The price of a living forest

The blunt economic truth is clear: deforestation can never be stopped as long as trees are worth mor

The two environmentalists never stood a chance. As they drove into the small Honduran town of Guarizama on 20 December last year, armed men forced Heraldo Zúñiga and Roger Iván Cartagena to the side of the road, dragged them from their car, stood them against a wall next to the municipal building in full view of passers-by, and shot them. Although at least 40 shots were fired, Zúñiga survived long enough to denounce those who had hired the assassins - the timber barons who are making a fortune by razing the region's pine forests and exporting wood to the United States.

Such is the price of taking on the power of the illegal timber trade. But almost as shocking as the murders of those who try to protect the forests in countries such as Honduras is that neither the US nor the EU has any enforceable means of stopping illegal timber imports.

Now, after a long campaign, the Environmental Investigation Agency is supporting a rare bipartisan legislative effort in the US Congress to choke off domestic demand for imported illegal wood products. Promoted by Republicans and Democrats alike, as well as by an unusual coalition of environmental and industry groups, the Legal Timber Protection Act would make it a crime to import or sell illegally sourced timber. The EU is also on the way to similar legislation.

Despite these positive moves, however, the blunt economic truth is clear: deforestation can never be stopped as long as trees are worth more dead than alive. As Andrew Mitchell, director of the Oxford-based Global Canopy Programme, points out, the only thing that can safeguard the survival of tropical forests in the long term is a market value. This means generating hard-currency income flows to countries and communities that host forests, in recognition of the "ecological services" that these intact woodlands provide to the rest of humanity.

Mitchell is co-sponsor of the Forests Now Declaration - an attempt to persuade governments meeting at the UN climate negotiations in Bali next month to bring forests into the world's emerging carbon markets and thereby put a price on their protection. Deforestation accounts for a fifth of global greenhouse-gas emissions - more than the entire transport sector, including international aviation - and yet emissions avoided by reducing deforestation are not eligible for carbon credits. Indeed, because its forests are being so rapidly cleared and burned down (in part to produce supposedly climate-friendly palm oil for biofuels), Indonesia is the world's third-largest carbon emitter after China and the United States. With billions now circulating in carbon markets around the world, Indonesia can potentially be paid to keep its forests standing rather than chop them down. Major forest countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Papua New Guinea have already lent the proposal their support.

Climate change presents humanity with a non-negotiable requirement to live within the planet's ecological limits, but these limits also include the need to protect finite resources such as the world's remaining forests. Bali presents governments with an ideal opportunity to address both issues at the same time - and to ensure that other environmental problems are not aggravated in our rush to tackle climate change.