Page last updated at 08:36 GMT, Tuesday, 28 April 2009 09:36 UK

In search of rainforests' El Dorado

Andrew Mitchell (Image: Global Canopy Programme)
Andrew Mitchell

The world's tropical forests face the double challenge of climate change and deforestation, says Andrew Mitchell. In this week's Green Room, he explains why he is not giving up on the "impossible dream" of convincing governments that these trees are worth more alive than dead.

Deforestation (Image: AP)
Paying a premium to prevent the loss of the Amazon could be one of the best insurance policies planet Earth has on offer

Rumour has it that Brad Pitt is going into the Amazon.

He will play out the story of an enigmatic explorer in search of his personal El Dorado.

The explorer in question was Colonel Percy Fawcett, a highly resilient English surveyor who set off almost 85 years ago on his final expedition into the Amazon.

Fawcett, a celebrated veteran of many journeys into the unknown, secretly believed he had discovered scientific evidence of a lost civilisation within the vastness of what today is known as the Xingu, in north-eastern Brazil.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, he remained resolute and journeyed repeatedly into the forest, determined to find it.

Newspapers published despatches detailing his quest for many months, but then all news ceased.

Like Livingstone 50 years before him, Fawcett had vanished into a dark continent; only this time, no-one ever found him.

'Impossible dream'

After three decades at the conservation frontline, much of it now encased in concrete jungles searching for a seemingly impossible solution to inexorable rainforest destruction, I am beginning to feel a little bit like Percy Fawcett.

Perhaps I am on the trail of an impossible dream.

Fawcett gave his elusive goal the cryptic name of "Z".

The same could equally apply to the El Dorado that I and many others have been searching for: an economic argument to convince governments that the standing rainforest could be worth more alive than dead.

Tropical rainforest (Image: BBC)

The fact that tropical forests continue to go up in flames, contributing seven billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually (more than all the world's cars, ships and planes), suggests that my Amazonian "Z" may not exist.

Unless, that is, a completely new way to discover it exists.

A clutch of events last week offer several apparently contradictory clues as to how my El Dorado might be found.

At the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF), currently in session in New York, the International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO) released a report on Adaptation of Forests and People to Climate Change.

It contained the projection that rising global temperatures may condemn forests over the next century to become fire-strewn savannahs, whatever efforts governments may take to conserve them.

This resonates with the finding, recently published in the journal Science, that the Amazon's trees capture a whopping two billion tonnes of CO2 annually; but that during the devastating Amazon drought of 2005, they released five billion tonnes back out again.

Some journalists have asked in response: "What's the point in saving the Amazon, if it's doomed anyway?"

Our common reaction in the face of these uncertainties is to believe that the risks of doing nothing are less than any remedial action we could take.

In this case, the reverse is almost certainly true.

Take cover

Oliver Phillips - the lead author of the Science paper - Yadvinder Malhi of Oxford University, I and others have indicated that halting deforestation may increase the forest's resilience to climate change.

So, my view is that far from reducing efforts to halt deforestation, we should redouble them.

Let me put it another way: if a person has malaria and you want to save their life by keeping their temperature down, surely the worst way to do it is to keep kicking them in the stomach or even amputating their legs.

At the Summit of the Americas last week in Trinidad, a Blueprint for a Sustainable Energy Partnership for the Americas was presented to the many heads of state who attended the summit.

Aeroplane taking off
Some risks, such as those associated with air travel, are taken seriously

One of its three components was a new "vision for the Amazon". But what has the Amazon got to do with energy?

Brazil is a leader in green power, with 40% of its cars being run on bioethanol from sugarcane and 70% of its electricity sourced from hydropower.

Even in the Sao Paulo hotel where I am writing this, lights in the corridor only come on when I walk through.

The connection between energy and the Amazon is water.

The evapotranspiration of the Amazon's trees, which generates billions of tonnes of water each day, may significantly underpin food and energy security in the region.

Dr Jose Marengo, a scientist at Brazil's space research agency (INPE), has postulated that a proportion of this moisture is carried south on a low-level atmospheric jet stream across southern Brazil and down to the La Plata Basin.

If so, this vast volume of water helps sustain a trillion dollar agricultural industry, feeds hydropower, and could prove to be essential to Brazil's booming biofuel industry.

It seems to me that a new way of looking at the Amazon is to consider it as a locally owned "eco-utility", which is providing ecosystem services across regional and global distances that currently no-one pays for.

It is likely that these services are potentially worth a great deal to those who deliver them and to businesses whose prosperity depends on them.

A 10% fall in rainfall over time - less than some conservative predictions - could deliver a 40% drop in river flow, for example.

Perversely, beneficiaries such as Brazilian beef and soy farmers are at the same time potentially undermining their future success. through their expansion into the forest.

An international bank investing in agriculture and hydropower in the region might legitimately ask if the former investment is, in fact, weakening the latter.

Could the beneficiaries therefore be persuaded to pay a tax to maintain the services?

Doing so might make the Amazon worth more standing up than cut down. This would help sustain global food and energy security, worth billions to national economies.

Hidden value

The question that businesses and policymakers will want answered is whether continued deforestation could make the giant soy fields of Mato Grosso dry up or the lights go out in Buenos Aires.

At INPE last week, I was privileged to join some of the region's leading scientists, economists and community development specialists to brainstorm the idea of valuing the Amazon as an "eco-utility".

The meeting was funded under an innovative new UK government programme called Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation (ESPA).

We concluded that we can't really be sure where the rain goes, and argued over its possible reduction, ranging from a lot to a little.

Deforestation (Image: AFP)
What incentive system could reduce the loss of tropical forests?

Yet we were convinced that a new positive incentive system was needed, and that a year of effort lay ahead to figure out how it might work.

Our scientific caution is understandable; but for a policymaker, is it really the point?

As Dr Antonio Nobre, a leading forests and climate scientist, told the INPE meeting: "If you were in charge of a departing flight in which the captain announced the destination was uncertain but the engineer said there was a 10% chance of the aircraft crashing, would you recommend that everyone happily remain in their seats whilst an argument ensued over probabilities?"

I believe the credit crunch, climate change, and consumer appetites are creating a crucial tipping point in this historical debate, which will determine how the world's political process deals with the erosion one of the greatest natural capital assets on Earth.

If I can echo Einstein: it is unlikely that Amazonian nations will be able to solve this problem with the same thinking that caused it.

Although the Amazon belongs to no-one else but these nations and their people, how it fares affects us all, and so is a scientific, political and economic intelligence test for everyone.

Fawcett's ecological ignorance hid the Amazon's true value, which was all around him.

His El Dorado exists today as the vast Xingu Reserve, a land of forests quietly maintaining our resilience because the indigenous communities have maintained theirs.

But will the forests Fawcett once journeyed through disappear?

Will my "Z" in the Amazon become a romantic metaphor for an ineffective environmental Zeitgeist?

I do not know; but expecting science to offer a certainty that it can never deliver excuses inaction and stokes risk.

As Dr Nobre observed, who among us has refused to buy insurance because we cannot know accurately when our house will burn down or exactly when our car will be stolen?

Paying a premium to prevent the loss of the Amazon could be one of the best insurance policies planet Earth has on offer.

Andrew Mitchell is founder and director of the Global Canopy Programme

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Andrew Mitchell? Are tropical forests worth more alive than dead? Are you hopeful that the international community will be able to find a way to stop deforestation? Or is the idea that we can halt the demise of the world's forests an impossible dream?

This is an excellent article and something that must be reiterated widely to keep the destruction high on the international agenda. However, I am also painfully aware that I need to help reduce the value of 'destroyed rainforest' by reducing my soya intake (either directly or via meat), reducing my use of palm oil derivatives etc and at the same time helping to increase the value of rainforest that is left standing by purchasing standing rainforest products, supporting conservation groups that buy and maintain the forest and generally spreading the word so that we head towards majority thinking. Some of the answer is in everyday actions..........
Simon, West Sussex

I think countries whose natural resources are essential for the rest of the world - for example the forests of brazil, indonesia and congo - should be commandeered by the United Nations, using military force if need be - to conserve and protect these resources for the rest of the world. If WMD was reason enough to invade Iraq then the burning of tropical forests, the lungs of the earth, would also constitute a WMD and as such must be stopped!
James Frankcom, London, England

Governments try to excercise the right that what the country needs is development of housing for the poorer parts and new parks and shopping districts to facilitate this new housing development buildings. This seems to be the sign that the country is progressing with its economy but what they don't realise is that the beauty and tradition is lost once development replaces the countryside.

As in the case with Singapore. I grew up in the middle of a jungle near Bukit Timah (or what seemed to be a jungle for a young age) and my school friends also grew up in neighbouring jungle areas (i.e. North Buena Vista, Sembawang, Alexandra Rd.). Now much of my childhood memories have been lost due to development and I am not sure what has happened to the wildlife.

Although I do feel that Singapore has tried to keep reserves of the old island as best it can. Perhaps this is what most developing countries should do from now on and perhaps re-establish new concentrated areas to make up for the past destruction of these wonderful eco-systems?!?!
Craig, Brno, Czech Republic

Andrew is totally right and we all know it but .... it is so far from most people in the World and therefore how can it effect us ..... The chain is as strong as the weakest link and human kind might well become that weakest link if it continues. Andrew and many others are still holding that link together the more people assist the stronger it, Iincluding Brad Pitt and Sting. Furthermore a forest is fun and exiting with lots of andrealine potential, more so than soya bean fields and cattle ranges
Robin Lock, Northampton, UK

People only really appreciate a thing when they lose it. I'm sure this will apply to forests as much as keys. Sad to say a forest is harder to re-create than keys are to find.
michael harrison, Cambs

Tropical rain forest has got basic connection with the atmosphere, precipitation, floods. Also, it maintains biodiversity, supports human population. Being most powerful specie we need to support these forests. We need a new approach to preserve and to recreate these forests as these forests are being destroyed rapidly with the expansions of the urban and agricultural lands. The dream of Andrew Mitchell can become a reality with a collective approach.
Sanjay Singh Thakur, Indore,India

Rainforests are home to perhaps the greatest assemblage of biodiversity on Earth. We are still ignorant of most of what is there. If this is destroyed we will never know what has been lost. Rainforest destruction is all about making money in the short term with scant regard to the consequences. We know what is happening to our climate, the biodiversity of the planet and and we know the almighty mess we are causing. It is about time we woke up and got sensible. The problem boils down to the over-riding concern of Governments and Multi-National Companies - which is making money, in this case, by exploiting, what in their terms is un-used land. Governments are usually not made up of scientists or biologists, we must convince them to start thinking in the long term and we must put our money where our mouth is. The Global Community should reward well those countries(many of them are poor)if they conserve their rainforests and we should ban all imports from unsustainable sources. !

We have little time left.
Roger Payne, Southend-on-Sea, Essex

I think the author suffers from a delusional obsession.

He is at least 25 years too late. There are 6.8 billion people demanding more and more resources. The global non renewable energy decline that precipitated the financial crash is not complete. Credit is yet to fully unwind. The public bailout of financial systems is only postponing the inevitable and exacerbating the final fall.

When delivery of on time services fail this will drive many people from the uninhabitable cities into the countryside-in this case, the rainforest.

Andrew Mitchell would be well advised to start getting back to basics and begin taking care of his own family.
Mr Ronald Brown, Phuket Thailand

We must act swiftly. We must STOP deforestation, by supporting organizations such as Greenpeace and Conservation international. As a common social issue it needs a common social solution. Let us donate to these organizations and help them convince the South-American countries of preserving the forest.
Jose Luis Duque, Strasbourg, France

It seems to me that world leaders are addressing the wrong questions regarding deforestation of tropical forests and the real cause for global warming.

The main issue, as some have been pointing out for a while on some great articles from the green room, has to do with the huge amount of population that exists in this small planet we call earth.

Deforestation does not happen accidentally. The causes are vast and we should be focusing ourselves in them. Three of the main issues have to do with the ever increasing expansion of the exotic timber industry/market, growth of the extension of cattle farms and the enlargement of plantations, such as soy, to feed the animals and people around the world.

Europe and the United Stated as well as other countries that buy huge amounts of these products can not pretend that they have nothing to do with it. We are buying them. We are stimulating the extermination of one of the world's most important goods. We are all part of the problem.

To prevent deforestation countries should force themselves to abstain of buying products from deforested areas. Countries should join together and reach an agreement to sanction any transaction of goods from deforested regions such as the Amazon.

An finally but most important countries should start to address globally the problem of our ever increasing population and ever increasing consumption.
Rui Cerejo, Lisbon

There are considerable pressures on tropical forests, both from expanding populations and the desire to increase economic growth. Many 'poor' countries set aside forests as nature reserves, but receive very little support from wealthy nations to support and expand such areas. \A recent study in Laos, which I undertook, indicated that each hectare of forest was worth between US$ 50 and 100 per year to keep in its natural state. This money would go to the existing inhabitants of the area to curtail shifting cultivation, patrol the area against poachers and to expand the sustainable use of non-timber forest products as well as to support the environmental/forest departments to manage such areas. But, support from 'developed countries' was in the region of about US$ 5 per year. Unless we are willing to put our money where our mouth is, destruction of forestes and woodlands will continue unabated.
Keith Openshaw, Vienna VA , USA

Did not a president of one of these South American countries ask the world the same kind of thing? Pay us and we will do everything in our power to protect our forest. We, the United States, are willing to pay $10 billion a month for a war, but won't pay to keep the rain forest. Reforestation across the globe would be a good idea.
Joshua Finch, Tampa USA

My worst fears relate to the short run. Demographic pressure on natural resources will likely abate within the next three decades, with countries such as Brazil achieving zero population growth despite ingrained cultural and religious taboos. In the meantime, however, the stress resulting from demographic expansion may play havoc on the ecological systems associated with the Amazon.
G.P. Carvalho, Alexandria, VA, USA

Just like a person is obligated to donating 10 of their income to charity and saving the other 10 percent before spending the rest, in the same way we are obligated that we not only plant new trees but also preserve the old ones. Sometimes this effort is on the part of an individual, who makes sure that 10% of his income go to environmental research or conservation, and sometimes its leadership that can secure that the interests of the Environmental community are met. I hope we can make this pledge and be supported and backed by strong political forces. I'm glad to know that UN sides with Greenpeace, Conservation International and many other organizations with a common goal.
Mariya Nebritov, New York, USA

WE need the rain forests more than ever, please save them.
T.Chin, FT. Lauderdale FL. USA

What a pity that it won't be the perpetrators but their children who will pay the consequences for acting the part of greedy ravenous blind vermin on the face of the earth.
charles van bassen, san diego

I've been to Brazil's amazon and seen the beautiful forest. I'll also seen portions of the jungle with lands taken for cattle ranching. I also do not agree with Brazil's gov't making a dam to restrict the flow of water in certain parts of the jungle. The gov't needs to take control of illegal gold mining, and not make roads that cut through the jungle. I don't understand how stupid Brazil's gov't can be or people who make these decisions.
Frank Garcia, Miami

If all the money that's currently wasted on carbon trading schemes (the 21st Century's replacement for greedy bankers) was instead used to fund rainforest conservation projects, the world's climate, indigenous peoples lives, their economies, and biodiversity would all benefit.
Ian, Oxford

Agreed, the destruction of the rainforest is much more problematic than cars. So why does the media talk about man's burning of fossil fuel, and we hear almost nothing about the rainforest?

Thank you for this article, and please ask the BBC to concentrate on this issue more in the future.
Doug Bauman, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

I live in the coastal city of Santos and the city is surronded by the Serra Do Mar State Park,one of the largest protected reserve of the endangered Atlantic Coastal Forest remaining in Brazil. I have been studying this eco-region for twenty years and I know that it is a depository for incredible bio-diversity and stunning beauty, but it is also a priceless source of potable water. If you destroy the forest, you destroy the watershed--enough said. Robert P. Curtin, Long Live The Mata Atlantic.
Robert P. Curtin, Santos-Sao Paulo-Brazil

Someone should take the governments which are still allowing un-sustainable deforestation to Easter Island. This little island we all know was once covered with trees, and thus a thriving population. What they failed to realise was that once they had cut down all the trees their small civilisation would crumble. I hope we can realise it before all that is left is a few big stone heads?!
Chris, Bristol

I think that the rain forest should be kept alive. Without out it some countrys acriculture and ecomomy could die with it. I dont think the people cutting the trees down realise what they are actualy doing.
Anonumus, Aberdeen, Scotland

Of course the forests are necessary to preserve. Their biggest threat is agriculture. With business as usual and the human population set to reach 9 billion by 2050, the forests will be further decimated due to growing hunger in Third World countries. Developed countries will on the other hand defend their right to overconsume food calories.
Tony, Christchurch, New Zealand

i have been against the destruction of the rainforests for many years .i have visited the amazon 12years ago and iwas amazed at its sheer beauty.i hve been fortunet to have been to many rainforest countries including borneo and to see the vast palm plantations is terrible .we should make goverments do more and ask them one simple question do they want there grandchildren to ask why did you do nothing to stop this .we are not just loosing the forests but tousands of species.people just dont seem to care because this is happening many miles away.we have got to do more aout impoting wood from these counties. i say save the rainforests
andrew kyle, leicestershire england

Tropical rainforests are an integral part of the biosphere, and have more effect on the climate than temperate forests. Their preservation is more important than arguing over CCS, which makes the view of eco-mentalists in the UK - who froth at the mouth over a couple of proposed coal-fired power stations - totally misplaced.
David, Cheshire

Let's try to make the impossible dream came true. Giving up it's not an alternative.
Griselda Hofer, Geneva

"Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva of the St. Petersburg Nuclear Physics, have published a revolutionary theory that turns modern meteorology on its head, positing that forests-and their capacity for condensation-are actually the main driver of winds rather than temperature. While this model has widespread implications for numerous sciences, none of them are larger than the importance of conserving forests, which are shown to be crucial to 'pumping' precipitation from one place to another. The theory explains, among other mysteries, why deforestation around coastal regions tends to lead to drying in the interior". from So, I guess the answer is "those who cut them do so at our global peril"
Toni Massari, Bristol

I am very impressed by Andrew's work and hope that he is successful in finding a new way of valuing and protecting the world's forests.
Matt Prescott, Oxford

It is, I believe, one of the most important tasks the international community has and I for one will ,after finishing my studies, try to help in this seemingly impossible task, however it has to be possible, so much depend on it.
Mattias Olsson, Kristianstad Sweden

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