We cannot protect all the tropical forest out there. The forces driving their destruction greatly outweigh those favoring their conservation. Moreover, poor people in tropical countries see little short-term gain from setting aside large areas for ill-defined long-term environmental benefits. This is part of the reason why the billions of dollars spent to conserve forests over the last twenty years have had only limited and local success.
Given that reality, Jeff Sayer, Natarajan Ishwaran, James Thorsell, and Todd Sigaty argue that humanity should adopt a two-tier approach to forest conservation. Global biodiversity conservation should be preserved in an elite set of the richest sites. People should manage the rest of the forests to meet human needs for timber and other goods and services. According to their forthcoming paper ’Tropical Forest Biodiversity and the World Heritage Convention’ in Ambio, a set of 100 or so strategically located sites covering 3-5% of the world’s tropical forests could conserve the great majority of all tropical biodiversity.
The authors go further and argue that there are no truly pristine forests. Most biodiversity has always co-existed with significant human activity. There is no reason that should change. Large-scale land clearing and logging are clearly not good for biodiversity, but protected area managers should tolerate traditional extractive activities that do not endanger biodiversity. Conservation programs should minimize the costs they impose on forest dependent people by having fewer totally protected areas and more forests under multiple-use management. It makes no sense to create as many protected areas as possible in poor countries. If conservation organizations attempt to exclude people from too much of the forest the returns on conservation investments will inevitably decline.
Sayer and his colleagues claim many authors exaggerate the dangers of forest fragmentation. They point to evidence suggesting that with careful management most biodiversity can survive in fragmented forests of several hundred thousand hectares or more for centuries at least.
Although relatively few people realize it, a framework for developing an international system of globally important protected areas already exists. One hundred and fifty eight countries have ratified the World Heritage Convention (WHC), which came into force in 1975. The World Heritage Committee that oversees the convention has already designated 33 tropical forest areas, covering around 25 million hectares, as World Heritage Sites. The Convention secretariat manages a fund to support conservation of listed sites, but has never had much money to spend. According to Sayer and his associates, this convention provides the best option for mobilizing political backing and funding for a limited number of high priority protected areas. The Convention on the Conservation of Biological Diversity (CBD) has yet to sponsor concrete conservation efforts on the ground and it may be some time before it does so. Rather than ’fiddling while Rome burns’, or perhaps more to the point, while the forests burn, the international community could get more ’bang for its buck’ by throwing itself solidly behind the World Heritage Convention.
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