Friday, February 1, 2008

The Rainforest's Rich Rewards: Costa Rica, Economics and Our Survival

We're just back from Costa Rica, where it struck me that the real crisis of saving rainforests -- and our planet -- is not just about ecology, biodiversity and climate change. It's about economics.

We simply don't have the language yet to describe the need to preserve the environment for economic reasons. Would you call it bio-economics? Green Economics? Semantics aside, this is what's at stake: The rainforests are being carved up for purely economic reasons. And we need to do the math to show to every country the global economic harm done by chopping them down.

You've seen the many warnings on why it's important to preserve these treasures of biodiversity.

* They are tremendous carbon sinks. Because of their abundant variety and depth of plant life, they act as huge sponges for carbon dioxide. When we slash and burn a rainforest, it releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. While the long-term effects of this damage can only be predicted by computer modelling, we do know the tangible harm is causes now.

* Because there is relatively little topsoil under a rainforest, it's easily eroded. Topsoil loss is a huge problem in every country, but in tropical climates it's especially critical because it is washed away so easily because of the incredible amount of rain pounding away at the ground every day.

* When you lose topsoil, you can forget about long-term agricultural practices. Infertile soil is depleted of nutrients fairly quickly. And to restore fertility, you need to add petrochemical-based fertilizers, which eventually leach into watersheds and destroy the chemical balances of river and ocean systems.

* Topsoil lost through extensive grazing can't be replaced unless you truck it in, which is incredibly expensive and almost never done. Nature naturally restores fertility through decomposition. But that doesn't happen unless the entire system of bacteria, fungi, plant and insect life is in place.

* Rainforests have some role in regulating climate. Barren areas can't absorb atmospheric moisture. so it has to go somewhere else. Does that mean monstrous floods on the Ganges, snowstorms in China or mudslides in California? No one knows for sure, but the amount of water in the atmosphere is a finite quantity. If it's not falling in tropics, the winds will push it somewhere else. We're all part of this huge system. We mess with the balance and everything is off kilter.

* Biodiversity is critical because every plant and animal has a role in making the system work. Hummingbirds help fertilize flowers. Millipedes help aid decomposition. Snakes keep the rodent population in check. Darwin was so right about each living thing having its own niche. All living things are team players and don't even know it, but we sure do. The rainforest, with its massive population of flora and fauna, is the New York, London and Shanghai of the living world system.

Costa Rica brought home these concepts because I could see living things in their environment. I saw a millipede doing its work. I watched a hummingbird sit on her eggs. I spied two rare Quetzals in the wild. You can't get this in a Disney theme park.

In addition to seeing and listening to this natural symphony, I could see how fragile it all is, a glass menagerie of flora and fauna. Costa Rica, which has nominally protected one quarter of its land in preserves, is only the size of West Virginia. Since it doesn't have the resources to buy all the land it needs to keep it out of the hands of developers, it's still quite vulnerable. Poaching is a huge problem. The most remote areas are inaccessible because the local road system is awful -- not that that is a bad thing. I couldn't use my cellphone or wireless internet in some of the most splendid areas on the tops of mountains and it didn't bother me a whit.

You can fly over the mid-section of Costa Rica in a half hour, in which time you will have traveled from the warm, blue waters of the Pacific to the steamy Caribbean Sea. It's literally the waist that connects North and South America, but what a slim, sensuous mid-section it is!

There are 12 climatic/life zones in Costa Rica, meaning that you can go from an alpine cloud forest where the humidity is constant, to a dry grassland in a matter of minutes. Monteverde, which is a mile high, is the most famous of the cloud forests and consists of a patchwork of reserves from the Arenal Volcano to Santa Elena, a bohemian enclave with a view of the Pacific.

Such splendor in Monteverde can not be adequately described in words. It's the poster child for biodiversity: 400 bird, 100 mammal, 120 amphibians/reptile and 3,000 plant species occupy this region where the moisture of the Caribbean creeps over the Tilaran range then condenses on the forest canopy when it hits the hotter air of the Pacific. When I was touring the Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso (, I saw two rare, resplendent Queztals, a tarantula, howler monkeys, hummingbirds and dozens of migrating songbirds. You felt enveloped by life, even though I was wearing four layers and my hands felt cold.

I love this chorus of life, but not because I'm an eco-spectator. I relish the questions we need to ask and a search for the answers. We need a new philosophy and economic science that somehow values these living systems so that we have a universal measure like a dollar or a Euro. I know that these entities are priceless. We may be able to document their genomes or even reproduce them through genetic science, but how do we re-insert them into a living system and make them working parts of the eco-sphere once they're gone? What ecologists say about the rainforest is true: There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of species yet to be discovered and catalogued and we have no clue how they fit into the grand network of life. I'm certainly on board with the idea of preserving them for their own sake, but we need to make a much better argument to governments, policymakers, ranchers, farmers and developers that these species have bio-economic values.

On the last day of our visit, my family and I witnessed a heroic sunset over the Pacific from our bungalow. Monkeys screeched in the trees outside our window. Iguanas waltzed through the resturant next door. Even in our man-made environment -- an anthroscape -- we could see the vulnerability of the coastline going north. Much of the vegetation was gone. Someone was burning several acres. Was it for a ranch? A new condo building? A luxury home? Suppose there was a tax imposed on anyone destroying habitat or topsoil that would be channeled into buying land for the sake of protecting it? Or maybe the tax would be doubled if the home or commercial site diminished biodiversity, watershed quality, plant life volume or impacted climate change.

Okay, if you're in the real estate business, a little black light goes on in your head: If it costs too much to build, then nobody will and Third World countries will remain poor, jobs won't be created and tourists won't come. That's not true. Costa Rica is a case in point. The tiny country once grew bananas. A blight knocked out that industry and United Fruit left. Then they tried ranching. When the price of beef plummets that no longer makes sense, even though once the land is carved up for cattle it can't be fully restored.

Then the enlightened folks in San Jose seized on the big idea: Why not preserve their greatest assets (note the economic term) and see if anyone shows up. The results have been spectacular. Eco-Tourism is their top business, bringing in more than 1.6 million visitors a year. Those tourists spend money, hire drivers, tour guides and other service professionals, then tell other First-World folks what a terrific place Costa Rica is.

So here we stand. The rainforest can be profitable. It is an asset. It can provide return on investment. I know this sounds coarse, but this is the language we need to use. It may make the difference between preserving our planet -- or watching it be devoured.

No comments: