October 22, 2017

World Ecological Areas Programme: a proposal

Edward Goldsmith presents a plan to save the tropical forests, based on paying tropical countries to conserve, expand and make sustainable economic use of their forests.

Published in Environmental Conservation Vol. 7 No. 1, winter 1981. (Environmental Conservation is published for the Foundation for Environmental Conservation by Cambridge University Press.)

See also another version of this article published in The Ecologist Vol. 1 Nos. 1–2, January–February 1980.


A. The situation

1. The world’s remaining tropical forests are being destroyed so rapidly that, if current trends continue, by the end of this century only the most inaccessible relics will survive. This would be a major tragedy as it would mean, inter alia:

  1. Destruction of the way of life of the indigenous peoples who inhabit these areas, leading to their systematic pauperization and transformation into a ‘marginal’, largely unemployed and widely unemployable, proletariat having a miserable and precarious existence in the shanty towns surrounding already drastically overcrowded cities.
  2. Disappearance of a considerable proportion of the world’s tree and other plant species, many of which have not even been identified.
  3. Disappearance from the wild state of much of the world’s animal remaining wildlife, including large cats such as the Tiger and Clouded Leopard, and primates such as the Gorilla and Orang-utan.
  4. Loss of an inestimable reservoir of genetic resources that could be exploited to provide new foods, medicines, textiles, etc., and raw materials including bases for fuels which could be of vital importance in a largely unforeseeable future.
  5. Increased soil erosion by wind and water – as most tropical soils have a low organic content and, when exposed to sun and wind, may become little more than dust. Others may become bricklike laterite when they are deprived of their tree cover, which in many cases leads to eventual desertification.
  6. There may be greatly increased run-off to streams and rivers, and, in particular (when their beds have been raised following erosion from the mountains above), to floods in the surrounding plains – as only a fraction of the rainwater that can be stored around the root systems in a tropical forest can be retained in the eroded soils of bare mountainsides, for example.
  7. Reduced transpiration from vegetation and hence less precipitation, with a further reduction in water availability.
  8. Increase in the CO2 released into the atmosphere but reduced absorption of CO2 by depleted plant life, with climatic consequences that are likely to be detrimental to, inter alia, world food production.
  9. Loss of the soil’s capacity to provide timber and other benefits on a more realistic but sustainable basis than at present.
  10. Scientific loss of unparalleled dimensions, the tropical rainforest being reputedly the most species-rich biome on Earth; aesthetic losses would also be considerable, as many of the component ecosystems are uniquely attractive.

2. What, we might ask, will the countries that are cutting down their forests obtain in exchange? The answer is foreign currency – largely to pay for imported consumer products that only a tiny minority of their often teeming populations can afford, and raw materials required for industrial development, which, occurring as it must in decreasingly propitious conditions, seems doomed to be short lived.

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B. WEAP

How can this profligate trend be reversed? We understand that various plans are at present being considered. One was worked out at the headquarters of The Ecologist in 1971 and presented to a meeting of Non Governmental Organizations at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972. We referred to it as the World Ecological Areas Programme (WEAP).

During the past year, a panel of leading conservationists and ecologists, located in different parts of the world, have considered various strategies to reverse this trend. They have concluded that a programme designed solely to preserve the world’s tropical forests would be unlikely to succeed, as it would tend to ignore current short term economic and political problems and give no incentive to the involved 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 timescale which is crucial to the survival of fast disappearing forest ecosystems on which the world continues widely to depend.

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C. The plan

Such incentives, it is suggested, could be available if the preservation of tropical forests were seen and treated as part of a wider development project. Within the framework of such a project, the forests would provide collateral for loans to be advanced by international development agencies for activities which they considered desirable directly for the economic and other benefits which the conservation of such forests would confer on the inhabitants of these areas, and indirectly for the benefit of all mankind. 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 particularly desirable economic activities.

In the future, the scheme could be expanded to those countries that do not have tropical rainforests to protect, but possess 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 system of our already partially degraded planet.

The forests and other biospheric resources thus held as collateral could be evaluated generously, so as to take into account all the biospheric, social, and in the long run also 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 by industrialists and others), 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.

D. Components

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1. Increases 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 and related companies could be diverted to large scale and economically viable reafforestation programmes. Both the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have called for massive reafforestation in the next two decades, not only to maintain the supply of timber to developed countries but also to satisfy a rapidly expanding demand in Third World countries.

These latter at present consume relatively little processed wood but still depend widely on wood as their main source of fuel. Any pertinent strategy has got to take into account the need both 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.

Ways have been found to make the establishment of sound forestry practices financially worthwhile in northern countries, so why not in the tropics? 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 that is still being extracted, and make investing in plantations even more attractive. In addition, tax or other fiscal advantages for reafforestation could be provided at both local and national levels.

The profitability, though relatively low, of commercial forestry, can be quite respectable by agricultural standards. If reafforestation is not always economically attractive, it is largely because the enterprises involved must wait for so long before realizing this profit. It would clearly be advantageous if means were established to provide such enterprises with annual payments on a scale that would compare favourably with those obtained from logging natural or semi-natural forests and also from agriculture. Governments could arrange for subsidies for concomitant services to the world if they themselves were provided with appropriate incentives.

If Third World Governments were granted loans on the collateral of their natural forests, and concessions that have already been granted were suspended, much of the current uneconomic destruction could be stopped. In such conditions, holders of pertinent concessions would obtain instead an equivalent area of already deforested land on which they would be encouraged to establish plantations. Governments could meanwhile set up National Forestry Banks which would seek to obtain finance for reafforestation schemes from Corporations and the general public.

This would probably mean issuing shares or bonds which would provide the purchasers with a financial stake in the appreciating assets represented by plantations and forests that were properly managed on a sustained yield basis favouring commercially desirable trees. The National Forestry Banks would help assure the ready negotiability of such shares or bonds, which would appear to be necessary if the plantations and forests are to provide an attractive investment.

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2. The setting up of local wood processing enterprises

At present a high proportion of tropical hardwoods are exported as logs and processed by such countries as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, before reaching consumers in Europe and North America. This has two consequences: first, that the revenue earned by the country of origin is relatively low per cubic metre of wood exported, because of the relatively high value added by processing.

Second, it is not unusual for Third World 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 these producing countries 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 (the producers) actually 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 so exporting high value finished products, fewer trees would be required to achieve a given export income. Also, local companies would tend to be more concerned to preserve their resource base than multinationals, which are apt merely to extract what they can and then move on elsewhere.

To render local wood processing plants desirably attractive would be relatively easy, as to achieve this would not necessitate, for instance, the setting up of any specialized institutions. Such enterprises could benefit from various financial advantages at a local and/or national level.

In order both to help local wood processing enterprises and to ensure 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 already in a growing number of tropical countries. As in some developed countries, laws to plant at least one tree for each one that is cut should be enacted – and enforced – far more widely.

Industrial nations should be required to reconsider current tariffs which discriminate against importation of woods that have been processed in the country of origin as opposed to those obtained from major processing centres.

It is much to be hoped that industrial nations will see it to be in their own long term interests to maintain the stability of wood production in the tropics – upon which they still depend for a large proportion of their supplies – and actively cooperate in such a scheme. Meanwhile, it should be noted that the policy outlined above would be in keeping with the spirit of the ‘New Economic Order’ (which industrial countries are at least morally bound to recognize).

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

WEAP could also be extended to help reduce the destruction caused by encroaching cultivators who, according to the World Bank and others, constitute one of the main causes of deforestation. Shifting 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 would be to establish agricultural systems that would be sustainable even on poor and often lateritic soils. Far more research and practical testings are, however, required in this field.

The most promising systems are likely to consist of multi-layer and multi-species cropping, known collectively as agroforestry, or agri-silviculture, 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 these reafforestation 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 which face Third World countries today, namely how:

  1. To improve rural employment: reafforestation can provide a lot of jobs. Local people would be involved in, and be responsible for, the conservation of forests in their area. They would also be employed in the planting and tending of the plantations, and in the local processing plants.
  2. To improve food self-sufficiency: as development occurs, people tend to be deprived of the great variety of foods that are to be found in forests and in rivers before they become polluted, and so are forced to buy their food on the open market. In many cases they cannot afford to obtain in this way food of equivalent quality and diversity to that to which they were formerly accustomed. Our 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. To build a sound secondary industrial sector: both reafforestation 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 export them in their raw state. As a large proportion of the true and sound development of this nature could be located in rural areas, it would serve to reduce growing urbanization.

A special WEAP secretariat, possibly attached to an existing organization such as IUCN, would initially establish a feasibility study for the larger scheme. Thereafter it would act in a consulting capacity to the governments and financial institutions 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. Such a meeting should determine how all such plans could complement or indeed mutually reinforce one another. Meanwhile we would like to have all possible

  1. ideas for improving this proposal,
  2. information relevant to determining its feasibility, and
  3. suggestions as to how it might be financed.

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