1 June 2008 by Pete Mathers
Matthew Owen is the Managing Director of Cool Earth, one of the two charities supported by The Wexas Travel Foundation. The charity works to combat climate change by protecting the rainforest, securing tracts of land that would otherwise be sold to logging companies, thus preserving the carbon within.
Labour MP Frank Field, together with businessman Johan Eliasch, established Cool Earth in June 2007. Matthew was lured from a career in investment banking to help them. He talks to Pete Mathers about the workings of the charity.
WHAT IS COOL EARTH AND WHAT ARE ITS AIMS?
Cool Earth is Britain’s fastest growing environmental movement. We work to keep carbon where it belongs, in pristine mature rainforest. The destruction of rainforest accounts for nearly a fifth of all global carbon emissions, a huge proportion that very few people are aware of.
HOW DO YOU CHOOSE WHICH SECTIONS OF THE RAINFOREST TO PROTECT?
We focus on endangered forest due to be cleared within 18 months. In other words, land that is licensed to be logged, or land being looked at by logging companies and large agricultural buyers. Most importantly of all, this allows us to protect the forest behind, the land we secure acting as a kind of fire break.
WHO DO YOU BUY THE LAND FROM? IS IT HELD BY THE GOVERNMENT?
It’s rarely the government. Generally it’s from logging companies selling land for one reason or another, or from individuals who have got permission to have land logged and are hoping to sell it to loggers. We pay the same or slightly more than a logging company, then hand the land back to the local community. It’s put in a trust, and further investments are made to ensure local standards of living are higher from the forest being kept standing than if it were cut down.
WON’T PROTECTING RAINFOREST IN ONE PLACE JUST MEAN LOGGERS WILL GO ELSEWHERE?
There’s nothing we can do to stop logging completely. But if we’re organised enough, we can make a real difference. We work with partners such as Fauna & Flora International, a fantastic organisation doing a great deal to create rainforest reserves. We then plug the holes between the reserves. We’re working with them in Brazil and in Ecuador to do just that. Together we can protect a much larger section of rainforest than we could do on our own.
HOW CAN YOU GUARANTEE THAT THE LAND WILL STAY PROTECTED?
Firstly we ensure it’s in the interests of local communities to keep it safe. Then we employ local rangers to monitor, protect and report back on the standard of the forest. If we hear of an incursion then we work with local authorities to impose legal sanctions against destruction. In most cases we’ll have vested the land back to a community trust, but with an easement on it to make sure that if the forest is threatened, we can work with them to protect it. Deforestation can occur very quickly, but it’s easy to prevent if you’ve people on the ground.
HOW CAN THE PUBLIC GET INVOLVED?
People can pay to secure anything from half an acre of rainforest upwards. And thanks to our friends at Google Maps you can zoom in on your patch of forest specifically. You’ll get regular updates on what we’re doing to protect that land, and most importantly you’ll know how much carbon you’ve personally protected.
HOW DO YOU SET THE PRICE OF AN ACRE?
The value is determined by land prices, currencies and how much we spend on community support. Our cheapest acre is £70. Nearly 40% of that will be used to secure the land, the rest will be spent on community support.
WHAT KIND OF COMMUNITY SUPPORT?
A lot is spent on education, expanding existing schools or building new ones. Some goes into healthcare, improving facilities and providing boats for access to medical help. A great deal goes into ensuring that people get a better livelihood from a living forest than a logged one – critical if you’re going to have a sustainable conservation programme. We invest in the processing of locally harvested forest products, such as Brazil nuts, Acai, cocoa and coffee. That can be as simple as arranging better marketing agreements with sellers in Europe. It can mean processing a product within the community, rather than shipping it down to the nearest city. Or improving ways of harvesting, thus ensuring the overall quality is better, and that the product sells for a higher price.
HOW DOES GIVING TO COOL EARTH DIFFER FROM GIVING TO A TYPICAL OFFSET SCHEME?
Offsets aim at being carbon neutral. But sponsoring an acre through Cool Earth will protect around 20 times the amount of carbon you’re likely to produce in a year. An acre holds about 260 tonnes of co2. The average Briton has an annual carbon footprint of around 13 tonnes. We have companies who’ve protected 10, 20, 50 times their carbon footprint. One us company has protected 1,000 times more carbon than it produces. It just shows that if you give people the resources they can be tremendously generous, and committed to protecting the rainforest as a means of tackling climate change.
IF DEFORESTATION IS SUCH A LARGE CONTRIBUTOR TO CLIMATE CHANGE, WHY AREN’T GOVERNMENTS DOING MORE TO STOP IT?
Forests have never had a high economic value. From a monetary standpoint, it was considered quite rational to clear them for farmland. What we’re saying (as are others like us) is that carbon should be a factor in the equation. And governments are aware of this. The Brazilian government this week announced new initiatives to curb logging. We have to remember that we cut our forests 100 years ago, to contribute to our economic growth. We’re in no position to insist that forests are protected. All we can do is try and put a value on the rainforest, and create a clear economic incentive to protect it.
The destruction of the rainforest accounts for more of the world’s carbon emissions than the entire usa. By giving to Cool Earth, The Wexas Travel Foundation aims to secure 150 acres of rainforest, keeping 39,000 tonnes of carbon safely locked away. Each time you make a booking through Wexas, you’ll be asked to give a voluntary donation of £1 to The Wexas Travel Foundation. All money raised will be split equally between Cool Earth and Africa Foundation. Wexas will match all donations pound for pound.