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The Economics of Tropical Rainforest Preservation  

Carlos Eduardo Frickmann Young

Tropical forests are among the most biodiverse areas on Earth. They contribute to ecosystem functions, including regulating water flow and maintaining one of the most important carbon sinks on the planet, and provide resources for important economic activities, such as timber and nontimber products and fish and other food. Rainforests are not empty of human population and are sites of ethnically and culturally diverse cultures that are responsible for many human languages and dialects. They also provide resources for important economic activities, such as timber and nontimber products. However, tropical deforestation caused by the expansion of agricultural activities and unsustainable logging continues at very high levels. The causes of forest loss vary by region. Livestock is the main driver in the Amazon, but commercial plantations (soybeans, sugar cane, and other tradable crops) also have an impact on deforestation, in many cases associated with violent conflicts over land tenure. In Southeast Asia, logging motivated by the tropical timber trade plays an important role, although palm oil plantations are an increasing cause of deforestation. In Africa, large-scale agricultural and industrial activities are less important, and the most critical factor is the expansion of subsistence and small-scale agriculture. However, trade-oriented activities, such as cocoa and coffee plantations in West Africa and logging in Central Africa, are becoming increasingly important. Public policies have a strong influence on these changes in land use, from traditional community-based livelihood practices to for-profit livestock, cultivation, and timber extraction. Investments in infrastructure, tax and credit incentives, and institutional structures to stimulate migration and deforestation represent economic incentives that lead to deforestation. Poor governance and a lack of resources and political will to protect the traditional rights of the population and environmental resources are another cause of the continuous reduction of tropical forests. Consequently, deforestation prevents the expansion of economic activities that could be established without threats to the remnants of native forest. There are also negative social consequences for the local population, which suffers from the degradation of the natural resources on which their production is based, and is hampered by air pollution caused by forest fires. In some situations, a vicious cycle is created between poverty and deforestation, since the expansion of the agricultural frontier reduces the forest areas where traditional communities once operated, but without generating job opportunities. New approaches are required to reverse this paradigm and to lay the foundation for a sustainable economy based on the provision of ecosystem services provided by tropical forests. These include (a) better governance and public management capacity, (b) incentives for economic activities compatible with the preservation of the tropical forest, and (c) large-scale adoption of economic instruments to support biodiversity and ecosystem services. Public policies are necessary to correct market failures and incorporate the values of ecosystem services in the land use decision process. In addition to penalties for predatory actions, incentives are needed for activities that support forest preservation, so the forest is worth retaining rather than clearing. Improving governance capacity, combining advanced science and technology with traditional knowledge, and improving the management of existing activities can also help to ensure sustainable development in tropical forest regions.