Worldwatch Paper #117: Saving the Forests: What Will It Take?

December 1993
Alan Thein Durning
ISBN: 1-878071-18-1
51 pages

Two thirds of the planet's original forests have been felled, and despite a decade of well-meaning global initiatives, the chainsaw is working faster than ever. To halt deforestation will require no less than restructuring three features of the modern economy: property rights to forests, pricing of forest products, and political power over the fate of forests, according to a new study by the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C.

Trees are worth a lot more standing than as lumber, author Alan Thein Durning concludes in Saving the Forests: What Will It Take? For instance, the prescription drug industry alone likely earns more than $100 billion in annual sales of drugs with active ingredients derived from forests; no one knows how many new medications may develop from forest products yet untested. Forests' flood prevention, watershed stabilization, and fisheries protection services are each worth billions more.

But because such services as flood control fail to show up in conventional accounting systems, these benefits, and trees themselves, remain undervalued. Durning urges governments to tax, rather than subsidize, forest destruction, so that more of the value of forests is reflected in the price of wood.

The report also recommends user fees. Charging visitors to U.S. national forests just $3 a day would generate more revenue than selling timber from those lands does now. The proceeds would be a powerful incentive for the U.S. Forest Service to preserve forests instead of promoting timber cutting and mining.

"Three obstacles have blocked forest protection," says Durning. "Nations disregard the rights of tropical forest dwellers. Market pricing does not reveal the full cost of wood. And forest policies are shaped by the few who profit from deforestation. Unless these things change, the forests will continue to fall."

The number one priority for creating a sustainable forest economy is a property rights system that allies the interests of forest people with the health of forest ecosystems. Durning shows that Third World reforestation initiatives routinely fail when the forest land is under the exclusive control of the state rather than of local residents. But thousands of recent examples show that "joint management" arrangements, in which residents benefit from forest use and protection, produce tangible results in reforesting and forest protection.

As of late 1993, some 10,000 villages in India were sharing management responsibilities, in an area of perhaps 1.5 million hectares. The concept has been gaining popularity elsewhere in Asia and Africa.

Meanwhile, a few nations in the American tropics have taken more decisive strides toward forest tenure reform. Under intense grassroots pressure, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela have all recognized land rights of tribes that have inhabited and conserved forests since time immemorial. In recent years, each of these countries has demarcated vast areas in the Amazon basin as indigenous homelands--the most hopeful sign for the world's forests in years.

Goods and services from the woods provide more money and jobs than chopping down trees, Durning finds. The scenic and recreational benefits of forests earn billions of dollars, for both the world's growing nature tourism industry and for local residents. In the U.S., the market value of nontimber forest products--berries, decorative plants, mushrooms, and so forth--may exceed that of solid wood harvested from U.S. national forests--$1 billion in 1992.

The market for just one forest product from Southeast Asia--rattan, the palm stems used to make wicker furniture--is worth $3 billion annually. In Belize, expert gatherers of forest products can earn two to ten times as much per hectare as farmers who clear the forest for crops. Without secure control of these resources, however, their potential for sustainable employment will be lost.

Ecological pricing is the second priority for creating a sustainable forest economy. Virgin timber is priced far below full cost. For instance, the price of teak does not reflect the costs of flooding that rapacious teak logging has caused in Myanmar; nor does the price of old-growth fir from the U.S. Pacific Northwest include losses suffered by the fishing industry because logging destroys salmon habitat. Those losses are estimated at $2,150 per wild chinook salmon in the Columbia River, when future benefits to sports and commercial fishers are counted.

Few attempts have been made to calculate the full, ecological prices of forest products, but they would undoubtedly be astronomical. One hectare of Malaysian forest is estimated to provide carbon storage services--which help prevent climate change--worth more than $3,000 over the long term. A mature forest tree in India is worth $50,000, estimates the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi. And the full value of a hamburger produced on pasture cleared from rain forests may be about $200.

Forests' greatest value is probably the diversity of life they contain. Forests harbor the wild relatives of dozens of crops: These related strains are crop breeders' first recourse in protecting crops against new pests and diseases. Export sales of coffee, cocoa beans, and other crops that trace their origins to forests in the tropics and sub-tropics exceeded $20 billion in 1991.

Unfortunately, current government policies in both North and South accelerate forest loss by subsidizing sales of timber at fire-sale prices. In the U.S., for example, the Forest Service, which long denied subsidizing logging, proposed in April 1993 that it would stop selling timber from 62 of the 156 national forests it administers because those forests had consistently lost money on timber sales.

To establish ecological pricing, Saving the Forests makes clear the goverment's need to stop subsidizing deforestation, and start using taxes, user fees, and tariffs to make ecological costs apparent in the money economy.

Political change is the third priority for creating a permanent forest economy, the report suggests. In particular, unless the viselike grip of big timber interests--and miners, ranchers, and other resource extractors--can be broken, all bets for forest conservation are off.

In Malaysia, round-the-clock clear-cutting is driven by the fact that logging licenses are a chief form of patronage for politicians. Officials distribute logging concessions to loyal supporters who level the trees for quick profits--estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

To varying degrees, this bond between timber money and political power pervades all the world's major timber economies, Saving the Forests shows. From 1985 to 1992, in the U.S. timber states of Washington and Oregon, the wood products industry outspent environmentalists six-to-one in congressional candidate contributions; those grateful members of Congress set higher logging targets for national forests in their districts than the Forest Service itself recommended.

"The ultimate challenge," Durning concludes, "is to make ecological services sufficiently remunerative for all forest groups--indigenous tribes and Third World peoples, logging towns and forest agencies--that they act as defenders of forests."