Leading article: The real cost of conservation

A group of developing countries will submit an innovative proposal to the UN conference on climate change when it opens in Montreal today. Led by Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea, they will ask rich countries to pay them not to destroy their rain forests.

Their initiative is a welcome attempt to apply new thinking to a longstanding conundrum. Developed countries regularly express consternation about the acreage of rainforest lost to logging and farming. They argue, rightly, that rainforest depletion jeopardises the absorption of greenhouse gases and risks speeding up global warming.

For rich countries to condemn poorer countries for cutting down their trees, however, is widely resented by the people of those countries - and with good reason. Tropical hardwoods fetch good prices. Why should the people who live in these regions not capitalise on what is often their only saleable commodity? And, when the trees are gone, why should they not raise their living standards further by growing crops on the land or accepting investment for industrial production? The fact that these regions are often populated by the very poorest of indigenous peoples only makes the argument more compelling.

A common view in these countries is that preaching conservation for the greater global good overlooks their local and national interests. Retaining the forests, they say, artificially retards their development and could consign them to poverty in perpetuity. These are valid points. After all, by what right do we - who chopped down our own forests and underwent our own industrial revolutions long ago - try to block others from following the same path to prosperity?

In broaching payment in return for conservation, the poor countries are playing by rules the rich world can understand. Their suggestion bears comparison with schemes already in place, in Afghanistan and some parts of South America, for discouraging the production of illegal drugs.

The drawbacks, though, will also bear comparison. Discouraging farmers from cultivating illegal crops generally costs much more than the rich countries are prepared to pay. Such is the discrepancy between the price opium poppies and other crops command.

Agreeing a price for the conservation of the rainforest will present similar difficulties, especially as international pressure has so far seemed to suffice. A more positive approach might be for the rich to finance the development of clean energy in these countries. But the fundamental question is a good one: what is the price of conserving the rainforest - and are the rich countries prepared to pay?