Thursday, April 17, 2008

For What It's Worth

Something nudged me in the direction of biofuels yesterday, and, while I was catching up on some ethanol reading, I bumped into this sentence:

The basic problem is that the Amazon is worth more deforested than it is intact.

Simple. Powerful. And downright terrifying.

It made me think about northeastern Australia, its little strip of rainforest, and an ongoing discussion I've been having with my grandfather about a land value situation over there...

In the early 1970s in Darwin, Australia, an illegal undercover drug bust brought the knuckleball to Australian baseball, made my uncle Kim a local celebrity, introduced him to the coastal rainforest in North Queensland, and gave him the opportunity to buy some very very cheap and very very beautiful land.

He's lived there, in the jungle, for more than 30 years now. He has an orchard. He cuts a couple pieces of timber every once in a while. He beats back the edges of the forest when they creep too close to his house. But most of the space he owns is untouched.

He thinks his tiny bush community could use another good neighbor or two, and he needs some cash, so he wants to do a little subdividing and sell some land.

Some crucial laws are in flux, however, and he's struggling to make the subdivisions and sales happen. Five years ago, he could have broken off a 25 acre piece and sold it without any trouble. But the Aussie government and civil service has been greening and greening and greening, and there are an increasing number of influential people that think it's important to keep rainforest subdivisions from happening.

To the "greenies," that forest shouldn't belong to my uncle. It's an essential, life-sustaining element of our world that we can't afford to buy, sell, or exploit in any way. It's a resource, but its value as a resource is as a system intact, not as slices for consumption.

To my uncle, however, the land is his savings account, his retirement fund. He doesn't want development. He doesn't want logging. He doesn't want pastures cleared for cattle. He doesn't want to kill cassowaries or bandicoots or waterfall frogs. He wants to preserve the habitat, for the habitat is his habitat too.* But, at the moment, he needs the money.

And, as I mentioned, he's having a tough time making it happen.

Hal, my grandfather, is raging about it. He considers it totally unacceptable that the Aussie government is devaluing people's property without compensating them. And he blames it on the "greenies."

I love the "greenies." I am (or at least aspire to be) a "greenie." I know they're trying to do the right thing. But watching Hal's reaction makes me think they're making a huge tactical mistake.

Taking people's property away is a harsh thing to do. It scares them. It makes them angry at the government. And it makes them anti-green.

And that's really scary.

I don't know much about how these things work, but maybe some kind of partial value compensation would be smart. It would not only be thoughtful and generous, but it would also be strategic. If the goal is to save the rainforest, wouldn't it be smart to sympathize and make friends with the people living there?

Hmmm. Maybe we don't have time for generosity or friendliness or politics or whatever you want to call it. Maybe alienating a few thousand landowners in North Queensland won't have any ill effect on the movement, its reputation, or its credibility.

But think of that little Northeastern Australian rainforest as a small scale Amazon: land that has serious monetary value to its owner only when it's no longer rainforest.

That's a problem. And it's a problem we can try to fix with heavy government hands, risking landowner alienation and turning emotionally involved bystanders like my grandfather anti-green. Or it's a problem we can try to fix with valuation and compensation. We can decide what that rainforest is worth long term, and we can listen to Homero Pereira, head of the farm bureau in the soybean heavy Brazilian state of Mato Grosso:

If you don't want us to tear down the forest, you better pay us to leave it up!

Feels a little apocalyptic, but it might be the pragmatic thing to do. I should probably read The Ecology of Commerce again before commenting further...

*Note: I mean this in a more serious way than people that don't know Kim can probably imagine. As he wanders farther and farther from the depths of the jungle, he operates less and less gracefully. We joke that he's gone feral.