November 25, 2017

World Ecological Areas Programme – a proposal to save the world’s tropical rain forests

The idea is simple at its core – instead of paying poor countries to destroy their forests, pay them to keep their forests.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 1 Nos. 1–2, January–February 1980.

See also another version of this article published in Environmental Conservation Vol. 7 No. 1, winter 1981.

How can this fatal trend of tropical rain forest destruction be reversed? We are sure that many plans are at present being considered. One was worked out at The Ecologist in 1971 and presented to a meeting of the Non-Government Organisations at the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Stockholm in 1972. We referred to it as the World Ecological Areas Programme (WEAP).

For the past year, a group of leading conservationists and ecologists, in different parts of the world, have considered various strategies and have concluded that a programme solely designed to preserve world tropical forests would be unlikely to succeed in as much as it would ignore current short-term economic and political problems and give no incentive to the appropriate decision-makers to reverse their present policies.

The World Ecological Areas Programme has therefore been revised to take account of short-term realities while keeping long-term objectives in view. This we are confident will enable action to be taken in the short time-scale which is crucial to the survival of forest ecosystems on which the world depends.

The Plan

Such incentives, it is suggested, could be available if the preservation of tropical forests were seen as part of a wider development project. Within the framework of such a project, the forests could provide collateral for loans to be advanced by international agencies involved in development, for activities that are desirable directly for the economic and other benefits that they might confer to the inhabitants of the areas in which they are set up, and indirectly in that they are precisely those that could best reduce the present pressures on tropical rain forests.

Alternatively the natural forests would be rented outright by local bodies set up and financed by international agencies with the proviso that the rental be invested in such desirable economic activities.

In the future, the scheme could be expanded so that countries which do not have tropical rain forests to protect, could provide instead, as collateral for loans, other valuable biological resources (wetlands or estuaries, for instance). This could be seen as part of a wider plan to prevent the further destruction of the life support systems of our already seriously degraded planet.

The value of the forests and other biospheric resources held as collateral could be calculated very generously so as to take into account all the biospheric, social and in the long run, economic advantages that they must provide, not merely their value in terms of the timber which can be extracted from them.

One of the virtues of WEAP is that it cannot be regarded as a conspiracy to impede ‘development’ (as many conservation projects are seen to be) but as providing, on the contrary, a means of obtaining the much needed finance for valuable development programmes. Let us now consider what such programmes might be.


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1. An increase in the rate and scale of commercial afforestation in tropical areas

The pressures on the remaining tropical forests could be reduced if the attention of timber companies could be diverted to large scale and economically viable afforestation programmes. Both the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have called for massive afforestation in the next two decades, not only to maintain the supply of timber to developed countries but to satisfy a rapidly expanding demand in developing countries that at the moment consume relatively little processed wood but desperately depend upon wood as their main energy source. Any strategy has got to take into account both the need to maintain, if not expand, wood production and to substitute other sources of income, if current exploitation of natural forests is to be severely curtailed in the short-term.

Some way must be found to make the establishment of sound forestry practices financially worthwhile. One approach might be to take large areas of forest out of exploitative use as is happening in Sabah. This would make it possible to obtain higher prices for timber still being extracted and make investing in plantations even more attractive.

In addition fiscal advantages for afforestation could be provided at a local and a national level. It seems that the profitability, though relatively low, of commercial forestry, is quite respectable by agricultural standards. If afforestation is not always economically attractive, it is largely because the enterprises involved must wait so long before realising this profit. It would clearly be advantageous if means were set up to provide them with annual payments on a scale that would compare favourably with those obtained from logging natural forests and also from agriculture. Governments could arrange for this if they themselves were provided with the appropriate inducements.

This condition would be satisfied if Governments were granted loans on the collateral of their natural forests, and concessions that have already been granted were then suspended. In such conditions, holders of such concessions would obtain instead an equivalent area of already deforested land on which they would be invited to establish plantations. Governments could set up, among other things, National Forestry Banks, which would seek to obtain finance for afforestation schemes from corporations and from the general public. This would probably mean issuing shares or bonds providing the purchasers with a financial stake in the rapidly appreciating assets represented by plantations of commercially desirable trees. The Banks would help assure the ready negotiability of such shares and bonds which would appear to be necessary if they are to provide an attractive investment.

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2. The Setting up of local wood processing enterprises

At the moment a high proportion of tropical hardwood is exported as logs and processed by countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore before reaching consumers in Europe and America. This has two consequences; first, revenue earned by country of origin per cubic metre of wood exported is relatively low because of the relatively low value added by processing. Second, it is not unusual for countries to have to spend about half their export income on importing processed forest products such as paper from developed countries. So not only are they not provided with an adequate incentive to restore their exploited forests but a large proportion of the money
which they do receive goes straight back to the rich countries to pay for processing of a raw material which they possess in plenty. It is thus very much in the interests of wood exporting countries to set up their own wood processing plants.

Paradoxically, this could also lead to reduced pressures on the remaining tropical forests, as by exporting high value finished products, fewer trees would be required to achieve a given export income, and also because local companies would be more concerned to preserve their resource-base than multinationals that simply extract what can be extracted and then move on elsewhere.

To render local wood processing plants more attractive would be much easier. To achieve it would not necessitate, for instance, the setting up of any specialised institutions. To begin with such enterprises could be made to benefit from various fiscal advantages at a local and at a national level – just as would afforestation schemes.

Also, in order both to help them and to assure that their impact on natural forests would not simply supplement that exerted by existing lumber companies, the export of logs could be limited by law as is the case in a growing number of tropical countries.

Industrial nations would be required to reconsider current tariffs which discriminate against imports of wood processed in the countries of origin against those obtained from the major processing centres.

Hopefully industrial nations will see it as in their long term interests to maintain the stability of wood production in the tropics upon which they still depend for much of their supplies and actively co-operate with this scheme.

It must be noted that such a policy would be in keeping with the spirit of the ‘New Economic Order’ (which industrial countries are at least morally bound to abide by).

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3. An increase in the rate and scale of commercial afforestation in the temperate industrial countries

This will also reduce the pressure on tropical rain forests especially if hardwoods, such as oak and beech, are also grown, since their decreasing share of temperate forest production has been a prime cause of the exploitation of tropical hardwoods. The methods for stimulating afforestation in the tropics that have been suggested above should be even more applicable to temperate areas where greater political stability better favours investment from abroad.

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4. A shift from destructive to sustainable agricultural systems

So far we have only considered strategies for reducing the damage done to tropical forests by commercial logging. WEAP could, however, if necessary, be extended so as to help reduce the destruction caused by encroaching cultivators. According to the World Bank and others, this is one of the main causes of deforestation, for the cultivators are constantly clearing new areas of forest to replace the cultivated areas that have been degraded by unsound agricultural practices. The most sensible way to reduce this pressure is to seek to establish agricultural systems that are sustainable even on poor and often lateritic soils. Far more research and practical testing is required in this field.

The most promising systems are likely to consist of multi-layer and multi-species cropping, known collectively as agroforestry, which imitate the structure and nutrient cycling of the natural forests in order to avoid rapidly declining fertility and yields. Both wood and food may be grown in the afforestation schemes and forestry should be seen as having a vital role to play in the support of agriculture as has been demonstrated in China. Governments could obtain loans for setting up research institutions and educating peasant farmers in this sort of husbandry.

Apart from reducing pressures on what would appear to be otherwise condemned tropical forests, these enterprises would undoubtedly make a significant contribution towards the solution of three of the most intractable problems facing Third World countries today:

  1. Improve rural employment: Afforestation can provide a lot of jobs. Local people would be involved and be responsible for the conservation of forests in their area as well as being employed in the planting and tending of the plantations and in the local processing plants.
  2. Improve food self-sufficiency: As development occurs people are deprived of the great variety of food to be found in the forest and in rivers which become polluted, and are forced to buy their food on the open market. In the great majority of cases they cannot afford to obtain in this way food of equivalent quality and diversity. The scheme would encourage the development of sustainable agricultural systems while at the same time preventing a reduction in yields due to soil erosion, flooding, etc.
  3. Building a sound secondary industrial sector: Both afforestation and wood processing would provide a sound and sustainable base for a thriving secondary sector that would make the most of local resources rather than exporting them in their raw state. As a great proportion of this could be located in rural areas, it would serve to reduce growing urbanisation.

The WEAP Secretariat, possibly attached to an existing organisation, such as IUCN, would initially establish a feasibility study for the larger scheme. Thereafter it would act in a consulting capacity to governments and financial institutes involved, suggesting suitable areas for conservation as collateral, monitoring the success of the schemes and recommending adaptations and follow-up programmes where necessary.

If WEAP is to be a practical proposition, it seems important that a meeting be arranged with those who may have worked out other serious plans for saving the world’s remaining tropical forests – in order to determine how all such plans could complement or indeed mutually reinforce each other.

However, before a feasibility study be undertaken we should like to have:

  • your ideas for improving this proposal
  • information relevant to determining its feasibility
  • suggestions as to how it might be financed.

Edward Goldsmith

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Some Comments

“Tropical forests, our greatest global genetic reserve and wildlife habitat, deserve immediate and serious attention from the international environmental community. I strongly endorse -the efforts of The Ecologist to focus global interest on the problem. WEAP will provide a provocative and needed stimulus to all of us who care about the rational use of our alltoo-finite resources and the protection o f that most central element in the earth’s eco-system, the tropical moist forests. ”

David R. Brower, Chairperson, Friends of the Earth San Francisco, California.

“If and when some future Gibbon comes to write The Decline and Fall of Industrial Man, I suspect that one of the fundamental causes of our failure will be held to lie in the foolish belief that the world exists for man’s exploitation. The tropical forests represent some o f the most important natural features of our planet which still remain, and their rapid destruction by man for short-term ends represents one of the many blatant ways in which we seem determined to demonstrate our unfitness as a species.”

D. Bryce-Smith, Ph.D., D.Sc., CChem., FRJC, Professor of Organic Chemistry, University of Reading.


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