HL Deb 22 May 1990 vol 519 cc749-52

2.55 p.m.

Lord Renton asked Her Majesty's Government:

What proportion of the world's carbon dioxide is produced by the burning of tropical forests and where, and what representations they have made and propose to make to the Government of Brazil to prevent such destruction.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth office (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, it is estimated that deforestation accounts for about 20 per cent. of global carbon dioxide emissions each year. Ministers have regularly raised our concern for the protection and conservation of the rain forests with the Brazilian Government both here and in Brazil, most recently when President-elect Collor visited London in February and on 17th May when my right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development met Dr. Lutzenberger, Brazil's Environment Minister, in London.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful Answer. Is he aware that at the present rate of destruction the whole of the Amazon rain forest will have vanished by the end of the century with serious consequences for the whole of mankind and that it will cause the greenhouse effect to take place early in the next century? Will the Government pursue their efforts to try to stop that terrible destruction?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his Question. As I said in my original Answer, we have talked to the Brazilians about this matter a good deal. My right honourable friend the then Minister for Overseas Development signed the United Kingdom-Brazil memorandum of understanding on environmental co-operation in Brazil only last July. We are now working up a number of proposals under that memorandum. The president has himself undertaken to give priority to conservation. His early actions, including the appointment of Dr. Lutzenberger as Environment Secretary, give grounds for optimism, so we can at least be quite hopeful.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, in view of their highly commendable action, have the Government decided to raise those issues at the United Nations and wherever else this country is represented so that the example of their discussions with Brazil can be enlarged upon and other tropical forests can be saved?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

Yes, my Lords. A number of United Nations agencies are involved in that field and we play a full part in all of them.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, can my noble friend clarify a matter arising from the wording of the Question on the Order Paper? Is not more damage done by the removal of the forests, which absorb carbon dioxide through chlorophyll in their leaves, rather than through the production of carbon dioxide in the process of burning?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

Yes, my Lords. I think my noble friend is right. Burning has an immediate effect of damage, but the more serious effect is the removal of the forests themselves. I gave an estimate of the figure involved in my original Answer.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, does the Minister agree that another 4 million acres of forest in this country would help?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord has a good reason for asking that question, but the scale of the problem is somewhat greater than we could deal with on our own. It is a worldwide problem. If the current deforestation in the world goes on as it is at the moment for the next 10 years or so, it is estimated that an area of forest 10 times the size of England and Wales will be lost.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, did the Minister have a chance last weekend to view the programme on the destruction of the rain forests in Guyana and the appalling rapidity with which that is taking place? That is a very poor country with hardly any other resources. Is not an answer that industrialised countries should give considerably more financial aid? Otherwise, they may well be banging their heads on a closed door.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I did not have the opportunity to see the programme to which the noble Lord referred. However, I am obviously aware of the world-wide scale of the problem. That is why we 'as a country are addressing it through bilateral and multilateral agencies.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, can the Minister say what proportion of our international aid budget goes to environmental protection projects? Can he also say whether the Government are supporting Survival International, an organisation campaigning to save the Yanomani Indians who live in the Brazilian forests and who are in danger of extinction because illicit gold mining is poisoning the rivers? Has he made representations to the Brazilian Government about their decision to allow the gold prospectors into the rain forests?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I cannot say whether we support the charity to which the noble Baroness refers. We expressed our anxiety about the indigenous people of Brazil during the President of Brazil's visit to the United Kingdom. We hope that the government will act positively in controlling the illegal activities of goldminers in the Amazon.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, will the Minister indicate whether the Government have pursued with the government of Brazil the hopelessly inequitable system of land tenure which makes it impossible for the indigenous people of the rain forests to do other than eke out a bare existence by the destruction of that which is necessary for their survival?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as I said in my original Answer, my right honourable friend the Minister for Overseas Development met the Brazilian environment Minister on 17th May. Among the matters he raised were our proposals for helping the Brazilians with that problem. Since the memorandum of understanding was signed last July, we have been working out project proposals. So far we have identified one worth £2.5 million which has been agreed. We are preparing another eight projects covering sustainable forestry management and research into the genetic resources of the forests. We hope that most of those will be under way this year. So we have not been inactive in this matter.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does not the scale of the assistance which we give to such countries, limited by the meanness of the British Government, restrict the amount of overseas aid to only 0.35 per cent. of our gross national product?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, not at all. We have an extremely generous overseas aid programme. It amounted to over £1.5 billion last year. It is not the British Government's money to which the noble Lord refers; it is that of the taxpayers.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is it not the case that external debt is the greatest barrier to conservation, for example, in the Amazon forests which comprise one-third of the total of all tropical forests? What is the immediate policy of Her Majesty's Government towards third world debt?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, the United Kingdom supports the international debt strategy which provides financial assistance to debtor countries conditional upon their pursuing economic reform. We welcome the opportunity of debt for nature swaps creating additional resources for environmental protection on a small scale. However, we are not convinced that that works on a large scale. Such arrangements are not generally appropriate for government involvement. Aid resources are better used in direct support; for example, in our forestry initiative.