Day 6: The Tree of Life

Key Concepts

Question of the Day

Consider the the value of a living mahogany tree to mankind and compare to the value a dead mahogany tree is given.  Which is more valuable to mankind?

Lesson of the Day

”Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal”
- Edward O. Wilson

The route for the i2P Expedition Peru run takes the team from 11,000 feet on the Peruvian Altiplano down to 500 feet of elevation in the Amazon rainforest.  The Amazon is without a doubt one of the most magical places on Earth. It is a repository of natural wealth; home to a web of complex ecosystems that cover over a billion acres in Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru. Tropical rainforests support the greatest diversity of living organisms on Earth. Although they cover less than two percent of Earth's surface, they house an estimated 50 percent of all life on the planet.

The Amazon rainforest, by virtue of its immense size and biomass, effects the world’s climate balance and ecology in ways we don’t yet completely understand. Twenty percent of the oxygen we breathe is produced by the vast biomass of vegetation in the Amazon. On a daily basis one fifth of the world’s carbon dioxide is converted into oxygen as the Amazon rainforest photosynthesizes, earning it the moniker the “lungs of our planet”. The stalwarts of this provisioning service are the trees of the forest.  A tree native to the Peruvian Amazon that has been long upheld as holding great value to humankind is the Mahogany Tree.

The wood from the Mahogany Tree is prized for its beauty, durability, grain and color, highly valued as lumber to build furniture, boats and musical instruments. Large scale trade in Mahogany began in the 18th century - and continues today with the United States the largest importer and Peru is the largest exporter of mahogany. The value of mahogany sales to the United states is worth tens of millions of dollars annually. Yet this value is based on the worth of the lumbar alone, not on the value of the ecosystem services a live tree offers.

The question then arises what is the value of a living mahogany tree compared to the value of a dead one?  On the one hand mahogany wood is very valuable to build products, and the land from which it was cut can be used to graze cattle and grow crops.  On the other hand living trees provide a massive carbon sink which stabilizes the climate, produces oxygen and purifies water. This question can be extrapolated to all the trees in the Amazon Rainforest. What is the value to mankind of all the harvested lumber in the Amazon compared to the value of the ecosystem services provided by the living rainforest?  Which is more valuable?

The government of Ecuador approached this very question in a revolutionary manner when considering a section of the Amazon Rainforest called the Yasuni National Rainforest. Beneath the Yasuni Rainforest lies 800 million barrels of crude oil, worth billions of dollars. In June 2007 the government of Ecuador launched the Yasuni ITT initiative aimed at protecting the rainforest from development by assigning it a monetary value equal to or greater than the oil reserves below its roots. The government argued that by not drilling for the oil would prevent 400 million metric tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere through the preservation of the rainforest carbon sink, and the decreased combustion of oil that was left in the ground.  Arguing that this would be of benefit to all humanity, they assigned a value of 3.6 billion dollars to the ecosystem service they aimed to preserve, and asked for donors around the world to pledge money to the Ecuadorian government. Although this was hailed as a visionary initiative by environmentalists around the world, after 6 years only 13.3 million dollars had been raised, and in August 2013 the initiative was scrapped.

Tropical rainforest are being destroyed at an alarming rate. Rainforest habitat is being cut back to make way for agricultural land, mining and fishing operations, petroleum exploration, and logging. These threats are provoked by population growth, expanding commodity markets, infrastructure development, insecure land and natural resources, tenure, and distorted policy incentives. An estimated 200,000 acres and 130 species of plants and animals are being destroyed daily. Scientists predict that at the current rate, the entire Amazon will be gone within 40 to 50 years.

Words to Run By

Today I have a very specific challenge for you. The scenario is as follows. You all imagined you came here selected to run for i2P, but in fact, we had another idea in mind. The Peruvian Government contacted Ray and Bob, and they are looking for 5 bright young people to address a very specific problem. They are not sure what to do with the Manu National Forest, so what they want to do is turn the ownership of the forest over to 5 bright young people to address a very speci9ic question. And that question is as follows.

The issue you need to address is what to do with the opportunities offered by the forest. Where we are standing right now, under this massive rainforest, there are 5 billion dollars worth of oil reserves. And the dilemma is, Peru is a country that has many economic demands; infrastructure to be built, jobs to be created, so that oil is exceedingly valuable. At the same time, global warming is driving trillions of dollars of cost that are projected through damaging storms, famine, floods and drought. Carbon sinks such as the forest here in Manu are exceedingly important to mitigate the effects of global warming.

So, what the government wants from the 9ive of you is to establish how best to manage the forest. Should drilling start in order to accrue immediate economic return, or should it be preserved to sustain the valuable ecosystem services that it is providing. Or are there other options?

So, I would like you to consider your options, and when you return from your run, please provide us with the answer.

Daily Dispatch

After the run last night, the i2P team loaded equipment and supplies onto boats and headed downstream, deeper into the rainforest on the shoulders of the Madre de Dios; the Mother of God river. The Inca’s called it the Amaru Mayu; the snake river. The team tented in the rainforest; a snake was seen outside the camp before all turned in for the night, serenaded by nocturnal jungle sound. This morning another trail run, cut through the dense foliage, up a steep hill and past a stream called oil creek, a slippery slick left on the bank. Eyes peeled for snakes on the route, warming in the light filtered through the canopy. There is oil beneath the trails in the Peruvian rainforest. Big Oil was drilling in the area last year, and is negotiating with locals for mineral rights. Environmentalists, industrialists, aboriginal groups and governments are jockeying for position; a high stakes game of oil and jungle. The Youth Ambassadors were asked to search for a mahogany tree during their run, but they are virtually gone. Mahogany has been worth more dead than alive; hunted to the verge of extinction, a majestic hardwood cut for a piece of furniture in a drawing room in Connecticut. Oil is the new mahogany.

Video of the Day

Photo of the Day

Coming soon.

Expert Video

» David Suzuki's Andean Adventure

School Activities

Coming soon.

Youth Ambassador Activity

The Youth Ambassadors will locate a Mahogany tree in the rainforest. They will estimate the value of the wood from the individual tree.  They will use the price of $13 per board foot of 2 x 4 x 10 foot piece.  They will consider the ecosystem service when it is dead:

Provisioning service

They will then try and calculate the value of the tree in terms of ecosystem services it provides while alive:

Regulating service

Cultural Services

They will then compare the relative values of the living and dead tree.


Coming soon.