By Robert Semple
(Taken from the New York Times)
The other day I went to a meeting to hear Harrison Ford talk about saving the rainforests and ended up listening to a man who has a rainforest to save: Guyana’s President, Bharrat Jagdeo.
The occasion was the announcement of a new campaign to protect the world’s rainforests, Guyana’s included, organized by the environmental group Conservation International. (Mr. Ford, a board member, was in New York to promote his new movie and somehow got his schedule wrong.)
That left the spotlight where it belonged: on Mr. Jagdeo and his mission to get the world’s rich nations to help save Guyana’s huge rainforest from chainsaws and prevent the release of billions of tons of carbon dioxide, the main global-warming gas.
Mr. Jagdeo caused a stir last year when he offered to cede the management of his country’s entire rain forest — 40-plus million acres, covering 80 percent of Guyana’s land mass — to a British Government agency in return for British economic assistance. Though the British have yet to take him up on the deal, Mr. Jagdeo continues to press the case for protecting not only his rainforest, but all of them.
It is a noble and necessary mission. The rain forests form a cooling band around the Earth’s equator. And their accelerating loss — from logging, farming, mining and burning — is a major cause of climate change, accounting for one-fifth of all carbon-dioxide emissions. That is more than the amount the United States puts into the atmosphere from all sources, and more than the emissions generated by all of the world’s cars, trucks, buses and airplanes.
Rain forests serve many important purposes. They provide clean water, protection against floods and the basis for many medicines. Yet their most useful function in a warming world is to absorb carbon and store it.
For too long, these facts have been undervalued in discussions of climate change. At the Kyoto talks in 1997, for instance, various nations proposed that industrialized countries be allowed to offset some of their own emissions by paying poorer countries not to cut down their forests. European environmental groups fiercely resisted the idea, warning that this would let rich countries off the hook, and engineered the proposal’s defeat.
That was a colossal blunder, for which the planet has been paying ever since. Rain forests continue to disappear at a rate of 20 million to 30 million acres every year.
Mr. Jagdeo is the perfect champion for the rain forests. Guyana, together with Suriname, French Guiana and sections of Venezuela and northern Brazil, form the Guayana Shield, an ancient geologic formation that contains 14 percent of the world’s carbon. The hope is that his example will inspire bigger countries like Brazil to take a far more aggressive role in protecting their forests from commercial development.
He also speaks with authority about the impact of global warming on poorer countries. He noted the other day that, while climate change might require wealthy Americans to drive fewer S.U.V.’s, it is a matter of life and death for poor countries that face floods and drought. Guyana’s capital, Georgetown, is right at sea level. If the seas rise substantially, Georgetown goes.
Finally, as an economist by training, Mr. Jagdeo is a persuasive advocate for new ways of looking at the economic value of forests. Right now, he suggests, too many countries put no dollar value at all on their standing forests. So any payment they get from harvesting trees is seen as a clear profit. If forests are correctly valued — for the carbon they sequester and the damage they spare the planet — then there is far more to gain from leaving them intact.
The good news is that the world is finally starting to see things Mr. Jagdeo’s way. Negotiators at last year’s climate change conference in Bali — the first of several meetings aimed at crafting a post-Kyoto treaty — agreed to address deforestation. The big climate bill that is expected to be debated on the Senate floor very soon provides incentives for American companies to invest in rainforest projects abroad. Mr. Jagdeo may yet wind up with a buyer.
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