TORONTO, July 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As environmentalists debate how best to preserve the world's dwindling forests, a study published on Thursday offered a simple solution: pay land owners in poor countries not to cut down the trees.
Deforestation dropped by more than half in Ugandan villages where land owners were paid about $28 per hectare each year if they preserved their trees, according to the study from U.S. researchers published in the journal Science.
The benefits of paying land owners to preserve forests were more than two times greater than the cost of the programme when it comes to protecting forests and tackling climate change which is exacerbated by deforestation, said the two-year study.
Economists who crunched the numbers on forest preservation say the model pioneered in Uganda could be expanded to other countries with large tropical forests including Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Peru as part of the fight against global warming.
"When you think of the damage done by climate change, paying people to conserve forests is cost effective," said Northwestern University economist Seema Jayachandran, the study's lead author.
"It is a straight forward idea and the benefits are bigger than the costs," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Researchers hope some of the billions of dollars pledged by rich countries to help poor nations respond to climate change under a United Nations agreement signed in Paris in 2015 could be used to replicate the forest protection program.
Jayachandran said researchers were able to monitor whether beneficiaries in the 121 Ugandan villages were actually preserving the forests by a combination of site visits and satellite imagery.
Most deforestation in Uganda is caused by people cutting down trees for timber or charcoal or wanting to turn forested land into farms, she said.
The program included residents who formally owned their land and those who had ancestral or informal control over their properties, Jayachandran said.
In some cases residents who did not formally own the land were nervous about signing documents in order to participate in the project, fearing that outsiders were using the initiative as a scheme to take their land, she said.
Expanding formal land rights has been shown in previous studies to improve forest protection.
Deforestation and clearing land for agriculture accounts for about 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (Reporting by Chris Arsenault @chrisarsenaul, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)