Andrew Mitchell: Forest Utility Meter Man

Cameron Walker

Andrew Mitchell’s Global Canopy Programme has helped people around the world understand the role that rainforests play in regulating the environment and promoting rainfall well beyond their boundaries.  Now he’s trying to see beyond carbon and REDD by promoting a concept he calls "Proactive Investment in Natural Capital" (PINC).


3 November 2009 | People who know Andrew Mitchell don’t bat an eye when he breaks into a rousing gibbon whoop in front of a packed lecture hall – or when they see him poring over papers with Prince Charles in Clarence House, or talking trees with indigenous leaders deep in the Amazon, or clutching a blow-dart pipe in his hand, ready to spear a balloon from 100 paces while schoolkids cheer him on.

Wherever he is and whatever he’s doing, this Oxford zoologist is trying to communicate the science behind forest canopies – and the importance of protecting forests and the services they provide. His Global Canopy Programme links up 38 scientific institutions in 19 countries to pull together the latest research on forests – from how they interact with the atmosphere to the ecosystem services they provide – and runs an ever-expanding number of programs applying this research to forest conservation.

Many of these programs are designed not just to test new methodologies, but to question basic tenets of environmental policy – which Mitchell fears is becoming too arcane and complex to attract the kind of large-scale investment needed to secure endangered ecosystems.

While the world is just beginning to embrace REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), for example, Mitchell has begun to think a step ahead and discuss something he calls “PINC” – or “Proactive Investment in Natural Capital”.

The premise of PINC is that all ecosystems – and especially rainforests – provide immensely valuable ecosystem services that are in danger of being lost – even if they are embedded in countries with low rates of deforestation. Therefore, he argues, smart money from markets in collaboration with new support from governments should be moving to secure for posterity healthy rainforests based on their value as environmental utilities (more on this in a bit) rather than on simply emissions-based reference scenarios designed to determine whether or not the forests are endangered and how that endangerment can be measured.


Canopy Capital: Pioneering Forest Bonds

Even before coining the PINC acronym, GCP helped to convince investors to launch Canopy Capital, which Mitchell hopes could pioneer investing in forests as a new asset class, as straightforward as any other investment, as a new way of funding their protection.

Canopy Capital aims to provide a model to the financial world for investing in ecosystem services. GCP holds 20 percent of Canopy Capital as a donation and serves as scientific and technical advisor to the company; twelve international investors make up the remaining 80 percent.

In March, 2008, Canopy Capital embarked on its first investment in the Iwokrama Reserve, a 370,000-hectare swath of pristine rainforest in Guyana.

The Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development signed a deal granting Canopy Capital license to measure and value the reserve’s ecosystem services for five years, with annual payments made to the IIC to continue its model of sustainable forest management and to invest in the livelihoods of people living in the 16 local communities. It is not an emissions-based carbon deal, but rather about valuing all the services the forests provide.

With this project, Canopy Capital is betting that the services the forests provide – from cooling the atmosphere to exchanging and recycling water to storing carbon – will all become valuable in the future.

The company is looking for ways to market Iwokrama’s ecosystem services to other investors, particularly through 10-year tradable bonds that carry an “Ecosystem Service Certificate” and fund forest maintenance with the accrued interest. The trees remain with their rightful owners and 80% of the profits will be returned to Iwokrama and the people of Guyana.

While Mitchell acknowledges that the results of this particular agreement may be years in the making, he calls it “a very bold experiment in investment.”


Laying the Foundation

When he founded GCP in 2001, Mitchell had already spent decades studying forest canopies in Asia and South America and trying to both convey his sense of wonder and advocate for forest protection.

His work in and around forests included participation in the scientific expeditions Operation Drake and Raleigh, establishing EarthWatch Europe, and spreading the word through numerous books, articles, TV and radio appearances.

Yet amid all this, he says, he came to a realization: “There was simply no way in which conservation could stand up to commerce.”

Now, Mitchell and GCP have taken their understanding of forest science into the arenas of economics, policy, and finance to make commerce work for forests, not against them.


Moving up in the World

Mitchell’s view of forests started out on the forest floor when he was charged with identifying primate species in the forests around Mt. Mulu on the island of Borneo on a 1978 expedition with the Royal Geographic Society.

From the ground, spotting primates – let alone identifying them – is tricky. Squinting up at black silhouettes jumping from branch to branch 150 feet up in the canopy, “you just get a great crick in your neck, and if you lie on the ground the termites get in your pants,” Mitchell says. “And I thought, ‘I’m stuck in the underground car park and all the interesting stuff is going on in the penthouse. I should be in the penthouse.'”

Mitchell became one of the pioneers of canopy research. First, he scaled up into the trees with ropes. In the 1980s, he developed aerial walkways allowing researchers to get an even closer look at canopy species and phenomena.

Climbing into the canopy came with surprises. At first, the amount of species, including ones no one had seen before, found in this leafy world was astounding, Mitchell says.

Some surprises were less welcome.


Confronting Apathy

“Nobody cared about them, really,” he says. “Trying to save forests on the basis of unknown species really doesn’t work. People aren’t prepared to pay a billion dollars for a bug.”

Along with never-before-seen species, the way in which forests interact with the atmosphere was an undiscovered field.

In 2002, he climbed 60 meters in a ‘flux’ tower high into Amazonian canopy with eco-physiologist Antonio Nobre, who works on the Large-Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Assessment project. They looked at the carbon dioxide meter and saw the reading: 382 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, uncomfortably close to the level of 450 parts per million the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has set as the threshold level above which consequences from climate change would be dangerously severe.

“We were already that close,” Mitchell says. “Yet these forests suck CO2 from the atmosphere, a service the world needs now more than ever – surely here was a key to saving them.”



So how can you make people care about rare bugs and carbon dioxide, when it seems all they care about is money?

Mitchell and GCP have put forward the concept of forests as eco-utilities which regulate rainfall, pull and store carbon dioxide from the air, and deliver all of the ecosystem services provided by biodiversity which underpin food, energy, and climate security for humans.

To understand the economics that might drive forest protection, GCP starts with forest science.

“You have to look at the science in order to work out what the forests are doing that might become valuable,” Mitchell says.


Putting a Number on Ecosystem Services

GCP-affiliated researchers are working to quantify carbon and water cycles in Brazil.

The Amazon, for example, evaporates close to three trillion tons of water into the atmosphere each year, and it is this water that feeds the breadbaskets of South America.

By absorbing 4.8 billion tones of CO2 from the atmosphere each year, ancient tropical forests act as a natural carbon capture and storage (CCS) facility worth almost US$200 billion per year in terms of their benefit to society – bigger and cheaper than proposed industrial CCS.

“It’s absolutely gigantic,” Mitchell says. “And it’s provided as a free service, yet we’re tearing it to bits.”


From Apathy to Action

Mitchell’s early enthusiasm for forest canopies wasn’t always met with support.

“When we first started this, there was a great deal of indifference,” Mitchell says.

In the early days of the GCP, raising funds was a struggle, says Nigel Winser, executive director of EarthWatch Europe and a GCP trustee. “Every day, he struggled hand-to-mouth to keep it going.”

While no NGO has complete security in terms of funding, Winser says, GCP’s footing is much more solid – and Mitchell, “one of the world leaders in forests,” now wields impressive influence in the upper levels of policy and corporate circles, as well as conservation ones.

Mitchell describes growing awareness of the economics of climate change and the role that deforestation plays in carbon emissions – particularly as explored in studies like the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change – that has made his work easier.


Forest Footprints

One of Mitchell’s more recent challenges is awakening businesses and their investors to their effect on forests.

Many businesses get their products from rainforests, from soy to feed chickens and beef, from cattle raised in the Amazon to palm oil made from Asian trees. These products are long-haul travelers that then appear in markets around the world.

“You and I, every day without knowing it, are eating the Amazon,” he says.

As a response, GCP launched the Forest-Footprint Disclosure Project in June, which encourages companies to examine how their operations and supply chains affect forests.

To kick off the project, Mitchell wrote to CEOs of more than 200 companies that GCP believes have sizable forest footprints, requesting that companies complete a questionnaire targeted to five main commodities: beef, soy, biofuels, palm oil, and timber.

It wasn’t just a letter. Mitchell had called for support, and, to his surprise, investors responded in force.

During what Mitchell calls “the worst financial crisis the world has probably ever seen since the Depression,” investors with a total of almost US$3 trillion in holdings backed his call for forest disclosure before the project launched.

Mitchell attached a list of these investors to his letter. “Their support was an amazing vote of confidence,” he says. He already has responses from a growing list of major companies willing to take their forest footprint seriously.

In January 2010, the project will have its first in a series of planned annual reviews. Mitchell hopes the project will drive development of worldwide best-practice standards for companies that do source their products from rainforests.


Filling the Gaps

Colleagues say Mitchell’s engaging personality has turned detached government officials and CEOs – as well as researchers – into forest fans. His GCP publication “The Little REDD Book” ( has become an authoritative yet remarkably popular guide to the often impenetrable UN negotiations around reducing emissions from deforestation.

Canopy scientist Margaret Lowman recalls inviting Mitchell to the first international canopy science conference, held in 1994 in Sarasota, Florida, as a keynote speaker. Mitchell stood on stage and unveiled “this amazing plan that he had worked out, where we’d have canopy stations with a balloon, with a walkway, with a tower, with a crane, with all of these cool gadgets dotted throughout the forests,” Lowman says.

Then he put up a map of where he wanted these canopy stations: everywhere. The scientists in the audience started laughing.

Anyone else might have walked off the stage, disheartened. “His charismatic personality carried the day,” says Lowman, who is now on GCP’s steering committee. “Andrew just charged right ahead, full steam – and carried the crowd right along.” And at the next conference, dozens of scientists were advocating for the same canopy stations that they’d been skeptical of a few years earlier.

Mitchell says while his mission to protect forests hasn’t changed, his audience has expanded.

In 2007, Prince Charles approached him to find a way to protect rainforests. Mitchell helped start the Prince’s Rainforest Project, which both promotes awareness of deforestation and has advocated an emergency plan for forests which would provide some US$20 billion of financing to rainforest nations ahead of REDD.

“Why ahead of REDD?” Mitchell asks. “Because we cannot afford to wait.”

The pressure to help forests fast is what drives Mitchell to address deforestation on multiple fronts.

“Probably we try to take on too much,” he says. “But you just feel such a sense of urgency and need that you just got to have at it, you just can’t allow these things to go by and not do something about it.”


Spreading the Word

Winser, of EarthWatch Europe, first met Mitchell in 1975, when he hired the young zoologist to work on a survey of Kenya’s Tana River. Even then, Winser says, “I saw in Andrew someone who wasn’t just a great scientist, but a great communicator.”

Along with an ability to transform complex canopy science into a story that’s understandable in boardrooms and remote villages, Mitchell has a few other tricks up his sleeve.

On a later expedition with Winser and the Royal Geographical Society to Malaysia and the forests around Mt. Mulu, Mitchell learned how to imitate forest primate calls.

The two researchers also worked with the nomadic Punan people, learning how they lived sustainably within the forest – and how to shoot darts out of traditional blowpipes.

“I think Mitchell has this lovely mix between being the academic, the adventurer, and the communicator,” says Winser, now a close friend and godfather to Mitchell’s son. Together, these qualities allow Mitchell “to inspire people to take on the big issues of the world.”


There and Back Again

When Mitchell spoke with the Ecosystem Marketplace, he was embarking on an adventure: a trip to Manaus,Brazil, where he had invited key representatives from indigenous and other communities from across Amazonia to discuss how they could be compensated for the ecosystem services they help to maintain.

One of the great gaps, Mitchell says, is in understanding what people will do once they’re given the means to protect forests.

“In a sense, raising the money is the easy part,” Mitchell says. “The international community needs very much to hear from them what they think works, how they would monitor and look after their forests, what they need at a grassroots level.”

Mitchell is often on the road stirring up princes and presidents to protect forests – or learning more about forests from the people who live and study there.

But when he’s home, you might find him strolling through the oak, ash, and sycamore trees in Wytham Woods near Oxford University, where Mitchell is a research associate in the zoology department.

“When Brazilians come here and I show them my wood, they laugh,” he says.

These woods, the site of many early studies in forest ecology, now also host courses for people from around the world who want to learn how to climb up in to the canopy – another of GCP’s programs. And when Mitchell’s not teaching, writing, or deep in conversation, these woods are where he mulls over his latest foray to protect forests.

“It’s a beautiful place to go and walk on a sunny afternoon to get inspiration about how we can figure out how we can all live with nature,” he says. “It’s just the right place to do it.”

Cameron Walker is a regular contributor to the Ecosystem Marketplace. She may be reached at [email protected].

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