The Price of Saving a Tree

Latin America clears more forests than any other continent, threatening 10,000 animal species worth extinction. But if landowners are to stop cutting down trees, the benefits of encouraging conservation must be seen to outweigh the costs.

Latin America is blessed with more than its fair share of wildlife and lush forests. A third of the world’s mammal species and more than a quarter of all known reptiles and bird species can be found there. But this abundance is under threat. Felling seven million hectares of trees each year, South America clears more forests than any other continent. As a result, more than 10,000 species are threatened with extinction – two-thirds of all endangered species on the planet.

In a sense, the solution to this challenge is as plain as day. Landowners cut down trees because it is the most economically beneficial thing for them to do. So policymakers need to provide them with an incentive not to. If we can unlock the hidden potential in Latin America’s forests – without destroying them – then we could provide a solution to the problem of habitat destruction.

We can easily tally the costs of individual conservation efforts like saving the northern spotted owl. Calculating how much it would cost to stop landowners felling their trees is harder. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been attempted. Economists’ estimates range from $1.23 billion a year (to save trees in Latin America’s biodiversity “hot spots”) to $5.8 billion a year (to save 2% of the continent’s land area) to $500 billion (making a one-off payment to save all of Latin America’s forests).

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