COLUMNIST THOMAS FRIEDMAN: China should help save rainforests

BELEM, Brazil -- "One million dollars?" The question was asked with eyes wide and a voice of incredulity. The person asking was Antonio Waldez Goes da Silva, the governor of the Amazonian state of Amapa, which has the biggest national park in the...

BELEM, Brazil -- "One million dollars?"

The question was asked with eyes wide and a voice of incredulity. The person asking was Antonio Waldez Goes da Silva, the governor of the Amazonian state of Amapa, which has the biggest national park in the world. I had just shared with the governor a recent news article in The Hill, the congressional newspaper, which said the total cost of stationing one U.S. soldier in Afghanistan for one year is $1 million.

What if we kept just one soldier back from Afghanistan and gave you the money, I asked the governor. What would it buy you?

Waldez Góes mulled that over: "If you kept three soldiers back, that would be enough for me to keep the State University of Amapa running for one year, so 1,400 students could take different courses on sustainable development for the Amazon."

O.K., I know. It is a bit misleading to take a war budget and assume that if it weren't spent on combat, it would all go to schools or parks. And we do have real enemies. Some wars have to be fought, no matter the cost.


But such comparisons still are a useful reminder that our debate about Afghanistan is not taking place in a vacuum. We will have to make trade-offs, and there are other hugely important projects today crying out for funding.

Well, if America is going to assume the primary burden of fixing Central Asia, then maybe China -- for example -- could help pick up the tab for saving what is left of the Amazon and the world's other great tropical forests. Could President Barack Obama raise that idea in Beijing?

An intergovernmental working group for saving the rainforests estimates that for about $30 billion, we could reduce deforestation in places like Brazil, Indonesia and the Congo by 25 percent by 2015. After that, financing from global carbon markets, plus these countries' own resources, could save much of the rest.

China now has $2.2 trillion in reserves. How about it, Beijing? Why don't you step up and provide some public goods for the world for once -- not because you get a direct benefit, but just because it would make the world a better place for everyone?

Sure, America still should lead such efforts. But China's days as a global free-rider should be over. China should pay its fair share -- and more -- since it will benefit every bit as much as the U.S., Europe and Japan.

Indeed, the U.N. Foundation estimates that because living tropical forests are such huge storehouses of carbon -- which gets released when we chop the trees down -- if we just stop deforestation, we get a big chunk of the carbon-emissions reductions the world needs between now and 2020.

"And forest-rich developing countries, like Brazil, are now ready to do their part because they depend on the water that the rainforests provide for energy and agriculture, and because they see a new model for growth based on their natural capital," said Glenn Prickett, a senior vice president with Conservation International and my traveling companion here.

"Brazil has developed the science, political will and basic rules and institutions for preserving its rainforests. What Brazil and other rainforest nations like Indonesia lack, though, are the funds to take this new economic model to scale."


I was struck by how many of the building blocks for "natural capitalism" that Gov. Waldez Goes -- whose state sits at the mouth of the Amazon -- is putting in place, so that he can have an economy based on preserving the rainforest rather than stripping it.

He's building on the three P's -- creating protected forest areas; improving productivity on lands that have already been cleared so farmers there will not need more; and establishing property rights for Amazonian lands, which are a legal mess, inviting Wild West land grabs and scaring off investors in sustainable agriculture.

Waldez Goes already has protected 75 percent of his state as rainforest, as well as enacted the laws and created a technical college to provide for sustainable logging and eco-tourism and for developing medicinal and cosmetic products from rainforest plants. But he needs money to implement and monitor at scale and prove that "natural capitalism" can deliver more than the extractive version.

"I am the son of a rubber tapper," he explains. "I was born and raised in the jungle, so even before becoming a politician, I had a strong connection to nature."

The world is facing this relentless "development path that brings pollution and degradation and deforestation," he added. He and other Brazilians want to prove you can do better by bringing "conservation and development together."

Tropical forests represent 5 percent of the earth's surface but harbor 50 percent of all living species. Conservation International's motto is "What is lost there is felt here."

If we lose what is left of the Amazon, we'll all feel the climate effects, changing rainfall and loss of biodiversity that enriches our world. Brazil seems ready to do its part. Are we? What about you, China?

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