Then, as Jenkins left the room, he saw two individuals, whom he believes were Malaysian, carry two large briefcases in their hands and enter the same office.
“I don’t know what was in those briefcases,” he remembered recently. “But I immediately came to this realization; illegal logging was an incredible challenge in those days in Papua New Guinea but was also incredibly lucrative. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Well, that’s it. If we can’t offer a counter offer to the illegal value of that timber, we’ve lost.’ The forces arrayed against us were too great to think about conservation and sustainability.”
“It was clear that we didn’t have the financial equation right,” Jenkins recalled. “And until we got these values right, we were going to lose the whole game. A hundred years from now we’d only have some parks and zoos that would just be dots on the map. Because they’d be all we’d have left of the natural world because we never valued it correctly.”
In the years that followed Jenkins helped develop a new approach to conservation that recognized the proper value of these natural systems and put a price on it. It had become clear, after all, that forests provided vital services, such as sequestering carbon and preventing erosion and flooding. Why not build a market around these benefits, or, as they were becoming known, ecosystem services?
While Jenkins was still with the MacArthur Foundation, the organization helped fund the new Forest Stewardship Council, the first such signal of ecosystem service values by creating a market for sustainable timber that comes from sustainably managed forests. Then, in 1998, Jenkins founded Forest Trends, an international nonprofit that continued to nurture these emerging principles, working with a range of players to protect vital ecosystems across the world through finance, markets, supply chains, and other incentive mechanisms.
This week at Yale, Jenkins, President and CEO of Forest Trends
, will receive a Distinguished Alumni Award from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
efore coming to Yale, Michael Jenkins had already seen up close the impacts of environmental degradation, particularly on the poor. As a young Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, he watched small farmers struggle to find value from the land despite government programs for agricultural production. While there were national initiatives to support cotton and tobacco production, those same initiatives weren’t helpful for these small-scale producers who, aside from dealing with the impacts of pesticide over use, received meager returns from growing these commodity crops.
A few years later, he was invited to start a new Peace Corps program in Haiti, which he describes as “the global poster child of deforestation.” There, he met farmers who were essentially trying to grow crops on rock because all the soil was gone. Because it was a place where traditional developmental approaches simply weren’t working there was opportunity and this was a place where innovative new solutions were necessary.
In Paraguay, Jenkins spent a lot of time exploring agroforestry approaches and the benefits of growing a mix of products. He came to appreciate the importance of understanding systems, of better integrating the cycles of annual and perennial crops, and overlaying these lessons onto the day-to-day challenges faced by farmers who simply had to make a living.