Under the wide green umbrella of the Panamanian rainforest, the only signs of human intrusion are yellow, orange and blue marks painted around some of the tree trunks. Those marks help measure the plants’ water efficiency, as trees are believed to steady the flow of rivers.
“We are trying to understand the services provided by forests,” says Jefferson Hall, a Yale-educated forest ecologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.
For the past five years Hall has been working on the Panama Canal watershed, on forest regeneration and measuring the effects of different land uses on water flows, as well as carbon sequestration and biodiversity. At the same time he is assessing the potential economic return from investment in environmental protection.
His research, in one of the most bio-diverse countries in a region at the forefront of carbon negotiations, is part of a growing effort to give the environment a realistic financial value.
According to recent findings by the Inter-American Development Bank or IDB, Latin America and the Caribbean are home to half of the earth’s tropical forests. The region hosts 40 per cent of global biodiversity, which in turn supports 15 per cent of its GDP and 50 per cent of its exports.
In a novel initiative, the IDB believes this “wild wealth” could be turned into a spur for growth and innovation by including the value of biodiversity in key economic sectors.
The wealth of biodiversity generates some critical benefits, such as food, shelter, clean water and air, flood and drought mitigation, disease and pest control. These “ecosystem services” directly support important economic sectors – mostly agriculture, fisheries, forestry and tourism – which together employ 17 per cent of the region’s labour force.
The list of current “services” is long. To name a few, eco-tourism generates $60bn annually in the region; coral reefs in the Caribbean protect the shores and allow the generation of $15bn in revenues; the global economic value of bee pollination is estimated at $200bn.
“Investing in nature is one of the smartest investments you can make,” says Mark Tercek, a former Goldman Sachs banker currently heading The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organisation with more than $5bn in assets.
The author of Nature’s Fortune, to be published next month, Tercek is a champion of the idea of “natural capital” – putting an asset value on nature. His controversial approach is to work alongside some of the world’s biggest polluters to jointly preserve the environment, because “business objectives and those of environmentalists can overlap”.
This is starting to happen with biotechnology research. Marcelo Cardoso, vice-president of Natura, a cosmetics producer in Brazil, says: “Brazilian biodiversity will become our Silicon Valley.” Pursuing that idea, the Brazilian government is starting to finance laboratories to study biotech applications in various different biomes.
“Once biodiversity services are … incorporated in the value chain it will be natural for companies to invest in preservation of those services,” says Alexandre Meira da Rosa, who heads IDB’s infrastructure and environment division.
Some larger companies such as Femsa, the Mexico-based beverage group, are already investing in water projects in two of the world’s most biodiverse countries, Ecuador and Colombia, while HSBC funded part of Hall’s rainforest research in Panama.
Back in the green, misty hills along the eastern watershed of the Panama Canal, Hall keeps testing trees for their ability to act as “sponges”, hoping that his work can be replicated elsewhere.
“Agriculture needs clean water, cities need clean water, Coca-Cola needs clean water, a brewery needs clean water,” he says. “And that, certainly, has economic value.”
– Andres Schipani
Not all roads lead to ruin
Environmentalists generally react with horror to road-building – and often their fears are well founded. The estimated 100,000km of road criss-crossing the Amazon basin have caused catastrophic damage.
But in a paper in the journal Nature two professors of conservation science, Andrew Balmford at Cambridge university and William Laurance of James Cook University in Australia, put in a plea for more roads – as long as they are in the right place.
“Roads are like real estate,” says Laurance. “It’s ‘location, location, location’. In the right places roads can actually help protect nature.”
That means careful planning, keeping roads out of wilderness areas and concentrating them in places best suited for farming and development.
“In such areas roads can improve farming, making it much easier to move crops to market and import fertiliser,” says Balmford. “This can increase farm profits, improve the livelihoods of rural residents, enhance food security and draw migrants away from vulnerable wilderness areas.”
The pair call for a global mapping programme to advise governments and conservation organisations on where to put roads, where to avoid them and even where to shut down existing roads.
“By working together,” says Laurance, “development experts, agriculturalists and ecologists could provide badly needed guidelines on where to build good roads rather than bad roads.”
Ecologists have long known that the human colonisation of remote Pacific islands over the past 3,500 years led to a catastrophic extinction of large flightless birds, but estimates of the number of species lost have varied widely.
An international study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences attempts to pin down the toll by using statistical modelling to fill in the large gaps in the fossil record. Most extinct species remain undiscovered because fossil hunting across several hundred Pacific islands has been patchy and incomplete.
The researchers, led by Richard Duncan at the University of Canberra, conclude that human settlement of Pacific islands wiped out about 1,000 species of “nonpasserine landbirds” – birds other than songbirds and seabirds – many of which had become flightless because land predators were absent. That compares with a current global total of about 10,000 avian species of all types.
The scientists started from 41 islands where there is good evidence of extinction from fossil and other sources; two-thirds of the bird populations here became extinct between human arrival and first European contact. Reasons for extinction include hunting, habitat loss and the introduction of vermin.
Extrapolating these results to all 269 Pacific islands that were large and isolated enough to have supported at least one “endemic” species (a bird that lives nowhere else) brings the total close to 1,000 extinctions, ranging from flightless waterfowl to pigeons.