Tropical Peril

March 17, 1991|By SARA ENGRAM

Now that the fighting is over in the Persian Gulf, the United States reigns as the lone undisputed superpower, and the old East-West way of looking at the world is obsolete. What comes next?

Russell A. Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, an innovative environmental group based in Washington, D.C., has an urgent suggestion -- a more comprehensive view of the world that takes into account the volatile gap between the economic "haves" and "have nots." Traditionally, that gap has been cast in terms of a north-south split. Mittermeier, however, makes a good case that a better description is temperate-tropical.

Tropical countries now account for 80 percent of the world's population and most of its population growth. They have 18 of its 21 largest urban areas, many of them already mired in nightmarish overcrowding and pollution.

In short, the tropical countries have most of the world's people and most of its serious problems. But they also have most of the world's plant and animal diversity -- an irreplaceable asset for the whole world. Mr. Mittermeier doesn't mince words: If the plight of the tropics doesn't soon become a priority for the rest of the world, "at some point they're going to mug us. . . We ignore the tropics at our peril."

If that sounds alarmist, consider the historical consequences of environmental degradation. Iraq is a good example. Once the region of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was the "cradle of civilization." Over the centuries its natural resources were depleted to the point that the modern country of Iraq became largely dependent on one resource -- oil. Now the world knows what its leader was willing to do to get more of it.

Think of it this way: A forest can be treated like a mine or like a garden -- cut down for one product (timber) or maintained and culled for a wide variety of economic benefits.

Closer to home, there are other lessons waiting to be learned. Haiti and El Salvador are the most environmentally ravaged countries in the Central American-Caribbean region. They are also the most politically unstable.

Many refugees from nearby countries will end up in this country. But the stress that immigration may put on the United States will be nothing like the tension we will see elsewhere. For instance, when Bangladeshis flee the floods in their country (caused by environmental degradation) and push into India, the result is a political powder keg.

Mr. Mittermeier is not alone among observers of regional conflicts when he suggests that political crises are increasingly likely to be a direct consequence of environmental pressures. Neither is he alone is pointing out that time is growing short to reverse the trends.

In the late 1980s, the plight of tropical countries was drawing an increasing amount of attention in affluent countries. Groups such as Conservation International were attracting interest in imaginative ideas such as debt-for-nature swaps, in which a debtor country could have a portion of its foreign debt forgiven in exchange for programs that would preserve endangered resources.

These efforts continue: Recently, Conservation International has engineered an arrangement in which two American clothing companies will buy millions of buttons carved from an ivory-like nut harvested from the tagua palm in an Ecuadorean rain forest. The program will provide economic incentives to treat the rain forest as a productive, renewable resource rather than as a one-time asset valuable only for its timber.

But in 1990 these worthy efforts were shunted aside as the world's attention and its aid priorities were drawn to the dramatic upheavals in Eastern Europe. Then came the Persian Gulf crisis. Meanwhile, Mr. Mittermeier says, time runs short -- three to five years in some parts of the world -- to stop environmental damage before it becomes irreversible.

All of which casts a new light on pleas for peace and environmental consciousness. Peace can never be possible when vast areas of the world are economic and environmental basket cases and when human beings are content to fritter away so many of the resources we will need in the future to fight disease and build a broader prosperity.

Taking care of the earth is more than recycling, more than controlling pollution or studying global warming. Saving the tropics will take an act of political courage at least equal to the gritty determination that held together the unlikely coalition that wrested a military triumph from the desert sands.

It will take the same kind of political courage to act on the knowledge that the futures of temperate and tropical countries are linked. In the end, it is only by addressing the world's festering environmental-political problems that can we sustain our own well-being.

Sara Engram is deputy editor of The Evening Sun's editorial pages.

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