Tuesday, September 20, 2011

New Research: Protecting Forests Will Deliver Economic Boom for Southeast Asia

Are forests more valuable to humanity left standing or for what's produced when they're cut?

More and more, we are learning just how much value healthy, intact and sustainably managed forests provide to society.

According to this post on Mongabay.com, for example, this lesson is being realized in Southeast Asia, where tropical rainforests face a range of threats, including conversion to palm oil and rubber plantations, illegal logging and poaching, and slash and burn agriculture.  It turns out that ecologically unsustainable practices are proving to be economically ruinous:
  • The Rajawali Institute for Asia at the Harvard Kennedy School of government estimates that by eliminating its natural capital for negligible gains, deforestation caused losses of $150 billion to Indonesia between 1990 and 2007
  • An investigation by a task force set up by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono found that clear-cutting and conversion of forests to palm oil is so widespread that it's drastically reduced the availability of wood to be cut, costing the Jambai province, alone, 76,000 jobs in the sector.
  • "According to the Rand Corporation, particularly intense forest fires in Indonesia and Malaysia have increased deaths by 22 percent.  Bad air quality can also send people to the hospital and increase asthma attacks, lowering productivity.  One of Southeast Asia's challenges is attracting global companies to locate high-level executive headquarters in the region, in part because of the intense air pollution exacerbated by forest fires."
Clearly, the economic impacts of "unsustainability" reach far beyond agriculture and forestry sectors, influencing public health, safety and economic competitiveness.

Conversely, more sustainable practices are being found to confer wide-ranging socio-economic benefits:
  • Studies have shown that coastal mangrove forests can reduce tsunami flow by as much as 90 percent. During the infamous 2004 tsunami, villages that had cut down their mangroves were often wiped out while those that maintained them fared much better.
So how do we incorporate the conservation value of intact forests, such as the mangroves described above, into our economic system?

In most cases, the only option for landowners to earn income and feed their families is still extractive: clearing, logging, farming, grazing, mining or otherwise converting their forest plots.  The Natural Capital Project, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) and The Partnership for Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem services (WAVES) are among those making progress developing systems for valuing ecosystem services and compensating landowners whose property provides them. 

But at a time of increasing financial hardship and budgetary constraints, will we be able to deploy these new payments for ecosystem services systems quickly enough to restore and protect the world's remaining hot spots of biodiversity?

If there were ever a time for the emerging field of sustainable business to help conservationists entrepreneurially innovate, this is it.

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