Part I: How much is a tree worth?

If I were to ask this question, you’d probably say, “It depends.” It depends on what tree it is, how old it is, where it’s located. You’d probably also ask which hat to wear, that of a tree cutter or a tree hugger, an economist or an ecologist, that of a forest inhabitant or an urbanite.

Let’s wear each of these hats and find out….

Monetarily speaking…

A tree cutter (and most likely an illegal one) would get about $50 from a mahogany tree out of the rainforest. When it crosses the port, it fetches about $1,200. When it reaches the final destination, most likely a developed destination like the US or Europe ( and increasingly countries like China) the same tree in its final form of about 15 tables is worth about $18,000. (Adapted from www.forest.org). This is the kind of figure that gets recorded in the national accounts or GNP figures of a country. It’s ironic that a tree becomes valuable in economics only when it is cut down.

That’s money talking, and of course it’s easy to see the people who benefit the least are the local communities where the tree came from. It’s also easy to see why it’s such a narrow definition of the worth of a tree.

Ecologically speaking…

An ecologist would find the above a very narrow definition of the worth of a tree.

T.M.Das of University of Calcutta (as quoted in this book “Tropical Rainforest Research” by Edwards, Booth and Choy) assigns the following value to a tree.

According to him, a tree living for 50 years, provides very valuable services. It generates

$31,250 worth of oxygen
$62,000 worth of air pollution control
$31,250 worth of soil erosion control and increase in soil fertility
$37,500 worth of water recycled
$31,250 worth of animal shelter

Altogether, a tree is worth $196,250 (Singapore $) And this doesn’t include the value of fruits, lumber or beauty derived from the tree. This does not value either, the entire ecosystem of which the tree is a part, the forest in its entirety with all the interconnectedness of species and biodiversity which makes the ecosystem’s value is greater than the sum of individual trees.

Culturally speaking…

Ask a native of a forest, and he or she will teach you that the forest is everything.
The Orang Asli are fiercely loyal to the forests and are loathe to chop down trees. They love you if you respect the jungle. The forests have nourished them and their ancestors and give them roots and their pride. The forest once provided all they needed- from food, bark cloth and poison for their blowpipes to the bamboos for making their famous rafts, utensils, musical instruments and for building their homes.

(“Travels in the Malaysian rainforest” by Tan Teong Jin)

People who live in the forest are often considered naïve, but they know the ways of living and sustaining themselves in a standing forest. The people who are naïve in reality, are the ones who miss the wood for the trees, in destroying the forest and all its rich biodiversity for short-term gains.

Instrumentally” speaking…

We are talking about the ethical value of a thing. It is the duty of our generation to pass on the world to future generations in a condition which is better than what we have. This is not to say we are not to use resources at all. We can use wood that don’t belong to irreplaceable ecosystems like primary rainforests, and make sure that they come from sustainable plantations which can be replaced and renewed.

EcoWALKing means leaving enough around for future generations to use, earn from, live on, enjoy and admire in perpetuity.  That comes from knowing the real worth of a tree.

Poetically speaking…

In the words of Joyce Kilmer which he famously utters with utmost humility:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray,
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair
Upon whose blossom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems were made by fools like me
But only God can make a tree.

(Tree poems from http://www.ncsu.edu/project/treesofstrength/poems.htm)

And finally, Aesthetically speaking, I leave you to enjoy the sheer beauty and spirit of trees.



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Posted by on Feb 16 2009. Filed under Biodiversity, Sustainable Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “Part I: How much is a tree worth?”

  1. Hi… I remember you mentioned this during our Rainforest tour in Botanical garden. Good to keep reminding…

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