Falling in love with the rainforest

It's no walk in the park, but it truly is magnificent
Jessica Cheam Straits Times 18 Dec 10;

TREE hugging truly takes a literal meaning when I find myself grabbing onto a tree for dear life on the perilously steep slopes in the central highlands of Puerto Rico one hot summer afternoon.

I had been mostly crawling on all fours for the past two hours while trying to measure the diameter of trees around me.

It's an acrobatic feat of back-bending proportions: one arm hugging a tree, the other holding a metre-long pole, measuring tape between my teeth.

Miraculously, I'm able to take a measurement.

'Data collector,' I holler. 'Tree number 135, diameter 40.4 inches.'

Somewhere in the distance, my fellow volunteer echoes it back and records the numbers.

I try to leap towards the next tree but a misstep causes me to tumble on all fours again. I grab the roots of any plants I see.

'Careful, it's poisonous!' my fellow volunteer and photographer Jean Loo warns. Defeated, I sit on a semi-stable rock to catch my breath.

This is hard work - and it's only Day Two of a 10-day volunteer research project that work had dispatched me for earlier this year, in August.

I am with 12 other volunteers from six different countries across the globe, including four young Singaporeans - Jasmine-Victorina Lye, 18, Jocelyn Tay, 20, Calvin Tan, 23, and Kenneth Wong, 25.

We are at a 30-year ongoing project called Las Casas de le Selva, which spans 405ha of rainforest.

The Singaporean team were winners of this year's HSBC/NYAA Youth Environmental Awards, which recognised their contribution to local efforts in conservation. Part of the prize was this Earthwatch study trip to Puerto Rico.

The objective was to help scientists carry out their research on how to sustainably harvest forests and measure the impact of such activities on biodiversity.

Jean and I were offered the chance to go along to document the process of that research, but it was no cushy freebie.

We were thousands of kilometres from home with hardly any mobile phone signal or Internet connection, while the electricity supply was intermittent, especially during the frequent thunderstorms.

Mornings started at 6am when, after a hearty breakfast dished up by the scientists, we started our daily two-hour trek to various sites to conduct field work.

The trail was sometimes so dense that Andreas, our guide, had to chop down overgrown shrubs with a machete so we could pass.

The project director, known as '3T', taught us to use equipment such as a pentaprism (a five-sided reflecting prism) to count the number of trees in a specific area, and collect other readings like the commercial height of mature trees.

Other scientists, such as herpetologist and ethnobotanist Norman Greenhawk, showed us how to set up experimental plots for tree planting.

He also led a series of experiments where we had to count and identify anole lizards in specific plots for data collection in a biodiversity study.

Not wanting to appear a pansy, I even overcame my irrational fear of lizards and touched one. It was a significant moment for me - and an indication of how slowly, but surely, the forest had a profound effect on all of us.

While in the first few days, I was getting withdrawal symptoms from the trappings of city life - the noise, the traffic, the connectivity and material comforts - I soon began to get used to the unharried pace of life and solitude the forest offered.

Jasmine, who cried on the first day and confessed to being homesick, soon became totally in her element, leaping from tree to tree and catching lizards whenever she spotted them.

From our campsite, we stood gazing out into the vast canopy of the Puerto Rican rainforest, and for the first time for many of us, we felt the magnificence of nature.

Life was everywhere - we were surrounded by an abundance of plants and trees and flowers, silently toiling under the golden sun to manufacture the fresh oxygen that forests feed the world with.

The air was different - invigorating - and at night we slept like babies.

The forest also provided an orchestral soundtrack to our daily activities, the chirruping of assorted birds, cricket noises and the melodious 'co-co-kee-kee' calling of the native coqui frogs.

Of course, there were some minor dangers that came with it.

One night, a tarantula bigger than the size of my palm entered the girls' sleeping area and hovered dangerously above a fellow volunteer's head before she woke up, spotted it and let out an ear-piercing shriek that sent the scientists running over. On another night, I had a jungle rat rummage through my camping bag while I was asleep. It chomped through all my wires, including my earphones and iPod charger, to get to my energy snack bar.

Thankfully, I didn't see it. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

Surprisingly, when we approached the end of our time there, we discovered that we were all sad to leave.

We had become used to the pace of life, an experience that left a deep impression and made us view things differently.

Kenneth said the first thing he would do upon returning to Singapore was to get acquainted with our own rainforest. I couldn't agree more.

We have it on our doorstep, but how many of us take the time to get up close with it, I wondered.

As 3T put it, she's happy if volunteers leave after learning three things: Firstly, that there are different ways to live. Secondly, to fall in love with nature. And lastly, to learn how to learn.

My close encounter with nature had certainly taught me many things - above all, that there is a force in the universe that is beyond our control, but which offers us lessons in life if we care to listen.

All of us left that day knowing that someday, we would return.

Economics, not enforcement, will help save trees
Pay farmers to preserve their land, says politician
Jessica Cheam Straits Times 18 Dec 10;

THE haze from forest fires that blights Singapore and Malaysia every year can be stopped but it will not be through enforcing laws, no matter how tough they are.

The solution, according to a politician who has spent more time than most on the ecological front line, is applying some simple economic principles.

Mr Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Costa Rica's former environment minister, maintains that paying farmers to preserve their land is close enough to a magic bullet that can halt deforestation.

He speaks from experience: Costa Rica had a high rate of deforestation before a radical programme of payments that began in the 1990s reversed the trend.

'Enforcement has proven to be a major failure because it has nothing to do with the economics of making it profitable to preserve nature,' said Mr Rodriguez, 50, in a recent interview with The Straits Times.

He believes the need to enforce the law will decrease when 'perverse incentives' - profits from burning the land for agriculture or commercial activity - are removed.

If land owners are offered financial incentives higher than the 'perverse incentives', then they will prefer to protect the forest, he added.

Deforestation is a major problem in South-east Asia with businesses and land owners razing forests to make way for agriculture or logging.

Indonesia has imposed tougher laws against illegal burning but it is a mammoth task to monitor plantations spread over vast tracts of land.

Mr Rodriguez believes Singapore could play a role by leading discussions about paying land owners to preserve their forests.

While Singapore has no vast forests, it has experience in market finance and can help generate solutions such as raising funds and working with civic groups to improve awareness, he said, adding: 'Structural reforms to address deforestation also require high political will.'

What would help was if a high level 'political champion' in Indonesia were to lead these reforms.

Many agencies - from forestry to agriculture and environment - have their own interests and such reforms need the cooperation of all these bodies, he noted.

Transparency is also vital.

Norway, for example, has pledged US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) to help Indonesia preserve its forests and with that kind of money comes accountability, said Mr Rodriguez.

'There must be ways that performance can be measured and results delivered.'

The idea of paying to preserve nature was a key development at the United Nations climate change talks in Cancun which ended last week.

Called Redd (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), the scheme will involve a global fund set up to pay local communities who choose to preserve their forests instead of using them for commercial gain.

There are still many issues to be resolved, such as ensuring that the money paid reaches these communities and establishing how results can be measured over a long period.

Mr Rodriguez believes that Redd will eventually be up and running and prove itself as a crucial global initiative, given the lack of other options that will help arrest deforestation.

'The rationale is very simple... We must finally put a price on the negative externalities of deforestation, and account for the positive externalities - the environmental services that nature provides,' he said.

Buy a choc bar... ...plant a tree
Chocolatier is on a mission to reform the cocoa industry
Susan Long Straits Times 18 Dec 10;

MENTION chocolate and almost everyone's mouth starts to water - but there is a sour side to the sweet treat.

So sour in fact that one man is on a global mission to change our attitudes to chocolate and the way it is priced, planted and perceived.

German chocolatier and nature conservationist Philipp Kauffmann believes people should pay for the 'true costing' of the delicacy - the rain, the sun and the soil that go into making it.

That is perhaps why a skinny 100g block of his Original Beans chocolate costs US$10 (S$13) or up to €6 (S$11) in high- end supermarkets in the United States and Europe. It may be on sale soon at high-end grocers here.

You are not just getting a confectionery but also buying into a sustainable crusade not shy about proclaiming its aims.

After all, each wrapper carries a tracking certificate that pledges to plant a tree for every bar produced.

The 42-year-old, who was here for the Annual Asian Summit for Sustainable Innovation in October, hails from an illustrious line of earth scientists, agriculturists and foresters. One of the clan was Georg Ludwig Hartig, who wrote an 18th-century thesis on managing forests sustainably so future generations can enjoy them.

Mr Kauffmann has followed his ancestors' footsteps, working for World Wildlife Fund for Nature in Geneva and running a United Nations Development Project fund in New York that financed companies which protect biodiversity hot spots.

It was then that he started to invest in sustainable cocoa trading companies and small cooperatives in Latin America, and learnt about the unsavoury secrets of the industry.

In 2008, he co-founded the Original Beans company out of Amsterdam to reform the cocoa industry, which he calls 'one of the worst supply chains out of the tropics'.

'It's worse than palm oil, worse than soya and worse than cotton. It's a colonial supply chain that uses labour conditions that compare to slavery. It is mostly grown by small-hold farmers or migrant workers in badly governed African nations like the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria,' he charges.

Cocoa trees in the wild grow to 10m high but in these highly intensive, small African plantations, they are so stumped and compacted they reach only about 2m.

'Small children are needed to go in to spray pesticides because monoculture is prone to viruses and diseases,' he says.

Worst of all, cocoa grows on cleared land, giving rise to a slash-and-burn cycle of deforestation.

He decided to take on the industry, which he accuses of being an over-processed, over-marketed, 'vanilla-ised big cream pie of nothing', making products often packed with over 70 per cent sugar while refusing to address its dirty secrets like shady labour conditions.

'It doesn't take away from the experience if consumers know that at the end of the product is a place that is difficult. You don't have to be moralistic about it. Just be real,' he says.

What Original Beans offers, he says, is 'a relationship of positive contribution' to the person chomping at the end of the bar. 'It's not about paying off guilt, like in church or fair trade, but conscious consumerism.

'The best analogy for chocolate is wine; you can taste terroir. If you change the quality of agri-forestry, you can taste it. If you care about biodiversity and soil and all that, you can taste it in the product.

'When we speak about a wine of quality, people immediately think of history, vineyards, ecology, craftsmanship, aristocracy of farming, techniques of fermentation and bottling that are sophisticated and something that carries a lot of value in the land. Chocolate is exactly the same but we don't think of it in that way.'

The cocoa that goes into his chocolate comes from small farmer cooperatives in the Peruvian Andes, the Pacific rainforests of Ecuador and from more than 10,000 farmers in eastern Congo.

Buying from the Congo in particular is his attempt to 'make a good chocolate out of a difficult place and offer a different model in the worst place to grow cocoa in the world'.

But what does he say to cynics who charge that 'true costing' is just a gimmick to charge the earth?

He says he invites them to look at his costing. 'We pay premiums for organic and fair trade - in fact, we pay 10 times more than the fair trade rates on average for ecology, quality and reforestation.'

He says cocoa costs about US$3,300 (S$4,300) a tonne, on which the so-called 'fair trade' premium is only US$150 a tonne.

He also maintains that his pledge to plant a tree for every bar consumed can be validated.

'There's a paper trail right from nursery. We check that all the time and the consumer can track it on the Internet. In the process, he can get a sense of where the cacao comes from and the connection with the trees,' he says.

It's the 'job of the retailer' to get consumers to pay the US$10 a bar price tag, he says. 'But the challenge for us as consumers is to realise that we are part of the chain too.'

'If we expect to buy a chocolate bar for $3, we've to realise that at least $1 goes to the retailer, $1 goes to marketing and distribution and most of the remaining $1 goes to packaging.

'The farmer in the best case ends up with 20 cents. Nature, which is responsible for at least 50 per cent of the taste quality of the chocolate, doesn't get anything back.'

But to do any good, he acknowledges that the chocolate has to taste good first.

Original Beans was recently hailed by the Financial Times as one of the 'best newcomers' in the market and is served in desserts at top-rated restaurants like The Ivy in London.

No one is prouder than him, he says, of the sweet irony of fine surroundings and sterling silver, juxtaposed with 'chocolates from the poorest war-torn countries in world'.

Give our trees a chance
Straits Times 18 Dec 10;

The Cancun climate change talks approved a landmark scheme for protecting forests. This may help to slow deforestation in South-east Asia, home to some of the world's largest rainforests. Environment Correspondent Jessica Cheam examines why mankind is bent on destroying the lungs of the world and looks at some spots where the trend has been successfully reversed.

THE growing effort to preserve the world's remaining forests received a major boost last week at the climate change talks in Cancun.

The United Nations has moved a significant step closer to implementing a plan called Redd, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation.

This scheme would offer financial incentives to developing countries to stop destroying their forests.

Details of the plan need to be fleshed out, such as ensuring the deal has environmental and social safeguards for the rights of indigenous people, and that deforestation does not just move from one part of a country to another.

Still, it offers hope to those fighting to save the diminishing green havens that serve as the lungs of the globe.

Rainforest Foundation Norway director Lars Lovold noted that 'important progress has been made... The decision reflects the growing understanding that a broad and participatory approach... is needed to prevent deforestation'.

But ambiguities in the scheme mean 'our fight will have to continue, both at the national level and within the ongoing UN climate negotiations', he said.

For environmentalists, one of the more baffling puzzles on our planet has long been that forests play a vital role in our lives, yet in many places people just cannot wait to take an axe to them.

Forests directly or indirectly provide us with everything from furniture to food, medicine, water and oxygen. Yet vast tracts are chopped down or burnt every year, with no thought of replanting.

About half of the planet's original forests have been cleared.

In the past 30 years alone, economic 'progress' has brought about the destruction of no less than a quarter of what had been lost in the previous 10,000 years.

The world's rainforests - much of which are in our region - could vanish in 100 years despite an encouraging decline in rates of deforestation.

South-east Asia has suffered the highest rate of deforestation in the world over the past two decades.

About 2.8 million ha of forest were chopped down or burnt a year from 1990 to 2005, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The main reason is, of course, Asia's phenomenal growth, says Mr Jack Hurd, director of The Nature Conservancy's Asia-Pacific forest programme.

Prosperity has lifted demand for food as well as wood-derived products such as furniture and paper, prompting local communities and businesses to cut down trees to plant crops like palm oil, for livestock grazing land or for pulp to make paper.

'It doesn't help that there's a high market value for many tree species in tropical forests, and good transportation links make it easy for trading to flourish, encouraging further deforestation,' Mr Hurd tells The Straits Times.

He points to Sumatra's Riau province and central and west Kalimantan, also in Indonesia, as deforestation hot spots. Such areas have relatively weak forestry governance or policies and land-use planning processes are underdeveloped.

'It's a combination of these things that has allowed the forests to be razed in an unsustainable fashion,' he says.

Apart from providing fresh oxygen and being a key source of food and medicine, forests absorb a huge amount of climate-warming carbon. Chop down the trees and that carbon is released into the atmosphere, speeding up climate change.

A recent report by The Economist estimated that across the world, forests and the soil beneath them absorb a quarter of all carbon emissions. They also regulate water run-off, mitigate floods and droughts, and are key to making rain.

Deforestation contributes almost 20 per cent to global greenhouse gas emissions - more than that from the world's ships, cars, planes and buses combined.

But there is some good news. The FAO noted earlier this year that, for the first time on record, the worldwide pace of deforestation has slowed, owing to increased awareness of ecological issues.

The world lost 13 million ha of forests a year between 2000 and this year - down from about 16 million in the 1990 to 2000 period, it said.

Mr Hurd points to large-scale reforestation programmes in China, India and Vietnam that help to explain this trend.

These responses are usually prompted by a country's realisation that it has almost completely depleted its forest resources, says Mr Hurd.

The key challenge is to convince countries not to completely destroy their forests before realising it is too late.

Some heavily forested countries have been more successful than others in this regard. Puerto Rico is one that has reversed its rate of deforestation, thanks to a re-planting effort led by the United States. The programme and a decline in farming as people flock to cities for jobs have led to the regeneration of forests in Puerto Rico.

Scientists at forestry projects such as the Tropic Ventures Education and Research Foundation are researching and implementing methods to sustainably harvest the trees that have re- grown on the island over the past 30 years.

In particular, scientists are researching a method called line planting to produce timber on land that is unsuited for long- term agricultural use.

This turns the forest into plantations by keeping the shelter of some of the bigger trees to protect the soil, while growing other trees for harvest.

Tropic Ventures director Thrity Vakil wants to prove sustainable forestry is possible. In the longer term, she aims to initiate a new, sustainable wood market for Puerto Rico, which has to import wood from the US despite its vast forests.

Costa Rica is another leading example. It consistently ranks among the top environmentally performing countries and on league tables of the 'greenest' nations.

It used to be one of the worst nations in Central America for deforestation but green policies put in place in the 1990s reversed the trend.

Its former environment and energy minister, Mr Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, told The Straits Times recently that it all boiled down to paying people to preserve their forests.

The concept is called payment for environmental services or PES.

In 1996, Costa Rica began a radical programme to address deforestation by paying farmers and land owners to keep forests intact. It imposed a 3.5 per cent tax on fossil fuels and started a fund that paid farmers every month. The current payout is about US$78 (S$102) per hectare a year. This makes it more profitable than other options such as agriculture, Mr Rodriguez added.

The UN plan may prove to be a milestone in the history of forest protection.

Similar to Costa Rica's PES, it will see developed nations provide finance to help developing countries protect forests, although the details have to be worked out.

Still, some funds have started flowing. At last year's UN climate talks in Copenhagen, governments committed US$4.5 billion to finance Redd-related investments over the next three years.

In addition, Indonesia has agreed to place a two-year moratorium on new concessions to clear natural forests and peatlands under a US$1 billion deal signed with Norway earlier this year.

But while deforestation is slowing in some areas, it is not enough.

Investments have to be speeded up and existing solutions in sustainable forestry must be shared and expanded if deforestation is to be tackled, says Mr Hurd.

'This requires a lot of political will... and the private sector will also have to step up. Both government and businesses have to be engaged and be part of the solution, otherwise they will remain part of the problem.'

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