Of all the environmental issues facing Central America the threat that looms largest is arguably that of deforestation. Home to some of the most diverse and rich forested landscapes in the world, the stats on the region’s loss are depressing.
In El Salvador just 17% of the country remains forested after years of exploiting the land for export crops – coffee, sugar, cotton.
In Honduras up to 85% of timber felled is illegal. Much of this is exported to the USA. Every year 2% of the country’s forest cover is chopped down. Somewhat ironically number plates on Honduran cars boast the inscription: ‘Cuidemos los bosques’.
Costa Rica is faring better. Here the authorities claim that over 25% of the country is under environmental protection and conservation. Income from so-called ‘ecotourism’ has helped in the impetus to preserve the country’s natural bounty. Tourism (along with bananas and coffee) is one of the main industries, and one of the main reasons for coming here is the lure of nature. This of course contains it’s own dilemmas. How ecological is ‘ecotourism’? for example. Often, not very. Nevertheless, without the annual influx of tourist dollars the fate of the forests may well be much less secure.
However, logging is still a big problem in Costa Rica, especially the illegal kind. Only 5% of the land outside the parks and reserves remains forested – a stat that takes some of the shine of Costa Rica’s leading example.
Deforestion is bad news for biodiversity – birds, animals and plants losing their natural habitats. It is bad news for the soil – erosion in the rainy season is prevented by the protection of the forest, and soil quality is greatly improved. It is also bad news for climate change – the world’s forests are one big carbon sink, storing and locking away carbon dioxide avoiding its immediate release into the atmosphere. When a tree dies the carbon that has been stored away over the lifetime of the tree is released back into the atmosphere as the tree decomposes. If the tree is prematurely cut down this process is accelerated. Currently global loss of forests is contributing 12-15% of total greenhouse gas emissions.
Enabling the value of this so-called ‘carbon sequestration’ to be monetised and therefore appreciated in the global economy is something that is currently under discussion within the United Nations climate change negotiations process. Figuring out how to measure the value of forested land in terms of carbon sequestered is no easy task.
There are many variables depending on where the forest is, what kind of trees there are, how old they are, etc, etc. Nevertheless groups such as the Rainforest Alliance are working with projects worldwide to help local businesses and communities to protect their resources and also unlock their value through producing carbon credits. There’s a bunch of information on their website.
Putting a price on an environmental good and/or service is a tricky business. In the case of a forest for example there are a host of tangible services that it provides: firewood, timber, plants for food and medicines, shelter and many more. These things are relatively straightforward to value – what they are worth to those that benefit from them. Then there are the more intangible services of which carbon sequestration is one; plus services in regulating the weather system and the water cycle, also space for recreational enjoyment, biodiversity, etc. These are hard things to put a price on, some people believe that you shouldn’t even try. But for the sake of protecting the forests it’s probably worth giving everything a go.