Fifth in a series
The rain forest here is so dense and this village so isolated that when Russell Mittermeier arrived by bush plane, it seemed for a moment like a step back into an era before worries about global warming.
In a thatched hut lit by kerosene lanterns, the local leader, wearing a headdress of iridescent macaw feathers, listened as Mittermeier, an American environmentalist, described climate change in apocalyptic but distant terms: melting icebergs, parched savannas, flooded cities.
Then he explained the connection to Kwamala, and how the Amazonian jungle here, if preserved, would help reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
"Lots of people in America, in Europe, in the big countries, we believe that if we don't want you to cut down the forest, we should pay. We should pay you something to protect the forest," Mittermeier told the tribal leader, or granman, Ashonko Alalaparoe.
The granman, his bare chest draped in bright red, yellow and blue beads, quickly absorbed the message. "You come to me with this new idea, this carbon issue," Granman Alalaparoe said. "This sounds good to me."
For Mittermeier, for the world and, indeed, for this tiny South American jungle outpost, the clock is ticking. Despite its remoteness, the same forces that have slashed and burned some 20 percent of the Amazonian rain forest are closing in on Kwamala.
Mittermeier's idea, offering cash so local villages will protect their forests, is key to the next new tool in the effort to fight climate change: carbon credits.
Rain forest credits will be a key topic of debate when representatives from 180 nations meet Monday in Bali, Indonesia, to begin discussions aimed at replacing the landmark Kyoto Protocol on climate change.
Under Kyoto, power plants and other big polluters needing to offset their greenhouse gas emissions can earn credits by making offsetting, environmentally friendly investments like replacing clear-cut rain forests or capturing methane gas from a landfill. But paying to protect a standing rain forest is not eligible.
That could change soon. At Bali, environmentalists, European governments and others that favor carbon credits will be pitted against governments and commercial interests that want to develop the timber, precious metals and agricultural lands that make up the equatorial rain forest.
The situation in Kwamala, and the region of unbroken rain forest that surrounds it, shows in vivid detail how the complexities of rain forest credits are playing out. The paving of a road through Guyana, some 300 miles away, will offer easy passage to loggers, miners, ranchers and others who want to exploit the virtually pristine jungle that covers this region. Once paved, the Georgetown-Lethem Road could serve as a sort of backbone along which other roads soon branch.
"The road will provide an artery, and the artery creates a way for people to circulate," said David Singh, director general of the Iwokrama International Center for Rain Forest Conservation and Development, which controls a 1 million-acre protected area astride the road. "There will be pressure from Brazil, and we have to be careful not to be overwhelmed by it," Singh added.
Already, the hard-packed red dirt road offers lessons about perhaps the thorniest issue in the debate over avoided deforestation -- the question of whether forests as remote as those of Guyana and Suriname should ever qualify for carbon credits.
Illusion of invulnerability
Fly above the rain forest of Guyana and Suriname and it's easy to appreciate the argument against credits for stopping deforestation. Spreading to the horizon in every direction like a textured green blanket, the rain forest hardly looks fragile.
Only a handful of villages speckle the centuries-old timber running north of the Amazon River from Venezuela on the west to French Guiana on the east. The world's largest intact rain forest -- covering an area twice the size of Texas -- sits atop a geological formation called the Guiana Shield. The name itself imparts an aura of invulnerability.
With its soaring 150-foot-tall canopies serenaded by macaws and toucans, its leaf-littered floors prowled by jaguars and tapirs, the Guiana Shield's forest looks like an impregnable fortress of biomass.
To some experts on credits, this very sense of invincibility offers evidence that credits are not necessary to protect the Guiana Shield rain forest. While logging is allowed, the clear-cutting and slash-and-burn techniques so common to Indonesia and Madagascar have not happened here.
"What is this about? Is this about reducing the rate of deforestation?" asks Janine Ferretti, chief of the environmental and social group at the Inter-American Development Bank. "If so, the business model is you put your attention to countries that have high deforestation rates."
But Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, who earned his doctorate studying monkey behavior in the Suriname rain forest, doesn't see it that way.
Madagascar's rain forest was pristine just 50 years ago. Today, 90 percent of it is gone. And soybean farmers and ranchers have made Brazil home to the world's largest total deforestation: some 250,000 square miles, or 18 percent of the Amazonian rain forest.
Large-scale cutting in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Borneo and other places has contributed to the 50 percent loss of rain forest worldwide since the 1970s.
Mittermeier looks out the window of an eight-seater plane en route from Kwamala and worries about the real, if sometimes unseen, vulnerabilities.
Chinese and Malaysian loggers are seeking logging rights. Mining companies from the U.S. are negotiating to open a huge new bauxite mine in the western part of the country.
Across the border, in Guyana, a sprawling gold mine gashes a hole in the middle of the forest. Further west is the Georgetown-Lethem Road.
"The idea of 'threat' is a great stumbling block," Mittermeier says. "This is a 'low-threat area'? So was Madagascar 50 years ago. So was Borneo 20 years ago. Low-threat rain forest destruction just does not exist."
Road to destruction
Go to the ground, drive the ribbon of packed red dirt that is the Georgetown-Lethem Road, and it becomes apparent what Mittermeier means.
It takes a bone-jarring 12 hours to traverse the 300 miles from Georgetown to Lethem. But as soon as the rain forest rises up from the scrub trees and grasses just an hour outside of Guyana's capital, the first sign of rain forest incursion comes into view: smoke from the low-burning fires of squatters, patiently cooking timber into charcoal.
A man named Dickie Bedassie is one of many along the road who has clear-cut a patch of forest and is heating the fallen trees in an elaborately constructed oven the size of a one-room building. In place of the cecropia and purpleheart he has cut down, Bedassie plans to plant pineapple when he's through.
"They can't move you," Bedassie says of the forestry commission rangers who pass through. "You've cultivated the land."
Investment by Chinese and Malaysian miners and loggers can be seen everywhere. Near the road's halfway point, at Pete & Ruth's Restaurant, Chinese buyers sit at the Formica tables three times a week. Noshing on eddoe-leaf cookup, the restaurant's most popular dish, they bargain to buy as much Guyana timber as they can.
"They buy 20, 40, 100 cubic meters at a time. That's a lot of wood," said restaurant owner Peter Rajmangal. "They have big ships lined up in Georgetown, and they're buying the wood to fill them."
Exports of Guyana timber to China in 2006 exceeded 60,000 cubic meters, triple the levels five years ago.
Officially at least, Guyana's government requires logging companies to follow international standards of sustainable logging when cutting rain forest trees. But visit the largest logging concession on the Georgetown-Lethem Road, 250,000 acres controlled by Demerara Timbers Ltd., and it appears Guyana's second-largest logger is not following the rules.
Werner Grimmond, who worked as a surveyor for Demerara until quitting over a pay dispute in April, takes a visitor into the Demerara concession. There he offers a guided tour of environmental disaster.
Stumps of greenheart and purpleheart trees, this rain forest's most valuable timber, litter an area where the less-valuable species have been bulldozed to make way for loggers.
"Greenheart, greenheart, greenheart and a purpleheart," Grimmond says, his finger stabbing the air, pointing from stump to stump. If logged according to standards for sustainability, only one of those trees would be gone. "It isn't supposed to happen this way."
Guyana's forestry commission does little to enforce the government's logging laws, Grimmond says. And much of what is done by Demerara and Guyana's other big logging company, Barama Co., is shrouded in mystery.
It is believed that both companies are controlled by Malaysian investors, though signs at the logging camp indicate that a Chinese company, Bai Shan Lin, also has at least an operating relationship with Demerara. Malaysian and Chinese loggers are criticized by environmental groups worldwide for their indifference to environmental standards.
Rangers from Guyana's forestry commission can be more interested in enriching themselves than protecting the trees.
A former commission ranger, who insisted on anonymity, said he issued false permits that enabled Demerara to illegally remove purpleheart and greenheart logs from the forest.
Just a few weeks after he was hired, the ex-ranger said, he watched as his supervisor unabashedly negotiated a $2,000 bribe for certifying shipment of illegally logged greenheart trees.
The former ranger admits he once allowed shipment of an illegally logged truckload in exchange for a bribe that bought him a new washing machine.
"My old washer had broken down," he said with a shrug.
Grimmond, whose wife still works for Demerara, said enforcement is virtually non-existent. One area nearby is so clear-cut, he said, it would be long and wide enough for a plane to land.
"Some of the forestry commission go over there, but they see nothing," Grimmond said, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together as if fingering money.
"Somebody has got to come in and stop these people," he said. "They're destroying the forest."
James Singh, head of the Guyana Forestry Commission, refused an interview but agreed to answer questions posed by e-mail. After receiving written questions about Demerara Timbers, allegations of bribery in the forestry commission and gold mining along the Georgetown-Lethem Road, he never responded. Demerara Timbers Ltd. and Barama Co. did not return phone calls.
Just a few miles south of the public lands logged by Demerara, an entrepreneurial-minded Guyanese named Nigel Wilson is creating his own brand of environmental impact: a makeshift gold mine carved into Guyana's rain forest. Into an elaborate slurry system Wilson adds a secret ingredient: mercury.
The toxic heavy metal is common to gold mining, but not at the stage Wilson applies it, flowing freely into a 10-foot-tall sluice box. After proceeding through the rest of the process, it runs directly into a pond that feeds into a nearby stream.
"You should never use mercury at this stage. It is illegal," Wilson says. "But we find that it is more effective."
The mine's tailing pond is not lined with any protective material. And a sample collected and sent to an independent laboratory by the Tribune shows the result: The mercury in the sediment is more than 115,000 times the level considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for industrial wastewater.
Wilson offers a shrug and an explanation. In trying to collect about 200 ounces of gold each year, worth $165,000, he feels ill-equipped to comply with international standards.
"I do not really do this on a professional basis," Wilson said. "I am not a professional. We use permissive measures."
Neighbors are knocking
The southern leg of the road runs through a protected area of 1 million acres, the Iwokrama preserve. After that, the road bumps into more trouble: Guyana's border with Brazil. With paving plans on the books, and Brazil building a bridge across the Takatu River border, it is clear the Brazilians are ready for this road.
For Laerte Oestreicher, a sawmill owner who heads the chamber of commerce in the northern Brazilian city of Boa Vista, paving of the Georgetown-Lethem Road is a long-delayed dream come true.
"Guyana is virgin," Oestreicher says. "When the road is completed, you'll have planting and other activities all along the road."
Planting cannot happen, of course, unless the rain forest is cleared. But Oestreicher has no sympathy for all the fuss about protecting the rain forest -- talk he attributes to interference from environmental groups in the United States, Greenpeace and the like.
"The U.S. has done so many wrong things," he says as a screaming saw rips greenheart logs into 6-inch boards more than 20 feet long. "The Americans didn't protect their forest. Why do they come here and want to protect our forest?"
The Brazilian government is trying to rein in wholesale clear-cutting. It has set aside South America's largest protected area, in east-central Para state, and is considering more reserves in the Guiana Shield area north of the Amazon.
"We're in the middle of this huge, fundamental transformation of the way deforestation takes place in Amazonia," said Daniel Nepstad, a rain forest expert and senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. "What we're talking about is governing deforestation so it happens in the right spots, where it won't do irrevocable damage."
Even so, the Brazilian government's economic development policy, Avanca Brasil, focuses on building roads and other policies that often trump the interests of forest ecologists. Brazil long has promoted the idea of the Georgetown-Lethem Road as the easiest commercial conduit to the Atlantic Ocean.
No clear consensus
The fate of rain forest in the Guiana Shield ultimately will depend on what comes out of the years-long talks that start with the Bali meeting.
Even the rain forest nations are not united. Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and other countries have promoted logging as a key source of revenue. Brazil has sought to balance development in some parts of the country with aggressive protection programs elsewhere. Countries such as Costa Rica and, lately, Guyana have argued for forest conservation.
At the Bali conference, Brazil is expected to oppose efforts to include low-pressure rain forest in any new credit scheme. At the Kyoto negotiations in 2002, Brazilians blocked a plan to include deforestation at all. Credits for reforestation were a compromise solution.
The United Nations estimates that developing countries might ultimately receive $100 billion for all manner of credits that help cut greenhouse gases. No reliable estimates are available for how much of that might come from credits for avoided deforestation.
The World Bank, which is raising $300 million for a program aimed at reducing rain forest destruction and degradation, argues that pressure must exist before loans are made for projects that promote avoided deforestation.
"You need to have a threat," said Benoit Bosquet, national resources management specialist for the World Bank's carbon finance unit.
Bosquet acknowledges the current system creates perverse incentives.
"Countries say, 'If you don't give us an incentive for behaving, well, then you give us an incentive to cut down the rain forest,'" he said.
Those who oppose the "pressure prerequisite" argue that rain forest trees act like lungs for Earth: They are good for the atmosphere, whether under pressure or not.
Rain forest destruction comprises roughly 20 percent of human contribution to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The decaying roots emit methane gas that probably triples the damage to the atmosphere, studies show.
Reforestation is inefficient. It takes decades for seedlings to mature enough to absorb significant amounts of carbon dioxide.
"The scale of what avoided deforestation can do in terms of carbon -- it's amazing," said Meg Symington, director of the Latin America forest program for the World Wildlife Fund. Comparing reforestation to the clean-air impact of standing rain forest, she said, "You're talking petagrams versus gigatons."
Voices of the wilderness
The smaller countries of Guyana and Suriname, which nevertheless house much of the world's largest remaining expanse of uncut rain forest, are scrambling to find their voices in time for the Bali round.
In an October speech, Guyana President Bharrat Jagdeo called on rain forest countries to coordinate efforts at the Bali meeting to push for credits for avoided deforestation. He also is seeking to persuade the British government to help fund rain forest preservation in Guyana, perhaps by using carbon credits.
Jagdeo's big fear, he said in the speech, is that "deforestation activities would migrate from countries rewarded for slowing down deforestation to countries where deforestation was not previously taking place."
For Suriname Forestry Minister Michael P. Jong Tjien Fa, quick action is necessary or economic necessity might force rain forest countries to cut down their trees.
"We've been doing such a good job, we should be rewarded," he said.
"As long as there is no proper compensation for maintaining the rain forest, I'm afraid there are pressures from the globalizing world. Certainly Suriname is part of that."
Villagers in Kwamala, deep in the Suriname rain forest, are feeling the pressures from globalization too.
Old-timers say the weather has changed in recent years. The dry season starts later each fall, throwing off the eating and mating habits of forest animals, making them more difficult prey for the hunters. Leafcutter ants have invaded crops that previously seemed resistant to them.
Food is scarce. Families have left the village in search of easier hunting and fishing.
Mittermeier of Conservation International is proposing that the village set aside a tract of nearly 40,000 acres for a carbon concession.
At current prices, carbon credits would amount to at least $12 million, though much of that likely would go to the national government and only a fraction to the village.
The night Mittermeier proposed the idea to Granman Alalaparoe, rolling out a map and shining a flashlight to lay out the footprint of the proposed carbon reserve, the granman said he would first need to talk to his village.
The next morning, the conversation began.
At 5 a.m. in Kwamala, the time when the granman each morning greets his people with announcements over a solar-powered public address system, Alalaparoe begins introducing the idea of carbon credits to villagers who live without electricity, hunt with bow and arrow and must live within walking distance of the river.
"When the bush burns, the world gets hotter. When it gets hotter, it's difficult to get food," Alalaparoe announced.
"Within a short time, I will call a big village meeting to talk about all this," the granman said. "I want to protect the forest, and I want your help in protecting the forest."Copyright © 2015, CT Now