Research: Undervalued Rainforest Worsens Global Warming

Published July 5th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

Tropical forests have so little value for local inhabitants that many people are induced to strip the land of trees and use it to grow crops, thus contributing to the problem of global warming, says new research. 

Rainforests have been touted as the leading weapon against global warming as they can soak up the emissions of carbon dioxide caused by the burning of fossil fuels. 

But even though environmentalists have championed these forests as priceless assets for the planet, their local value for inhabitants is pathetically low, say US and Honduran researchers. 

The result is that villagers are tempted to chop down trees and plant crops which carry a higher value, they say. 

They carried out a study of 1,000 Amerindians, the Tawahka, living as farmers and foragers in five remote communities in tropical rainforest in eastern Honduras. 

Field workers spent two and a half years analyzing and costing what the Tawahka cut down, trapped or picked in the forest and the value of this merchandise in the nearest market, where the villagers swapped the goods for salt, tools and other basics. 

Forest goods -- timber, wild animals, plants, fish and game -- were worth just 18 to 24 dollars per hectare (7.2 to 9.6 dollars per acre) per year, they calculated. 

This compares with previous estimates that forests were worth between 50 and more than 1,000 dollars per hectare (20 and 400 dollars per acre) per year. 

"Although outsiders value the rainforest for its high-use and non-use values, local people receive a small share of the total value," say the researchers. 

"Unless rural people are paid for the non-local values of rain forests, they may be easily persuaded to deforest." 

The burning of oil, coal and gas is causing billions of tons of carbon dioxide to be released into the upper atmosphere, where it hangs as an invisible shroud, trapping the heat from the Sun. 

This is causing a small, gradual rising in the Earth's temperature, climatologists say. 

Opinion, however, is divided as to how bad the consequences will be. 

Pessimists say that without dramatic steps to cut output of these gases, the seas will eventually expand because of the temperature rise and the polar icecaps will partially melt. 

Within a century, this would drown low-lying delta regions and small island states and wreak huge changes in local weather patterns. 

The research, published in Thursday's issue of the British science weekly Nature, was led by Ricardo Godoy of Brandeis University, Massachusetts -- PARIS (AFP) 


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