The finitude of forests
A scheme to save the world’s rainforests still seems too good to be true
AS THE heavens open, the canopy offers scant protection from the downpour, so the orang-utans tear leaves off the trees to make pathetic little umbrellas to hold over their heads. It is an endearingly human gesture but, as a means of keeping dry, almost entirely futile. And it is not just the rain that makes these creatures seem so helpless. The relentless destruction of their tropical-forest habitat has endangered their entire species.
In Borneo, in the Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan, they can relax in a camp devoted to their welfare on the edge of the Tanjung Puting national park. But the park—415,000 hectares of protected tropical heath forest and peat forest—is surrounded by oil-palm plantations. These orang-utans are refugees from forests cleared to make way for the plantations. Much as people like the creatures, and devotedly as conservationists work, the park is not enough to stem their remorseless decline. There is too much money in palm oil, as well as timber, coal, gold, zircon and the forest’s other vegetable and mineral riches.
Yet prospects for the orang-utans have recently looked up. Climate-change fears have drawn attention to the work forests do to sustain not just wildlife but the planet itself. The outlines of a scheme under which developing countries would be paid not to cut down trees has been agreed. Indonesia, for example, chafes at its reputation as the world’s third-biggest emitter of carbon (a ranking it disputes). It has promised to cut its emissions by 26% by 2020 or, if promised foreign cash actually materialises, by 41%. It will achieve this in large measure by reducing deforestation.