits the people who live in the tropical rainforests.
The issue is complicated and the potential pitfalls are many. For example, the market-driven system of selling carbon credits may not benefit those people who live in the forests and make their living off the products of the intact ecosystem because it would only pay those who are currently logging to stop. We also have to face up to the fact that when providing grants to countries that reduce deforestation, it can be difficult to ensure that the money benefits the people and not corrupt governments.
In some areas, indigenous people have already lost land and rights because governments have turned over forest "reserves" to companies charged with protecting them.
Let's hope that the UN discussions lead to some viable solutions — solutions that preserve biodiversity and include all the inhabitants of the rainforest, including the uncontacted tribes. It's unlikely that money will solve everything, but it may be a start to addressing the problems of poverty, economic change, and global warming.