Rainforests - who needs them?

Saving the rainforests became a rallying cry for rock star Sting and a generation of ecological crusaders. But a new study shows local inhabitants place far less value on the forests - and they may well be right. Fred Pearce reports
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The Independent Online

The romance of the rainforest has seduced scientists into inflated notions of the forests' economic value to their inhabitants, according to a new study. Whisper it quietly, but far from being a cornucopia of riches, rainforests may often be fit only for chopping down. If the world wants the keep the forests, it will have to pay - and handsomely.

The romance of the rainforest has seduced scientists into inflated notions of the forests' economic value to their inhabitants, according to a new study. Whisper it quietly, but far from being a cornucopia of riches, rainforests may often be fit only for chopping down. If the world wants the keep the forests, it will have to pay - and handsomely.

This is the controversial conclusion of Ricardo Godoy, an anthropologist from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He has conducted the first detailed household inventory of the fruits of a rainforest. Godoy sent teams of his students into a remote region of eastern Honduras, in Central America, to catalogue what Indian villagers harvest from their forests and to ask what they fetch at market.

His findings call into question the assumptions of everyone from ardent conservationists and ecological crusaders such as the rock star Sting to the financiers of the World Bank. And they suggest the need for a radical rethink about how to save the rainforests.

For more than a decade, biologists have taken it as an article of faith that most rainforests are a rich source of food, medicines and traditional building and craft materials. In the most famous study, Charles Peters of the New York Botanical Garden found that almost every piece of the Amazon rainforests of Peru contained hundreds of valuable species. In 1989, he valued the annual harvest at $650 per hectare - more than twice its value as either timber plantation or cattle pasture.

The conclusion was obvious - and a great relief to biologists and conservationists. The forests were worth more to locals intact than if they were cut down. As Peters put it: "without question, the sustainable exploitation of non-wood forest resources represents the most immediate and profitable method for integrating the use and conservation of Amazonian forests."

The findings gave a huge push to the idea of creating "extractive reserves", areas of rainforest protected from logging and dedicated exclusively to the harvesting of nuts, fruits, rubber, plant medicines or other natural products.

But the suspicion has grown that some ecologists have been guilty of wishful thinking. As Godoy points out, few of the studies undertook actual inventories of harvested products. The researchers "focused on what they saw as the potential value of the forests, rather than what was actually taken from the forest." That sounded like bad economics as well as fanciful thinking. A small amount of a valuable rainforest fruit might fetch a high market price. But harvesting 10 times as much will more likely just flood the market and send prices tumbling.

But meanwhile, Godoy's own study has painted a very different picture of the fecundity of the forests. His two-year study concentrated on a detailed analysis of the domestic economics of 32 households in two villages, Krausirpe and Yapuwas, both deep in the jungle on the river Patuca in the heart of the Tawahka Anthropological Reserve, home of the Tawahka Indians.

"Ours is the first attempt to physically measure the goods that came into the house, whether plants or animals, and to put a value on each," he says. The products included fruit, fish, wild game, medicinal plants, firewood and construction materials. Where any product was not traded in the village and there was no obvious market price, he says, "we asked how much of a commercial product - salt, for instance - they would be willing to give up in exchange".

They found that the annual harvest from a typical hectare of rainforest round the two villages was worth a measly $20, roughly a twentieth of the value found in Peters' Amazon study.

This is rough news for environmentalists, but hardly surprising, according to Godoy. "People in the rainforest are poor. If the forest produced high economic value to these people, they would not be poor." Honduras is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, and the Tawahka Indians among its poorest, most isolated, inhabitants.

Though prospectors, loggers and cattle barons have encroached round the edges of the Tawahka reserve, the forests close to the two villages remain largely intact. But that is unlikely to last, says Godoy. "Almost any new food staple or form of livestock-raising would induce them to clear the forest. Rural people do this because they are poor and stuck with a nearly worthless asset, not because they lack security of tenure."

For such reasons, Hondurans have removed half the country's forests in the past 40 years. Godoy's study suggests that this makes reasonable economic sense for the people on whose land the forests sit. If people want cash, chopping down their forest is the best way to get it.

Many environmentalists and even economists blame corruption, international debt, poverty in the cities, globalisation and the international timber trade for the destruction of the rainforests. They argue that if the forest people had full control of their land and the right to manage it without the risk of take-over by land barons and corporations, they would protect it and harvest its riches.

Armed with this belief, green-minded entrepreneurs have tried to develop international markets for forest products - Body Shop and Ben and Jerry's ice-cream are high-profile initiatives of the past decade.

In most cases, this is pure "rhetoric", Godoy says. "We did this research far from roads and market towns, in an area where traditional land-tenure rights still operate. There were no invaders. It made no difference. The people were poor because the forest was poor." But the truth is that, for all the effort, the economics of rainforest destruction have barely altered. Extractive reserves have failed to catch on.

The hope that "bio-prospectors" might save the day by buying the rights to comb forests for plants that might cure cancer or whatever have proved elusive. David Simpson, of the think-tank Resources for the Future, concludes: "when it comes to commercial prospecting in natural resources for new products, the value of biodiversity is not as high as some conservationists suppose."

In the decade since Peters' optimistic findings, some studies suggest the rate of tropical deforestation has actually increased. Frederic Achard, co-ordinator of a recent EU satellite survey of tropical rainforests, concluded that "the pressures to remove the forests are too great to be stopped in many places". Even some environmental campaigners seem to be throwing in the towel. The World Wide Fund for Nature's African forest co-ordinator, Wale Adeleke, recently conceded that "it is not rational to require Africa to protect larger areas than developed countries are prepared to set aside themselves".

Godoy is not saying that the forests should be allowed to disappear. Far from it. They perform vital global functions such as storing carbon that would otherwise be released into the air as the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, and husbanding half the planet's biological diversity.

And for individual nations, the forests regulate rainfall, protect soils, store water and reduce flooding. The massive floods in Honduras that killed some 10,000 people during Hurricane Mitch two years ago, were as much a result of deforestation as the heavy rains themselves. Steep hillsides that had lost their forests were unable to soak up the rain and succumbed to landslips; neighbouring forested slopes often survived intact, and with the inhabitants in valleys below safe. Much the same occurred, with a similar death toll, last year in Venezuela.

Recent economic studies have put the annual value to the world of these "ecological services" from rainforests at some $1,700 per hectare. This is almost a hundred times the paltry harvest of the Honduran villagers in Godoy's study.

The message for Godoy is that "tropical rainforests are worth more for their global than for their local value". And that means that if the world wants to the save the rainforests, as it should, then it will have to pay the forest inhabitants well to protect them."It might be politically unpopular to argue for an outright subsidy," says Godoy. "The World Bank and the IMF are against this approach. But I don't see any other way out of the impasse." What do they make of all this in the Tawahka reserve? Probably not much.

Last year, the Honduran government took away many of their rights in the name of the environment, by declaring the whole region a new Tawahka Asangni Biosphere Reserve and giving control of it to the state forest development corporation. The area had "great economic potential as far as biodiversity is concerned", it declared.

So whatever wealth is there, the Tawahkans won't be getting their hands on it. Fruits of the forest? You can almost hear them canoeing into town to buy chainsaws.