Forest conservation is now big business. British Prime Ministers across the political spectrum from Margaret Thatcher to Gordon Brown have shown tremendous largesse with public funds to support forest programmes in tropical countries. Costa Rica is benefiting from a new round of debt-for-nature swaps which will provide more money for conservation. Corporations, conservation groups, celebrities or individuals are also channelling private funding. But when green consumers pay for the conservation of a rainforest, what are they actually getting, who benefits, and will it make a difference?
Cool Earth is a recent example. They use their sponsors’ contributions to buy forest land, passing the freehold to a local trust, and then to lease back the land to the communities affected. They contract local and international NGOs who in turn work with these communities to help their development. It is argued that the forests are thereby protected and we enjoy the environmental benefits too.
But some people are not happy at all about these sorts of scheme: “Buying up our forest makes me very sad,” said Davi Kopenawa, a leader of the Yanomami tribe, in a report in The Independent: “There is no money in the whole world that will buy the Amazon forest. You can’t buy land like you can buy meat or clothes. Land will always remain. We can use and use the earth and it will always be there. But money you can throw away in a river – it won’t last.” He calls for the land rights of indigenous communities to be recognised and respected.
He’s right – this rather than cash is often the key first step to conserving forests. Forests are cleared by farmers, cattle ranchers or loggers because the returns to them are higher than for conservation. Different countries face a range of different domestic market and policy failures, but without correcting these and providing the right mix of incentives for sustainable land uses, funding conservation is unlikely to have a widespread impact.