|Saving What Remains|
Role of Developing Nations in Rainforest Conservation
Increasingly, developing nations are adopting environmental plans both to look good in the eyes of international financing organizations, and in finally realizing the adverse affects of deforestation for their own economies and peoples. In 1996, Mexico announced its first national environmental program aimed at saving the last remaining 10 percent of its forests. Other countries have initiated such projects, but still a fair number are quite ecologically backwards. Malaysia, which claims to have the best conservation program in Southeast Asia, recently appealed a high-court decision that tried to hold up construction of a huge hydroelectric project in Bakuin, Sarawak (Bornean Malaysia). The court decided that the dam construction company, Ekran, must comply with regulations established by Malaysia's Environmental Quality Act of 1974—which holds that Malaysian citizens have the right to examine and comment upon environmental studies before construction. The Malaysian government appealed this decision to Malaysia's Court of Appeals so the hydroelectric project could proceed as quickly as possible.
A lack of judicial independence is frequently cited as a major concern for investors in developing countries. When the executive branch or the military has virtual control over the judicial system, constitutional laws can become meaningless and basic rights may be ignored. Laws are not meant to be flagrantly violated by politicians and their associates at the expense of the people, the environment, and less well-connected business interests.
Developing governments have several ways they can better protect their forest environments for the future. Eliminating subsidies for activities that promote forest clearing and largely benefit wealthy private interests would probably have the widest-ranging effect on curbing deforestation in the tropics. For example, ending subsidies for sawmills, road construction, massive colonization schemes, and expansive agricultural projects would dramatically slow deforestation. Such large subsidies create a false image of profitability to industries that benefit from exploitation and undervalue the worth of timber supplies and intact ecosystems. Rarely do these firms realize the full costs, whether they be environmental, social, or financial. Leaders of these firms are a formidable roadblock to forest policy reform, since they are generally politically favored. Developing governments could significantly reduce deforestation by changing land-title procedures so deforestation is not favored over the maintenance of productive forest. Instead of giving tax breaks and subsidies to large-scale forest clearers, governments could levy a deforestation tax that would increase government revenues while reducing environmental degradation. Such a plan of action would have a tremendous impact in countries like Brazil and Malaysia where large plantation owners and cattle ranchers are responsible for substantial forest loss.
There are serious conflicts of interest within government departments in many developing countries. Environmental officials often lack coordination with officials from other departments like mines, forestry, and agriculture, which hand out permits for forest clearing and logging without consideration for the ecological effects. What is needed is an integrated policy approach to overcome the inefficiencies and failures of overlapping jurisdictions. Frequently, a well-placed bribe can get a plantation owner or timber baron a large tract of supposedly protected forest. Other developers take a different approach: acquiring political ties. The economic circle of the elite in Indonesia was notorious for its ties to former president Suharto, who allowed reforestation funds to be allocated for all types of projects completely unrelated to forest preservation and reforestation.
Developed countries are tired of the rhetoric from wealthy developed
countries urging them to preserve forests but not coughing up the cash to turn words into action. They argue that
if these forests provide important global benefits then the entire world should contribute to their preservation.
Besides, they say, wealthy countries have already destroyed most of their own forests.
[full photo version]
Continued: Intergovernmental Institutions
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Copyright Rhett Butler 1994-2005