Next week, a new bridge will be opened across the river that marks the border between Brazil and Guyana. It is one of the final links on a road that will join the northern Brazilian city of Boa Vista (the state capital of Roraima) with the coastal city of Georgetown – Guyana's capital. Now a barely passable muddy track, the new route will be paved in an attempt to open up trade and enable access from the interior of northern South America to the Atlantic Ocean.
The region through which the road passes is known as the Guyana Shield. It is covered with some of the least disturbed tropical rainforests on earth. Not only are there many communities of indigenous people here and countless undiscovered species of animal and plant, but stored in the trees and the soils beneath them are billions of tonnes of carbon. Each year, they absorb more carbon dioxide from the air, providing not only a storage function, but one of carbon capture as well.
Pretty much every strategic road that has been driven through a rainforest in the past has been followed by deforestation. Once access to remote areas is opened up then loggers, miners and plantation companies follow. Species are driven to extinction, people's land rights are abused and carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere. Take a look at parts of the Amazon basin on Google Earth (Rondonia, in Brazil, for example) to see the "herringbone" patterns of roads that branch out from the main routes into the forest.
On the Brazilian side of the border there is a deforestation hotspot, and when the road goes through the frontier of destruction could move to Guyana as well. This new threat is made worse, ironically, because of efforts to cut deforestation. After years of talk and half-measures, Brazil is now taking serious action to cut deforestation. There have been crackdowns on illegal logging, attempts to control illegal mining, there has been support for a moratorium on soya expansion into forest areas, and the government has set up a new Amazon Fund to help channel international assistance to save the forests. And it's working.
The trouble is that the commercial interests in search of timber, gold, soya and beef are moving elsewhere, out of Brazil – for example to the north, toward Guyana and its neighbour Surinam. These are poor countries, and the temptation to cash in on their rich natural resources will be considerable. This would be a disaster for the whole world.
Deforestation in the tropics contributes about a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions, while another 15% or so of what we put out is absorbed by them. Cut them down or burn them and it's a double whammy – a source of emissions and the destruction of a carbon sink. When the world is seeking ways to limit climate change to below-a-two-degree-average warming, this is not good. To stand even a reasonable chance of staying below this threshold will require that forest loss is cut back, not increased – as could soon be the case in Guyana.
Deforestation is a hugely complex process, but the solution could, at one level, be quite simple. We need to find ways to urgently make the trees worth more alive than dead, and that means changing the economic incentives for countries like Guyana. The president of the country, Bharrat Jagdeo, knows this and has offered to keep his country's forests intact to help mitigate climate change. But if doesn't provide for the development of his country by cutting the trees down, selling the timber and growing crops where they once stood, he will need an alternative.
That alternative will hopefully come in the form of an agreement reached in Copenhagen, in December. But even if that happens, the technicalities to properly implement a forest deal could take another decade. During that time 60m hectares more of tropical rainforest could be lost. With the pressure still mounting on forests right around the world, we need a solution quicker than that.
A proposal put forward by The Prince's Rainforests Project suggests one way forward. It is the idea that the rich countries should pay the poorer ones to keep their forests standing in recognition of the global services they provide, especially in relation to carbon capture and storage. Variations on this theme are now being looked at by an informal working group of countries to assess how such an idea could work in practice. Good progress has been made and clearly there can be an agreement to make a difference quite quickly, if only the money becomes available fast.
And that is a matter of politics. Last year, countries bailed out the financial system to the tune of several trillion dollars. It was done quickly and with remarkably little process or delay – because the political will was there. Now we have a chance to bail out our planet, and the bill is far lower. Between 2010 and 2015, $20bn dollars should be enough to cut tropical rainforest loss by about a quarter, and from there more ambitious targets could follow. The money would be transferred as a reward to countries in stopping (or not starting) deforestation. The more they save the more money they get, a clear signal, as clear as the one they get from the logging companies and soya farmers.
If the President of Guyana received money on this basis, he would take action to make sure the new road does not repeat history and lead to forest loss. He would have a clear incentive to keep the forest. If the money doesn't soon come he will have few economic alternatives and will be under increasing pressure to liquidate his country's natural assets.
The coming months will demonstrate whether the developed nations have the backbone to tackle this issue. The speeches have taken us so far. Now it's the money that has to talk.
Originally published by The Guardian.