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A speech by HRH The Prince of Wales at a meeting on Tropical Forest Science

Published on 8th May 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen, may I begin by welcoming you all to St. James’s Palace, and by saying how delighted I am that you have been able to come here this afternoon.  I would also like to thank our distinguished academic colleagues who have been at the Royal Society yesterday and this morning at the meeting on tropical forest science convened by my International Sustainability Unit, in partnership with Professor Yadvinder Malhi at the University of Oxford, to whom I would like to offer particular thanks.

It seems to me that there could hardly be a more important endeavour than the task of conserving the world’s remaining tropical forests, and it is my sincere hope that the meeting of leading scientific experts, coupled with this afternoon’s exchange between leaders from Governments, the private sector and civil society, will make a significant contribution towards reaching this goal.

I certainly don’t need to remind you all of why it is so essential that we make rapid progress in this direction, as you all know far better than I, that the tropical forests play an absolutely critical role in ensuring the stability of the global climate; they are vital in providing global food, water and energy security; and, let us not forget that reducing deforestation is also very likely the single most effective way of avoiding the mass extinction of animals and plants.  Tropical forests are also fundamental in ensuring that we are able to protect and support the incredible diversity of human cultures, let alone the poorest people on Earth, that are so dependent upon them.

I am afraid that we do not have much time – and frankly, Ladies and Gentlemen, I have to say that one of the many disheartening aspects of these sorts of gatherings is the number of times I, and I am sure you, have repeated all this and the number of years during which I have done so to the point that I sometimes wonder whether I am in fact dreaming this incessant nightmare of hearing the echo of my own voice!  So, I can only repeat – in the hope that this nightmare will come to an end! – that a drastic reduction in the loss and degradation of the tropical forests has to happen.  It is not something we can leave for later.  Perhaps half of the world’s tropical forests have already disappeared during my lifetime, and action is needed now to slow down the rate at which we are losing what remains.  To achieve this, though, we need sound information – facts, scientific knowledge and, with this knowledge, an improved understanding.

If we are to change the patterns of deforestation, for example, then it is critical that we know exactly where the forests are being cleared and for what reason.  The better the information we have, the more likely we will be able to come up with practical and effective solutions and alternatives, or indeed to apply the laws and policies that already exist.  We also need to understand how tropical forests and their biodiversity are responding to global atmospheric change.  That is why I am glad to hear that there was such a rich discussion yesterday on the subject of monitoring, and the emerging technologies that will provide us with this information.

There is also a challenge to understand more deeply the impacts of different kinds of forest degradation and disturbance – such as hunting and logging – so that we can better understand how the complex systems in tropical forests respond to the different pressures to which they are subject.  And, as we investigate the causes and impacts of deforestation, degradation, disturbance and climate change, it is tremendously important that we also understand the ways in which forests are both vulnerable and resilient to these pressures.  

Although, so often, the continuing nightmare I have consists of moving from the ghastly sound of my own voice to the sound of a perpetual scientific experiment which only finally produces the evidence and proof once everything is gone and we have tested and monitored it all to destruction.

Having said that, it is clearly imperative that we mobilize additional resources for increased scientific understanding of this field, and, in particular, to support the efforts and build the capacity of tropical forest education, research institutes and scientists in the forest countries themselves.  Equally importantly, we need to support all efforts around the world to help increase people’s awareness of the vital importance of the tropical forests.  If people can really understand that forests are critical to human health and welfare, then surely we increase the chances of more sensitive and informed decisions.  You would think so, wouldn’t you?  But when it comes to the incorporated society of syndicated sceptics and the International Association of Corporate lobbyists any scientist is likely to find him or her self up the proverbial double blind gum-tree!

Nevertheless, it is certainly encouraging that a growing realization of the fundamental dependence that human societies have on forests has been translated into action in different parts of the world.  Brazil is a striking example, given the dramatic reduction in deforestation in the Amazon.  Guyana – where, in partnership with Norway, the country has a national plan to avoid large scale forest loss and to promote a low carbon economy – is another.  Then there is the inspirational example of Costa Rica, where decisions made in the 1980’s to reverse forest loss have not only resulted in an expansion of the forested area, but have enabled a significant growth in per capita G.D.P.   Perhaps we can take some comfort that there are these examples of progress – notwithstanding the tide of despairing news, such as the current threat to the wonderful tropical forests of Aceh.

These pockets of progress – so often the result of far-sighted leaders having the courage to face down a storm of opposition from all sides, claiming the end of the world as we know it, remind us of the importance of joined-up thinking, of integrated action and, above all, of vision and commitment.  This is certainly the conclusion which I have reached in the course of my Rainforests Project, in which science is an essential component for building an effective consensus on how to develop practical approaches to reducing deforestation.

Here today, we have the opportunity to enrich our understanding of the foundations and latest developments in tropical forest science.  In so doing, I hope we will be able to craft the integrated solutions that are so desperately needed to slow down forest loss while at the same time enhancing human wellbeing.  The risk of not doing so is far too great.  After all, if we think for a moment of the impact of climate change, aided and abetted by tropical forest destruction, not in scientific terms, but as a doctor would view the problem, we see that whereas in science a hypothesis is tested until absolute proof is secured, in medicine there is no time to be absolutely certain.  If a child is presented to a doctor with a fever, the doctor cannot wait until results of tests come back from the lab.  The doctor must act on what evidence is already there.  There is an urgency and it depends upon the risk involved – and, given that this is the greatest risk we have ever faced, surely, as the doctor, we cannot wait to act.  The symptoms are very clear; the models have become ever more precise.  If we see our forests and the planet as our patient, the risk of delay is so enormous that we cannot wait until we are absolutely sure the patient is dying.  That is a monumental risk no doctor would ever take.  The Earth's physical, chemical and biological systems are crying out to be treated – now. 

I am delighted that a St James’s Palace Memorandum on Tropical Forest Science has been drafted and agreed and will be released here today.  It is an important statement, and I hope it will be read widely and inspire yet more cooperation.

I am also very encouraged by the plan to produce an expert paper based on the academic meeting that has taken place here this week.  This contribution to the literature, co-authored by many of the people here today, will, I hope, be widely cited and provide additional impetus to studies and data-gathering exercises that are so critical to success.

Thank you again, Ladies and Gentlemen, for being so generous with your time and knowledge, and for showing such enlightened commitment.  I am very much looking forward to the rest of the afternoon and to hearing more about your deliberations.