Pricing and Protecting the Natural World our Best Defense Against Climate Change

Helen Bertelli

How Science and a Price on Carbon are Saving The Guatemalan Cerro Amay Cloud Forest

By Helen Bertelli 

Foreword: Growing up in England, one of my parents' favorite pastimes was to take us on walks in the countryside. Once in a while, we'd come across an ancient tree that had been listed in the Domesday Book. When we did, my mother took great delight in teaching us a bit of British history.




Written in 1086, the Domesday Book was ordered by William the Conqueror—the last person to conquer the United Kingdom—as a record of his monumental survey of all lands, villages, livestock, and even trees that he had acquired with his conquest. It was one of the first most sweeping attempts by humans to document and appraise the world and nature. Today the book is regarded as one of the UK's most important treasures.

The Domesday Book is the first of two medieval documents that represent defining moments in British—and by extension—world history. The second, the Magna Carta, was drafted in 1215 after a bloody battle by English nobles seeking to curtail the power of tyrannical King John. Its language protected due process and barred absolute monarchy, and has guided the fundamental principles of common law in constitutions around the world ever since. In short: it is widely considered the gateway to democracy.

For this reason, the Prince of Wales' new sustainability charter, named after the Magna Carter, is a stroke of genius: 

"Deriving its name from the historic Magna Carta, which inspired a belief in the fundamental rights and liberties of people over 800 years ago, the Terra Carta aims to reunite people and planet, by giving fundamental rights and value to Nature, ensuring a lasting impact and tangible legacy for this generation."

But the work the Prince advocates—to value nature for its own sake—won't be easy. Since the days of the Domesday Book, with the exception of indigenous peoples, humans have tended to value nature only through ownership/in the context of its direct utility to us. But protecting the natural world will mean changing our approach, altering legal constructs, finding new ways to document nature and new technologies. In short, we must undo centuries-old ways of thinking, and build new and more sustainable approaches to save our natural assets, our most effective tools in the fight against climate change.

I wrote the following—a journey from halls of Washington to the Guatemalan wilderness—as a pro bono project after I learned of the plight of indigenous people living near the pristine Cerro Amay Cloud Forest. Last year, their villages were buried in catastrophic mudslides, a result of hurricanes exacerbated by climate change that the world around them has caused. Many villagers died, and their beautiful forest is under threat.

My goal in writing this is to support the scientists who are working to preserve the Cerro Amay; to raise funds to help the villages rebuild, and to paint a picture of this incredible forest and its biodiversity for potential allies seeking natural world projects to support toward Net-Zero or other climate change-related goals.

A Cloud Forest, The Politics of Carbon, and a Crab that is New to Science

The statement adds an influential voice to an issue debated in halls of governance and boardrooms worldwide. If the US enacts a country-wide scheme similar to the EU Emissions Trading Program, consequences will be far-reaching for humans and the natural world.

Thousands of miles from the political ballyhoo, in Guatemala the Cerro Amay Cloud Forest land crab goes about its business, unaware of the fact that it likely owes its existence to EU emissions trading. Nor could it care less when American wetlands scientist Jeremy Schewe all but fell over with surprise when he came across it while exploring an ancient cloud forest with Dr. Philip Tanimotoin in 2011.

Cerro Amay is a mountain in the Quiché region of Guatemala. Its forest is one of the largest intact left in Central America, and it sits atop a limestone plateau pock-marked with thousands of caves, providing a spectacular and biodiverse refuge for native wildlife and flora. Generally tropical or subtropical, a cloud forest is characterized by a persistent low-level cloud cover crowned by the tops of ancient trees. Their branches intercept the wind-driven clouds, funneling moisture down to the peaty, mossy forest floor where the water feeds a diverse array of flora—lichens, ferns, bromeliads, and orchids—as well as countless insects and animals.

How the crabs got to a forest, hundreds of miles from the ocean, remains a mystery; at least to scientists—the indigenous people, who have considered the crabs a delicacy for generations, were bemused by Jeremy’s excitement upon his return to their village. 

The crabs are one of several species likely new to science, along with countless others (and several considered endangered), that make their home at Cerro Amay. Their rescue is due to funds from the EU as well as funds raised—and sweat equity given—by a band of scientists and conservationists who have, thus far, saved the forest from otherwise certain destruction. 

The story of Cerro Amay provides a window into the exciting opportunities that arise from the pricing of carbon when it comes to saving natural resources, our best tools in the fight against climate change. The story also illustrates the challenges inherent in the valuation of natural resources like forests and highlights solutions that will improve outcomes both for state-sponsored offset programs as well as private sector initiatives. 

The Heartbeat of the Forest

Scientist Dr. Philip Tanimoto began working in Cerro Amay in 2005 while doing his doctoral research. At the time, very little was known about the area by the outside world. 

By 2009, logging had begun. Alarmed, Dr. Tanimoto founded the Cloud Forest Conservation Initiative and began working with local Mayan communities to purchase acreage for preservation. Soon he had recruited a clan of scientists and conservationists who had discovered the forest through their own work and travel. Wetland scientist Jeremy Schewe was one. While working on Mexican mangrove conservation in 2010, Schewe learned of the forest and traveled there to go caving. 

“One particular cave presented a challenge; to access it we had to slingshot ropes up 160 feet into a giant, ancient oak tree with a trunk almost five feet in diameter,” says Schewe. “Above the clouds, the view was like nothing I have experienced, and laying on the branch I could feel the heartbeat of the forest. When our team rappelled down into the cavern, the inside was pure white; all the crystalline structures were untouched. It was clear, no human had ever entered.”

It was during this trip that Schewe stumbled across the land crab. 

“To my knowledge, we were the first scientists to see this species. We had no idea how it ended up there; the genus has now been named but no grants have been given to study them, so we really don’t know much about them yet.” 

Threats Intensify

In 2016, a 3,700-acre swath of the forest went on the market. At the 11th hour, Dr. Tanimoto and his team managed to raise $500,000, primarily from US-based high net worth individuals, to acquire the unprotected land, saving it from logging companies. But there were limits to what the small team and private funding could achieve alone.  

“Several years into our work, NGOs and the Guatemalan government became involved at the community level through the National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP) program, and then later, the ‘Pro-Bosque’ program implemented by the National Forestry Institute, funded by monies from the EU Carbon Trading system. With this funding, land-owners with intact forests were recruited for a conservation initiative providing cash incentives for preservation,” says Dr. Tanimoto.

But the process was not always straightforward. The patchwork of ownership of the forest complicates protection. Some lands are municipally held or held by small groups, so NGO protection programs do not apply as private ownership cannot be established. Even when private ownership is known, proving title is costly and difficult. 

“Certain costs along the way have not been covered by supporting programs, including hiring professional survey teams to verify land parcels. At $2,500 on average per survey, indigenous families, often living on less than $600 per year, could not shoulder these expenses,” says Schewe. “Working with international sponsors and charities, the Cloud Forest Conservation Initiative raised funds to bridge the gap and get lands into the protected portfolio.”

People as Part of the Ecosystem

European Union Grant Funding for the Pro-Bosque program runs on a ten-year cycle and is due to expire around 2026, according to Dr. Tanimoto. As a result, his team is working hard to find longer-term solutions to ensure the safety of the Cerro Amay.

“In the race to save the forest, we’ve been sticking our fingers, toes, elbows, and so on into the proverbial dam as cracks emerge,” says Dr. Tanimoto, “but we need to move beyond a patchwork of protections because the temptation of lucrative logging is ever-present for hungry families. We need a mechanism for ensuring long-term protection that takes a sustainable, human-centered approach. If we don’t help the people, we cannot hope to save the forest.”

Mariana Rivera-Torres agrees. Now a member of the Consensus Building Institute (CBI), Rivera-Torres was a Peace Corps volunteer posted to a village near the forest when she met Dr. Tanimoto in 2015. She began working with the Initiative to help land-owners protect the forest. 

“From afar it can be tempting to think of people as threatening preservation, but the local communities are an integral part of ecosystem conservation efforts,” says Rivera-Torres. “You cannot separate environmental and social wellbeing. The reason the forest is still there is because the families have preserved and protected it for generations. If local communities are engaged in adaptation and biodiversity initiatives, the work will be far more successful.” 

Ideas that Dr. Tanimoto and his team are testing to provide sustainable and economically viable solutions for the families who call Cerro Amay home include training and equipping villagers to be wardens and custodians of the forest; investigating and building eco-tourism initiatives and cultivating crops on the farmlands beyond the forest that will be both symbiotic with the land as well as provide income for the farmers. For example, the team is currently test-running Macadamia nut farming as options to replace practices that denuded the soil and contributed to mudslides on surrounding lands.

“Macadamia nut trees grow well in areas with year-round moisture,” says Dr. Tanimoto. “Disease resistant, their wood is as dense as oak and they live for 100 years or more, so can sequester a great deal of carbon in their lifetimes. They produce high-quality oil and a nutritious nut that can be consumed locally or exported, providing a resilient cash crop for the farmers. Finally, their robust root structures run deeper than, for example, coffee plants, and hold the soils together on sloping farmland so can thus provide better protection from mudslides.”

Finding a way to protect the lands on the outskirts of the forest—in addition to within the forest—is a key to the program’s long-term success. After hurricanes Eta and Iota hit Central America, many of the Cerro Amay villages on the outskirts of the cloud forest were buried by mudslides. Thousands lost homes, and many died. While Dr. Tanimoto and his team have been raising funds to support the villages as they rebuild, he fears the catastrophe will be a significant setback for the conservation program. 

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