Economic benefits of saving the Rainforests

Oct 24 2020

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From their role in slowing climate change, to their vast natural resources, there are many reasons why we must fight to preserve these valuable biomes 

The Amazon Rainforest: 5,500,000 km2 of the most breathtaking, biodiverse and valuable tract of rainforest in the world. One in ten species that exist on earth call it their home. So why are we tearing it down? Along with tropical forests from the Congo to Malaysia, the Amazon is facing destruction. But human intervention and innovation have the power to save it. 

Too often, we hear about the economic benefits of deforestation, as those with skin in the game try to justify the cost to the environment. Deforestation takes place to turn land into valuable agriculture resources, goes the argument, or for mining, or to make way for new infrastructures like roads and dams that can benefit communities and local economies. 

Trees are harvested to make palm oil or paper, or else for construction purposes: “Wealthy nations drive demand for tropical timber,” explains National Geographic, “and cash-strapped governments often grant logging concessions at a fraction of the land’s true volume.” 

There are short term economic term gains to cutting down this irreplaceable and incredible natural resource, but it’s also a false economy. World-leading rainforest conservation expert and Technical Lead of XPRIZE Rainforest, Peter Houlihan, believes that if we don’t race now to protect our rainforests we may forever face the consequences. 

“So many aspects of deforestation and rainforest degradation around the world do not look at future benefits of preservation,” he explains. “There’s a misconception about rainforests being undervalued and that’s not the case at all – their value is recognised and over-exploited and in totally unsustainable ways.” 

What can we do about it? “What we need to get at is sustainable, long-term solutions that keep tropical forests standing,” presses Houlihan. And time is of the essence. 

Last year, deforestation in the Amazon hit the highest rates on record, and it is predicted by the WFF that, at the current rate of deforestation, by 2030, over a quarter of the Amazon will be lost. Rainforests once covered 14% of the world’s landmass. Now they cover 6%. 

During years of researching on the ground in rainforests, Houlihan has seen how the building of roads and bridges, pitched as an infrastructure gain to local communities, are usually for the benefit of companies and governments – often foreign companies and governments – to mine valuable resources. “In many senses, it is a continued form of colonialism.”

If Houlihan has witnessed first hand how quick financial factors are being placed over future economic benefits, critical research concurs: “The forest should unambiguously be saved when measured in a purely economic sense,” urges one key study on the economics of the Amazon, from 2018. Conducted by economists and agricultural engineers, the research found that the economic benefit of the Amazon Rainforest, if it is conserved, would be $8.2 billion a year. 

The study took many aspects into account. It looked at the financial benefits of sustainable industries in the Amazon, like rubber tree farming and Brazil nut farming. It also found that tearing down the rainforest would have significant impacts on economies long term by decreasing rainfall, and could cost a staggering $422 million in annual loss to agriculture.

Yet the costs of projected climate change don’t stop there. Despite being less than 10% of the world's landmass, and housing just 0.5% of the global population, rainforests are – unequivocally – at the heart of the battle against climate change. As carbon sinks, rainforests slow climate change by removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in their trees. Deforestation contributes to climate change, and climate change costs governments.

“This is becoming more evident every single year,” Houlihan tells us. “Right now, fires from California to the Tundra to the Amazon to the Pantanal are costing state and national governments billions of dollars. Draughts caused by climate change are making areas more fire-prone in dry seasons. Rainforest fires are occurring annually in Brazil and parts of the Congo Basin, while paces like Borneo in Southeast Asia are engulfed in flames.” We can think of the increasing number and intensity of cyclones and Atlantic Hurricanes here too, he says, as well as their ensuing costs to people’s livelihoods. 

A global commitment to better preserving rainforests wouldn’t only protect the plethora of life within them, but the people hit hardest by these climate shifts: people in the Global South, in coastal areas, on islands, as well as people in farming and agriculture industries, who are hurt by the fact that seasonality is becoming less and less predictable. 

Houlihan also cites the current global pandemic as yet another massive cost of deforestation. “The more rainforests are deforested and opened up in terms of access, and the more population growth expands in proximity to these environments, the more that future generations will be exposed to future pandemics.” 

Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a US-based non-profit dedicated to analysing and preventing pandemics, elaborates: “One-third of emerging diseases are the product of these rapid changes in land use, as people are pushed into contact with wildlife they would once have rarely encountered.”

Ultimately, says Houlihan, ecological tipping points beyond which ecosystems like rainforests will collapse have been predicted for decades; “it is a matter of global security and resilience that we save them”. Particularly as rainforests contain scientific insights that are being lost before they can even be revealed. 

The good news is, it’s not too late to change the course of history. We are at a fork in the road – we are using up these resources’ natural buffers, but our actions today could change tomorrow. 

The Rainforest Foundation suggests that there are things we can all do to save our rainforests now. Buying responsibly sourced products. Reducing our carbon footprints. Eliminating foods from our diet that are grown on deforested lands, from beef through to soy beans.

More locally, as Brazil doubles down on deforestation (literally – the area lost in January 2020 was double that in the same month in 2019, according to official figures), indigenous groups within the Amazon say they will “fight for the death” to protect their land. 

Dreaming of a better future, teenagers in Brazil have taken to the streets to protest in the wake of the wildfires. These young activists, inspired by climate activist Greta Thunberg, are demanding change for the survival of humanity. “Hello, planet! Wake up! Without the Amazon, you can't breathe!" chanted activists in Rio de Janeiro last year, when anti-deforestation protests swept the country almost as quickly as the wildfires themselves, according to reports by NPR

The XPRIZE Rainforest, meanwhile, looks to incentivize exactly this kind of passion for protecting our planet’s tropical forests by rewarding those who are working on improving our understanding of rainforest ecosystems. Specifically, challenging the world’s innovators to come up with new technologies to catalog diverse forms of life within them. 

That people are out there, working on solutions, proves that we don’t have to wait for governments and corporations to do the right thing, a fight for a better future. 20% of the Amazon biome has already been lost, acting now is imperative to protecting the rest of our rainforests, and the communities of people living within them.