Crystal Ball in the Rain Forest

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Courtesy of Oracle

Where do you expect to find Crystal Ball? Does an image come to mind of a cubicle housing a busy financial analyst constructing scenarios on a billion-dollar company’s performance in coming quarters? That’s undoubtedly accurate. But incomplete. The tool that allows its users to see into multiple versions of the future and make smart choices will find a home anywhere there’s uncertainty. One place particularly rife with uncertainty is the tropical rain forest. This paper explains how one small non-profit organization, Conservation Strategy Fund, uses the power of Crystal Ball to save some of it.

Tropical rainforests are mostly found in developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Tales of forest destruction are well-publicized and, indeed, these habitats are steadily losing ground around the globe. The biggest remaining blocks of rain forest habitat are in the island of New Guinea (near Australia), Africa’s Congo Basin, and the Amazon region of South America. The forests contain a vast diversity of wild plant and animal species, store carbon that would otherwise be in the atmosphere causing climate change, and provide impressive quantities of fresh water.

They also attract the interest of investors aiming to drill for oil, dig for minerals, cut timber, clear the land for crops and dam the rivers for hydropower. Given the legitimate economic aspirations of their people, forested countries have to strike a balance between conservation and these development options. Put simply, alternatives that create the most wealth with the least damage must be pursued. Alternatives that waste money and still take a bite out of the forest must be avoided. But, sorting the good ideas from the bad takes historical data and projections about the future, and in many tropical developing countries, the former are sorely lacking, making the latter typically tenuous.

Conservation Strategy Fund trains tropical environmental professionals to calculate the costs and benefits of various nature conservation and economic development options. One case helps illustrate how tools like Crystal Ball can provide decisive information. Brazil’s Xingu River descends from the central plateau, takes a sinuous detour called the Big Bend, and then drains into the main stem of the Amazon. The Big Bend is a series of rocky falls with a total drop of around 300 feet. For years, the government has eyed that drop and its potential to generate hydroelectricity. In the late 1980’s a series of five dams were proposed with a formidable total capacity of nearly 20,000 megawatts. But the freeflowing Xingu is also home to indigenous people and large tracts of untouched forest. The five-dam  scheme shriveled under pressure from the Indians and went dormant for more than a decade.

Lately a new scheme has been unveiled, a single dam only, called Belo Monte after the site of the main powerhouse. The idea is to minimize the size of the reservoir and avoid flooding forest by making it a run-of-river dam, which means it relies on the seasonal flows of the river, rather than storing large quantities of water against low flows in the dry season. Official plans predict that Belo Monte would be highly productive, profitable and nearly unnoticeable as far as indigenous communities are concerned. In other words, a win-win project.

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