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Can Money Grow on Trees?

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Ben Anderson reports on a new plan to save the Amazon rainforest by putting a cash value on its living trees

For around the last two decades environmental campaigners have been warning us about the need to protect the Amazon rainforest.

Deforested area of Amazon

The riches of what is the world's largest forest are obvious - spread across eight South American countries and French Guyana, a department of France, it is the one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth.

It produces vapour which falls as rain within the region and beyond and is estimated to hold 60-90 billion tonnes of carbon in its vegetation, helping to combat climate change.

However, today the rainforest is being cut down at the fastest rate for three years because the fact remains that the trees are worth more dead than alive.

Rise in activity

Just one truckload of their rare hardwood can be worth about £40,000.

And the land they sit upon is much more valuable as cleared farmland, which can be used to graze cattle and grow crops such as soya, than as forest.

Man burning Amazon forest
Deforestation accounts for 20% of world wide carbon emissions

For the last 10 years, Greenpeace have been working in the Amazon rainforest. They had recorded a reduction in deforestation, but a recent rise in beef and soya prices has caused it to increase again for the first time in three years.

Traditional green campaigns have run up against the realities of the market. And environmental laws are puny compared with the laws of supply and demand.

In Can Money Grow on Trees?, Panorama reporter Ben Anderson travels to Brazil and Guyana to examine a new plan to save the rainforest by making it worth more standing than chopped down.

Ecosystem services

The idea is to take the principles of the market and apply them to the standing trees; calculating an exact value for the services which the rainforest provides.

These ecosystem services, as they are known, influence weather systems on a vast scale, produce rainfall and capture CO2 from the atmosphere, reducing global warming.

Equipment measuring water and carbon levels in Amazon
Scientists are measuring water and carbon levels in the forest

Panorama travels to a research station in the heart of the rainforest to meet a group of Brazilian scientists who are measuring the carbon and vapour levels in the forest.

They are trying to work out the exact value of those services so they can be given a monetary value. After all if there is no rainforest, there will be less rain falling on the farms of the American Midwest.

Alessandro Araujo and his team hope that the rest of the world will finally realise that if the rainforest is to be saved, it has to be paid for.

"I wish I could deliver a bill, an invoice to any big company and say, this is how much money you have to pay to the Amazon citizens who are living and keeping the forest alive," he says.

Hopes of a return

Can Money Grow on Trees? also reports from the Iwokrama reserve in Guyana, 370,000 hectares of virgin rainforest which has been gifted to the commonwealth.

Ben Anderson (left) and President Jagdeo
Guyana's President Jagdeo says more needs to be done

There, UK entrepreneurs are already banking on being able to make others pay for the forest's eco services.

Canopy Capital, a London-based venture capital group, have taken a licence and plan to raise a $100 million bond on the reserve in the hope that when the standing forest's true contribution to the planet is recognised, Guyana will be able to charge for those services and investors will make a hefty return.

Guyana's President Bharrat Jagdeo tried to move the debate on how to save the rainforest forward by asking the UK to help Guyana work out how his country's entire standing forest could be placed under internationally-verified supervision.

He said he was prepared to do this if the right economic incentives could be found and if new paths to development could be identified that did not compromise the aspirations of Guyana's people.

But, as Mr Jagdeo tells Panorama, despite this offer being on the table for over two years, so far he has received no response.

Rewarding bad behaviour

Mr Jagdeo tells the programme that rhetoric about the action needed to save the rainforest and the action then taken, often do not match and that in fact the current set-up means that it is bad behaviour, not good, which gets rewarded.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases, there is no mechanism for rewarding a country for its standing forest.

Only land that has been de-forested and then re-planted with trees can attract some payments, despite deforestation being responsible for 20% of world wide carbon emissions, a larger figure than the globe's entire transport system.

So is it time to let capitalism take over and redesign the economy so that services the rainforest provides are reflected in the money flows in the economy?

Or, as Panorama asks, can money really be made to grow on trees?

Panorama: Can Money Grow on Trees? BBC One at 8.30pm on Monday 8 September.

video and audio news
Panorama: Can Money Grow On Trees?

Environment secretary's response
08 Sep 08 |  Panorama
Why the West should put money in the trees
08 Sep 08 |  Science/Nature
In video: Can Money Grow on Trees?
07 Sep 08 |  Science/Nature
Can capitalism save the Amazon?
07 Sep 08 |  Science/Nature

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