October 04, 2006

Privatize the Amazon rainforest, says UK minister at G8 climate meeting

At a summit this week in Mexico, David Miliband, Britain's Environment Secretary, proposed a plan to "privatize" the Amazon to allow the world's largest rainforest to be bought by individuals and groups, according to a report in The Telegraph newspaper online.

The scheme, which has been endorsed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, would seek to protect the region's biodiversity while mitigating greenhouse gas emissions to fight global warming.

According to The Telegraph the plan would "involve the creation of an international body to buy the rainforest before setting up a trust to sell trees" and buyers would become "stake-holders" in the rainforest.

As of Sunday evening, Brazil -- the country that houses the bulk of the Amazon rainforest -- had not issued a statement in response to the proposal. In the past Brazil has objected to plans to turn the Amazon into an "international trust" calling such ideas a threat to its national sovereignty. In the late 1950s, following the internationalization of Antarctica, Brazil became concerned over its tenuous claim to the Amazon, an began taking steps to assert control over the region. To establish a "presence" in the Amazon, and therefore the right to keep it as part of the national territory, the Brazilian government established the Manaus Free Trade Zone -- a sort of tariff-free manufacturing zone -- and aggressively promoted settlement and development in the Amazon, resulting in widespread forest loss, especially in the 1970s and 1980s.

Deforestation in the region continues today: between May 2000 and August 2005, Brazil lost more than 132,000 square kilometers of forest—an area larger than Greece—largely as a result from clearing for cattle pasture and agricultural activities. Slowing this rate of forest loss could have a significant impact on Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions, of which about 75 percent result from deforestation. Globally, deforestation accounts for about 20-25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Tropical forests, like those of the Amazon, have the best potential for mitigating rising concentrations of greenhouse gases since have the greatest capacity to store carbon in their tissues as they grow. Some experts estimate that the massive reforestation efforts could sequester 100-150 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide over the next 50-100 years.

Based on this principle of greenhouse gas sequestration by forests, last year the Coalition for Rainforest Nations -- coalition of tropical developing countries -- announced an initiative to conserve their forests in exchange for funds from wealthy countries. In December 2005 at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Montreal, the U.N. agreed in principal to support the initiative and even the U.S., which initially opposed the proposal, expressed interest.

DEFORESTATION IN BRAZIL: 60-70 percent of deforestation in the Amazon results from cattle ranches while the rest mostly results from small-scale subsistence agriculture. Despite the widespread press attention, large-scale farming (i.e. soybeans) currently contributes relatively little to total deforestation in the Amazon. Most soybean cultivation takes place outside the rainforest in the neighboring cerrado grassland ecosystem and in areas that have already been cleared. Logging results in forest degradation but rarely direct deforestation. However, studies have showed a close correlation between logging and future clearing for settlement and farming.

While the details of Miliband's proposal have not been made public yet, it seems likely that Brazil would benefit financially from the scheme. Given the extent of the Amazon, which presently covers around 3 million square kilometers, Brazil could be sitting on a potential carbon goldmine. For comparison, the forests of the Coalition countries -- Bolivia, Central African Republic, Chile, Congo, Costa Rica, Democratic Republic of Congo, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Papua New Guinea -- which combined cover less than two-thirds the extent of Brazil's forests, are worth at least $1.1 trillion for their carbon sequestration alone. Further, forests offer a great deal more value through the other, less measurable services they provide including fisheries protection, biodiversity preservation, erosion and flood control, recreation and tourism value, harvest of renewable products, and water services.


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