Save the Rain Forest: Use It


May 30, 1991|By CORINNE A. SCHMIDT

One year from Saturday, the second United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development will take place in Rio de Janeiro. The choice of South America to host the meeting is apt. Nowhere is the cruel dichotomy between protection and development more apparent than in South America, home to some of the world's most valuable and vulnerable ecosystems, including the Amazon rain forest.

That dichotomy is more than an abstract debate between businessmen, government planners and conservationists. For millions of South Americans, the link between poverty and environmental degradation is part of daily life. If North Americans are to help save the Amazon, it must become part of our daily lives as well. As consumers, taxpayers and investors, there is plenty we can do.

Alberto Rios, a rubber tapper in the Peruvian jungle region of Madre de Dios, knows the environment-development dilemma first-hand. When a wealthy Lima businessman sought to push Mr. Rios off his land to clear the forest for a cattle ranch, local politicians supported the proposal. Sadly, with no rubber refining factory nearby, Mr. Rios's fine natural latex gave him no eonomic clout. He moved out, to farm a plot which he cut and burned out of virgin jungle.

Scientists studying biological diversity near Mr. Rios' farm have found over 200 species of trees in a single hectare. Tropical forests harbor at least 2.5 million life forms, and perhaps many more. In just four seasons of research in the high jungle of the Abiseo River National Park, the Peruvian Association for Nature Conservation (APECO) discovered nine animals new to science, and plants and insects occur in even more bewildering diversity. The number of species in the rain forest may top 3 million when the counting is done.

But only if we count fast.

The mega-diverse tropical rain forests are no match for the buzz saws and torches carried by the cattle ranchers, coca growers and colonists assaulting them. With the forests, millions of species, many of them never studied or even named, will go up in smoke.

One species will be largely responsible for those extinctions: men like Alberto Rios and the rancher who took his land. Yet the jungle has supported human life for centuries. Why, then, does homo sapiens get so little air time among First World environmentalists? Peruvian conservationist Antonio Brack remembers an international conference on efforts to save the Amazon. ''There were 14 commissions,'' he recalls. ''Reptiles, bugs, frogs, birds, trees they worried about everything but man.''

Environmentalists like Mr. Brack argue that only ''eco-development'' (ecologically sound development) will give the Amazon nations a chance and a reason to save their rain forest. Eco-development sets aside fragile lands in parks, but puts the rest to rational economic use. Its linchpin is the growth of agro-forestry industries in the jungle itself.

Examples of eco-development already exist. A forestry cooperative owned by the Yanesha Indians of Peru's Palcazu Valley, for instance, harvests wood in ways that encourage natural forest regeneration. The Yanesha process the trees in their sawmill and wood preservation plant. By providing training and funding, and by giving the Yanesha title to their forest, the Peruvian and American governments and the World Wildlife Fund, all of which have supported the project, may have saved the Palcazu Valley.

Wood isn't all that a healthy rain forest provides. High-grade natural rubber, Brazil nuts, and hundreds of other potential products abound in the jungle. These raw materials, coupled with small-scale farming and an ''eco-development'' program of research, training and investment in Amazon agro-industries, could turn the tide of tropical destruction.

In impoverished countries like Peru, the growth of rain forest industries depends on foreign aid and investment. Mr. Brack suggests that first the United States Agency for International Development or a multilateral development agency fund a study of potential exports derived from rain forest plants. APECO President Silvia Sanchez urges that as well as supporting parks, American conservation groups ''finance eco-development training for South American scientists and technicians.''

Most importantly, First World consumers and conservationists must provide a market. Supermarket shelves are stuffed with recycled or ''recyclable'' goods, and America's purchasing dollars are ''greener'' every day. By certifying ''Amazon-friendly'' products, environmental groups can help the green market grow and with it, the number of businessmen willing to invest in a protected Amazon.

Sawmills and Brazil nut factories in the rain forest? Perhaps the idea wounds our sensibilities. But our romantic illusions of the Emerald Forest offer little hope to men like Alberto Rios. Simply telling them they are wrong won't work. If people can't sell what grows in their forests, they'll burn them down.

Twenty years ago, the first U.N. Conference on the Environment and Development called on the nations of the Earth to safeguard ''our common future.'' Depressingly little has changed since then. The Amazon nations still have a lot of biological diversity, but no money. The industrialized nations still have a lot of money, but not much biological diversity. It's time we started putting our resources together.

Corinne A. Schmidt writes on environmental topics and has served in the U.S. Embassy in Lima.

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