The wealth of forests

Copyright: Dieter Telemans / Panos

Speed read

  • Firms profit from logging rainforest and replacing trees with cash crops
  • But people who live in forests get more than monetary benefits from intact forest
  • Understanding and acknowledging this could bolster conservation efforts

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The day I first set foot in a tropical rainforest, in Malaysia in the early 1980s, I experienced something profound. From the echoes of gibbons calling from the canopy in the early morning mist to the iridescent flash of a bird in a beam of sunlight, rainforests are a sensory delight as well as a marvel to anyone’s scientific curiosity.

As I subsequently watched these forests dwindle and, in some cases, vanish, I have felt an equally profound sense of loss and a nagging guilt that I was somehow part of the story, because I had done little to remedy the situation.

Forests in tropical areas, which we know as rainforests because they are so wet — and therefore so luxuriant, so full of life — are also full of wealth. They contain huge hardwood trees, as well as a wide range of non-timber products including palm leaves and rattan — even salt from brine springs located deep in the forest.

This wealth can be assessed as something that can be converted into money or into practical uses. For people living in and near forests, it is vital to everyday lives and livelihoods.
But let’s take a closer look at the idea of wealth itself.

More than money

Wealth is usually assessed solely in monetary terms. But, as economist Rana Roy recently told SciDev.Net: “Money is simply an instrument with which we measure the things we value.” The wealth of forests, then, which in basic terms comprises trees and non-timber products, should also be recognised as being grounded in wider values. Forest inhabitants derive social, cultural, psychological, even spiritual value from where they live.

“Deforestation is in our chocolate and our toothpaste, our animal feed and our textbooks, our buildings and our furniture, our investments and our pensions.”

Mario Rautner, Global Canopy Programme

Of course, it hasn’t only been indigenous people who have harvested the wealth of forests. Over the past century and a half, governments — both colonial and local — have passed laws allowing companies to grab forest land, to the detriment of local people’s livelihoods. Wealth, for those from the outside, has been purely about money.

Outside interest has also mainly focused on trees. With vast areas cleared and big trees extracted, the smaller trees and plants, animals and birds have been abandoned to their fate in a disrupted ecosystem. The local people who once depended on the forest are then forced to abandon their relationship with it and to adopt a lifestyle that does not depend on forest wealth.

Following the money

But for the companies, cutting down forests generates plenty of revenue both through timber sales and through replacing trees with crop plants, including oil palm and soya bean.

I recently attended the UK launch of Lukas Straumann’s book, Money Logging, an investigation into the flow of money from logging in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. [1] Tracking how logging money moves around the world and gets converted to office blocks and condominiums in far-flung countries is in itself fascinating. But how deforestation meshes in with our daily lives is truly mindboggling.

As part of the launch last week of a project by UK-based think-tank the Global Canopy Programme, Mario Rautner, one of its programme managers, said: “Deforestation is in our chocolate and our toothpaste, our animal feed and our textbooks, our buildings and our furniture, our investments and our pensions.” [2] Like it or not, “we are currently all part of a global deforestation economy”, he said.

At last year’s UN Climate Summit in New York, “a global timeline to cut natural forest loss in half by 2020, and strive to end it by 2030” was adopted through the New York Declaration on Forests. [3] This promising move includes several ambitious government-level calls to action — from galvanising commodity traders into asking for policies to eliminate deforestation to creating policies targeting the governments that import the most forest-related commodities. But how should we protect remaining the forests that remain?

Social and spiritual value

Part of the answer is a much greater focus on understanding the complex nature of forest wealth. Only considering the huge cash flows from logging is seeing wealth in purely monetary terms. To go beyond that, we also need to measure what is lost: the devastation of animal and plant life, the changes in climate and loss of biodiversity in terms of their social, psychological and spiritual value to indigenous peoples.

A better understanding of the complex nature of the wealth of forests means relying on and respecting both the rights and the knowledge of peoples living in and next to forests. This is grounded in the idea of natural law, a philosophical concept that argues for a system where laws are passed as a result of a ‘natural order’ — people living together in a particular political community, society or state.

Natural law would suggest a central role for indigenous peoples in discussing and deciding on the management of forest areas. But, at present, although representatives of indigenous organisations are brought to the table together with scientists, NGOs and governments to discuss forest management, they appear to have little say. A good example of this is in prohibiting the hunting or collection of forest products within national parks. A more nuanced interpretation of the wealth of forests will put indigenous peoples in a much better position to participate in such discussions.

As for my sense of guilt, I try to assuage it by thinking of small things I have done to promote forest preservation — among these, a radio programme I worked on about the Buabeng-Fiema monkey sanctuary set up by Daniel Kwaku Akowuah in Ghana. [4] I just heard that the sanctuary is thriving despite Akowuah’s death in 2004. I hope the programme contributed to the success of the project, which, through a local leader’s charisma and knowledge, took full account of the complex nature of the wealth of forests.

Kaz Janowski is editor at SciDev.Net.


[1] Lukas Straumann Money Logging (Bergli Books, November 2014)
[2] New global ‘ratings agency’ ranks the 500 institutions that have the power to end deforestation by 2020 (Global Canopy Programme, 11 February 2015)
[3] Forests: New York Declaration on Forests; action statements and action plans (UN, 23 September 2014)
[4] In the Field 1: The Buabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary, Ghana (BBC World Service, 3 January 2001)