KWAMALASAMUTU, Suriname - The rain forest here is so dense and this village so isolated that when Russell Mittermeier arrived by bush plane, it seemed for a moment like a step back into an era before worries about global warming.

In a thatched hut lit by kerosene lanterns, the local leader, wearing a headdress of iridescent macaw feathers, listened as Mittermeier, an American environmentalist, described climate change in apocalyptic but distant terms: melting icebergs, parched savannas, flooded cities.

Related stories

Then he explained the connection to Kwamalasamutu - Kwamala, as it's called - and how the Amazonian jungle here, if preserved, would help reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

"Lots of people in America, in Europe, in the big countries, we believe that if we don't want you to cut down the forest, we should pay. We should pay you something to protect the forest," Mittermeier told the tribal leader, Ashonko Alalaparoe.

The leader, called a granman, his bare chest draped in bright red, yellow and blue beads, quickly absorbed the message. "You come to me with this new idea, this carbon issue," Granman Alalaparoe said. "This sounds good to me."

The clock is ticking. Despite its remoteness, the same forces that have slashed and burned about 20 percent of the Amazonian rain forest are closing in on Kwamala.

Mittermeier's idea - offering cash so local villages will protect their forests - is key to the next new tool in the effort to fight climate change: carbon credits.

Rain-forest credits were a key topic of debate on the Indonesian island of Bali last week as representatives from 180 nations began discussions for replacing the landmark Kyoto Protocol.

Under Kyoto, power plants and other big polluters needing to offset their greenhouse gas emissions can earn credits by making offsetting, environmentally friendly investments, like replacing clear-cut rain forests or capturing methane gas from a landfill.

Paying to protect a standing rain forest is not eligible. But that could change soon.

At Bali, environmentalists, European governments and others that favor carbon credits are pitted against governments and commercial interests that want to develop the timber, precious metals and agricultural lands that make up the equatorial rain forest.

The situation in Kwamala - and the region of unbroken rain forest that surrounds it - shows in vivid detail how the complexities of forest credits are playing out. The paving of a road through Guyana, 300 miles away, will offer easy passage to loggers, miners, ranchers and others who want to exploit the virtually pristine jungle that covers this region. Once paved, the Georgetown-Lethem Road could serve as a sort of backbone from which other roads soon branch.

"The road will provide an artery, and the artery creates a way for people to circulate," said David Singh, director general of the Iwokrama International Center for Rain Forest Conservation and Development, which controls a million-acre protected area astride the road.

Already, the hard-packed red-dirt road offers lessons about perhaps the thorniest issue in the debate over avoided deforestation - the question of whether forests as remote as those of Guyana and Suriname should ever qualify for carbon credits. While logging is allowed, clear-cutting and slash-and-burn techniques - so common to Indonesia in Southeast Asia and Madagascar off Africa's southeast coast - have not happened here.

Fly above the rain forest of Guyana and Suriname, and it's easy to appreciate the argument against credits for stopping deforestation. Spreading to the horizon in every direction, like a textured green blanket, with soaring 150-foot-tall canopies serenaded by macaws and toucans, its leaf-littered floors prowled by jaguars and tapirs, the rain forest hardly looks fragile.

Only a handful of villages speckle the centuries-old timber that runs north of the Amazon River from Venezuela on the west to French Guiana on the east - the world's largest intact rain forest.

"What is this about? Is this about reducing the rate of deforestation?" asks Janine Ferretti, chief of the environmental and social group at the Inter-American Development Bank. "If so, the business model is you put your attention to countries that have high deforestation rates."

But Mittermeier, who earned his doctorate studying monkey behavior in the Suriname rain forest and now is president of Conservation International, doesn't see it that way.

Madagascar's rain forest was pristine just 50 years ago. Today, 90 percent of it is gone. And soybean farmers and ranchers have made Brazil home to the world's largest total deforestation: 250,000 square miles, or 18 percent of the Amazonian rain forest.

Large-scale cutting in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Borneo has contributed to the 50 percent loss of rain forest worldwide since the 1970s.

Mittermeier looks out the window of an eight-seater plane en route from Kwamala and worries about the real, if sometimes unseen, vulnerabilities.

Chinese and Malaysian loggers are seeking logging rights. American companies are negotiating to open a huge new bauxite mine in the western part of the country.

Across the border, in Guyana, a sprawling gold mine gashes a hole in the middle of the forest. Further west is the Georgetown-Lethem Road.

"The idea of 'threat' is a great stumbling block," Mittermeier said. "This is a 'low-threat area'? So was Madagascar 50 years ago. So was Borneo 20 years ago. Low-threat rain-forest destruction just does not exist."

Werner Grimmond, who worked as a surveyor for a logging company, showed stumps of greenheart and purpleheart trees, the rain forest's most valuable timber.

"Greenheart, greenheart, greenheart and a purpleheart," he says, his finger pointing from stump to stump. If logged by standards for sustainability, only one of those trees would be gone. "It isn't supposed to happen this way."

Rain-forest destruction accounts for roughly 20 percent of human contribution to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The decaying roots emit methane gas that probably triples the damage to the atmosphere, studies show.

Reforestation is inefficient. It takes decades for seedlings to mature enough to absorb significant amounts of carbon dioxide.

"The scale of what avoided deforestation can do in terms of carbon - it's amazing," said Meg Symington, director of the Latin America forest program for the World Wildlife Fund.

For Suriname Forestry Minister Michael P. Jong Tjien Fa, quick action is necessary or economic necessity might force rain-forest countries to cut down their trees.

"We should be rewarded," he said. "As long as there is no proper compensation for maintaining the rain forest, I'm afraid there are pressures from the globalizing world."

Villagers in Kwamala, deep in the Suriname rain forest, are feeling the pressures from globalization, too. Old-timers say the weather has changed in recent years. The dry season starts later each fall, throwing off the eating and mating habits of forest animals, making them more difficult prey for the hunters. Leafcutter ants have invaded crops that had seemed resistant to them.

Food is scarce. Families have left the village in search of easier hunting and fishing.

Mittermeier is proposing that the village set aside a tract of nearly 40,000 acres for a carbon concession. At current prices, carbon credits would amount to at least $12 million, though only a fraction of that would likely go to the village.

The night Mittermeier proposed the idea to Granman Alalaparoe, rolling out a map and shining a flashlight to lay out the footprint of the proposed carbon reserve, the granman said he would first need to talk to his village. The next morning, the conversation began.

At 5 a.m. in Kwamala, the time when the granman each morning greets his people with announcements over a solar-powered public-address system, Alalaparoe begins introducing the idea of carbon credits to villagers who live without electricity, hunt with bow and arrow and must live within walking distance of the river.

"When the bush burns, the world gets hotter. When it gets hotter, it's difficult to get food," Alalaparoe announced.

"Within a short time, I will call a big village meeting to talk about all this," the granman said. "I want to protect the forest, and I want your help in protecting the forest."

A slide show of the stunning sights and sounds of the Amazon, and a reporter's 12-day jungle journal: http://go.philly.com/earthEndText