Undoubtedly, protecting carbon stores and water flows is extremely important. However, today, whilst overlooking the rainforest canopy from a 40m high observation tower, I started to ponder as to how much I really cared about the fact that I was viewing this immense carbon store. Clearly, I'm not arguing that it's not important to maintain carbon stores, but from my perspective above the canopy protecting rainforests for their carbon (or water management in the case of Panama Canal catchment) really misses the point about rainforests. Rainforests are magical places in which the biodiversity fills you with amazement and awe. Everybody knows about the 'charismatic mega-fauna' such as the Howler monkey I saw today swinging through the canopy with a baby on its back. But to me, it's often the little things that inspire me: the brown tree frogs that are indistinguishable from fallen leaves; the stick insects that you only see after staring at a 'twig' for a few minutes; the army of leaf cutter ants carrying leaves twice their weight; the Kingfisher catching a fish; the lizard that runs on water; the humming birds that dart in and out of flowers; the electric blue flashes of butterflies etc etc. And it's not just what you see that make rainforests special; its a full sensual overload. Its the moist dankness of rotten vegetation mixed with the fragrance of scarlet flowers. Its the deafening morning chorus of Howler monkeys, birds, insects and frogs. Its the mix of large leaves as soft as velvet and trees armoured with needle-like spikes. Its swimming in a cool pool fed by a delightful waterfall or showering in warm rain during a downpour.
I could go on, but I think you get my point. Rainforests are important for their biodiversity and importantly its the diversity of that biodiversity that leaves you in awe. Every time you venture into a forest you see something else new and amazing. In an era where climate change is a key policy driver, it can be very easy to get detracted by a single issue - carbon storage and sequestration - while the really important issue (in my view anyway) is to reduce the loss of biodiversity. And I suppose, one of my key challenges in this Panama project (if we get it funded) will be to explore ways in which we can truly reflect and capture the awe-inspiring benefits of rainforest biodiversity and feed this into policy. Also, and importantly, how can we capture 'non-use' values when the majority of the world's population have never visited a rainforest.
Fortunately, it's not a choice of one or the other and there can be win-win solutions where protecting the forest for carbon or water flows will also protect its biodiversity. We just need to make sure that policies and on-the-ground conservation remembers this.
Unfortunately, I've finished my fun in the forest and now its time to get our heads together in an air conditioned hotel room and write the proposal so that we can ensure that its carbon AND biodiversity and not carbon VS biodiversity !