Polluters Plant Rain Forests to Earn Eco Rain Checks

Article excerpt

The rough dirt road winds up and down the jungle-covered foothills of western Belize, passing Maya peasant families on foot or bearded Amish farmers in their horse-drawn buggies. It passes through banana plantations and scrubby pastures carved from the ever-shrinking tropical forests.

The road eventually leads into a tidy compound staffed by a couple dozen Swiss, Germans, and Austrians. Locals come to the Maya Ranch Reserve for the homemade ice cream. But the staff of this remote research station is hoping to provide a great deal more for the people of Belize and, perhaps, the rest of the world: provide oxygen, store carbon.

This project is funded by several German companies. And as concern over climate change heats up, electrical utilities and other polluters are investing in tropical forests. By protecting existing forests or growing new ones, companies hope to use the trees for pollution credits if a proposed international carbon trading scheme gets under way later this decade.

In the US, Dynegy Inc., a leading energy company, recently completed planting 6.3 million trees in five states. The US is currently lobbying the United Nations that countries receive environmental credits for replenishing forests.

"We can promote biodiversity and protect against climate change at the same time," says Thomas Qubeck, vice president of the Janus Foundation, the Bern, Switzerland, based nonprofit that runs the ranch.

Conservationists, who have fought a losing battle to protect the world's rain forests, hope the forests will be saved for their trees, which absorb carbon dioxide, store the carbon as new plant material, and emit oxygen.

"We've struggled for years to find a value of living forests that's greater than the value of clearing them for lumber or slash- and-burn agriculture," says Tia Nelson of The Nature Conservancy, the Arlington, Va.,-based land trust that's brokered several large forest-protection projects in Latin America. "Suddenly investors and decisionmakers are recognizing the value forests play in climate change."

The Conservancy brokered the largest project of its type, the protection of 1.5 million acres of Bolivian forests as a carbon sink. Three electrical utilities - BP Amoco, American Electric Power, and PacifiCorp - invested $9.6 million to buy and retire the logging rights to the land, which was then turned over to the government of Bolivia, which incorporated it into the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park. …