Tropical Biodiversity: An Economic Asset


Related stories


Peter Shaw Ashton of Harvard University put a price on biodiversity in tropical rainforests


By Angela Dewan

There is constant debate about how to balance economic development and conservation. In reality, conservation efforts that begin now will have an enormous impact on economic development in the long run, according to Peter Shaw Ashton of Harvard University.

In the future, we will not have the luxury of trading off the two, he said today in his keynote address.

“Oil palm and rubber plantations are at high risk of pests and pathogens. The cost of protection is going to get greater. Forests will eventually become a source for chemicals for tree crop production,” Ashton said.

To illustrate how vulnerable forests can be to pests and pathogens, he pointed to a forest in Massachusetts, where 40,000 trees were felled because of a beetle that had been introduced.

“I’ve just heard that this beetle has broken out again. Are we going to fell another 40,000 trees? Pests are being introduced by trade and movements all over the world, like travel for tourism. Pests in one country can be lethal in another,” he said.

What it will take to protect crops, Ashton said, is around 150,000 hectares of land and $75 million a year.

Having observed tropical forests over decades, Ashton found that biodiversity-rich tropical rainforests are far more resistant to pests and pathogens. He looks to Asia as a model for lessons learned and as region where much conservation and crop protection will be needed.

“Forest conversion has proceeded further in Asia than in tropical Africa or the Americas. Asia serves as a model to watch and worry about and take action on,” he said.

Ashton recognises the importance and need for agriculture, but to secure a long-lasting supply of chemicals to protect crops, he suggests conserving small plots of land.

“You can achieve high biodiversity on small pieces of land,” he said.

Within just a 50-hectare plot of the Bukit Timah park in Singapore, Ashton and a team of scientists found more than 1,000 tree species.

“When we discovered this many years ago, we were very surprised. It is the second-most diverse forest in the world, after the forest on the foot of the Andes in the Amazon,” he said.

To secure a supply of protective chemicals, Ashton suggests strict conservation of 30 lots of 5,000-hectare tropical Asian rainforest with high tree biodiversity. He estimated this conservation would cost around $75 million annually.

“When you think about how much a jet fighter costs, that’s not a high amount, really,” he said.

“The question is who should pay for it. Well, Indonesia alone made $5.5 billion last year from palm oil. Surely some of that should go toward this conservation,” he said.

The challenge is to convince policy makers to think long-term. Last year, oil palm yielded $528-790 per hectare, but sustainably managed indigenous hardwood timber yielded less than $100 per hectare. Leaving forests alone will earn nothing in the short-term.

While the financial incentives to deforest exist now, a more strategic economic plan involving conservation is needed to ensure financial rewards, and perhaps even food security, in the future.

Copyright policy:
We want you to share Forests News content, which is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). This means you are free to redistribute our material for non-commercial purposes. All we ask is that you give Forests News appropriate credit and link to the original Forests News content, indicate if changes were made, and distribute your contributions under the same Creative Commons license. You must notify Forests News if you repost, reprint or reuse our materials by contacting