Just how much did you pay for that forest?

Johan Eliasch — the sports gear tycoon, ex-Conservative Party deputy treasurer, Gordon Brown’s deforestation adviser and founder of the Cool Earth, which runs a scheme to buy rainforests, sponsored in turn by donations — is back in the news (although oddly not in the UK press).

Le Monde reports that the new Environment Minister, Carlos Minc (an environmentalist, and founder of the Green Party), who replaced Marina Silva, has launched an enquiry into the actions of Cool Earth.

Les services brésiliens de renseignement ont décidé de lancer une enquête sur un homme d’affaires suédois, Johan Eliasch, qui aurait mis l’Amazonie à prix pour 50 milliards de dollars, rapporte le journal O Globo de lundi.

“M. Eliasch a suggéré en 2006 et en 2007 à des hommes d’affaires d’acheter des parcelles de terre en Amazonie, affirmant qu’il faudrait ‘seulement’ 50 milliards de dollars pour acquérir toute la forêt amazonienne”, a rapporté le quotidien carioca, citant l’Agence brésilienne de renseignement (Abin).

L’Abin a transmis ses informations au ministère de la Justice et à la Police Fédérale.

Le nouveau ministre brésilien de l’Environnement, Carlos Minc, s’est dit “choqué” par la nouvelle et a d’ores et déjà affirmé qu’il ordonnerait l’ouverture d’une enquête dès qu’il prendra officiellement ses fonctions, mardi.

D’après le journal brésilien, Cool Earth fait déjà l’objet d’une enquête pour l’achat présumé de 160.000 hectares dans l’Etat amazonien du Mato Grosso, dans le centre-ouest du pays.

Les agents brésiliens ont fait le rapprochement entre ces achats de terres et des déclarations récentes d’hommes politiques britanniques sur la nécessité de protéger l’Amazonie

“Les Anglais ont une fois de plus privilégié la préservation de l’environnement au détriment de la souveraineté nationale. Ils partent du principe que des pays comme le Brésil ne sont pas capables de protéger leurs forêts”, ont souligné les services brésiliens de renseignement dans leur rapport sur Cool Earth.

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Amazonas Film Festival

The Amazonas Film Festival is taking place in Manaus. The self-styled eco-festival was established four years ago by Lionel Chouchan, who says in The Times article: “A single movie … can have more impact than any amount of Kyoto Protocol. Initially the idea of running an eco-festival appalled me because there wasn’t enough decent original material being made, but that has changed dramatically since 2003. The debate has gripped fashionable directors – eco-priests – who want to get involved. And it has become a good way for locals to find new ways of making money other than logging, selling parrots or clearing the forest for [ironically] eco-fuels.”

If life was only so easy… but it prompts the idea of starting a listing of forest films to accompany forest novels.

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Amazon dot con

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.