Ransoming the Rainforests

At last, there’s a glimmer of light amidst the Bush administration’s otherwise lousy environmental record: This week, the State Department announced a major new conservation deal with Costa Rica, agreeing to write off debts worth $26 million in exchange for a promise that Costa Rica will work to protect its largely unspoiled rainforests.

The “debt for nature” deal follows a $24 million agreement with Guatemala last year; since 1998, the US has canceled debts worth more than $135 million in exchange for environmental concessions. Earlier this month, the House paved the way for a wider rollout, voting to extend the debt-relief program to target sensitive temperate forests and marine ecosystems around the world. 


The rise of debt-relief diplomacy is a commendable attempt to slow tropical deforestation, which accounts for almost a quarter of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Unfortunately, though, it’s still only a drop in the ocean: As things stand, it’s more profitable for poor countries to chop down their rainforests for logging and farmland than to leave them standing. In the past decade, debt swaps have secured about 50 million acres of rainforest worldwide; in the Amazon alone, loggers and farmers clear-cut that much land in a single year.

With a fifth of the Amazon already razed, radical solutions are needed. One option would be to simply pay countries to halt deforestation; last month, Ecuador offered to forgo drilling for oil in the Amazon if the international community paid it $3.5 billion. But ransoming the rainforests in this way would be vastly expensive: Protecting the entire Amazon would cost upwards of $500 billion, and few governments are willing to foot the bill.

Perhaps more viable are proposals for a trading system, allowing countries that reduce their rates of deforestation to sell the savings on a global carbon market. At current prices, the carbon locked up in the Amazon could be worth up to $3.4 trillion; acre-by-acre, the potential profits in selling carbon credits could outstrip those of logging and farming by a factor of ten.

Of course, there would be problems along the way - implementing and regulating a trading system would be tricky, and attempts to monetarize the rainforests would anger some indigenous groups. But the bottom line is that something needs to be done to allow countries to cash in on their rainforests without cutting them down. The White House shouldn’t rest on its laurels: Debt-relief programs are a start, but only a start.

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