Central America's Forgotten Rain Forests

PUBLIC outcry, with a considerable assist from an unusually rainy ``dry season,'' has significantly reduced the mass-burning of felled timber in the Amazon, and has provided a glimmer of hope for the future prospects of the world's largest tropical rainforest. Yet while this past year has witnessed unprecedented international concern over the fate of the Amazon jungle, the rapid destruction of Central American rainforests has gone largely unnoticed. Ironically, both the rate of deforestation and percentage of area already lost are 10 times greater there than in the Amazon.

While the annual world average for losses of tropical moist forests is about .5 percent, Costa Rica and El Salvador are annually losing well over 3 percent of their rainforests. For Costa Rica, with the highest deforestation rate in all of Latin America, this means an estimated 100,000 acres are destroyed each year.

Some steps are being taken to save the region's rainforests, home to thousands of species of plants and animals, many of which have yet to be documented. Following the belated 1970 establishment of Costa Rica's model national-park system, which has over 1 million acres under protection, similar national preserves have been established throughout Central America.

These holdings have been funded by local authorities, private citizens, and foreign environmental organizations that have purchased discounted debt obligations from creditors and turned them into bonds whose interest is used to maintain nature reserves. Legislation being enacted in the US would enable the Agency for International Development (AID) to participate in such debt-for-nature swaps as well.

Other salutary developments include a measure introduced by Rep. John Porter (R) of Illinois, soon to be voted upon, which calls upon the Treasury Department to work with the World Bank on a program that would link debt forgiveness to tropical forests and wetlands preservation.

Still, not enough is being done to counter economic and political problems that have hindered regional conservation efforts.

The Costa Rican park system, once the most promising factor in Central American rainforest preservation, has been reduced to a bare-bones operation as a result of austerity guidelines established by the International Monetary Fund and AID. The government has been forced to declare that no more parks will be established unless they are totally self-financed. The rest of the region faces at least equally serious economic problems, and is hardly in a position to undertake much-needed conservation projects because of their existing debt burdens and budgetary stringencies.

Regional conflicts and the priority given to defense have contributed to deforestation by impeding conservation programs. The contra war in Nicaragua has drained economic resources that otherwise could have been used to establish reserves. In addition, contra forces, as a matter of tactics, have killed dozens of agricultural and environmental workers.

Honduras's rainforests have fallen victim to both the Nicaraguan contras and the civil war in El Salvador, as refugees from both nations have moved into the country, clearing vast areas of rainforests to set up camps. Refugees from Nicaragua have caused an estimated $125 million in destruction of forest resources, and reforestation projects in border areas have been either impossible to undertake or vetoed by contra commanders. Although Salvadoran refugees have caused less damage, the western border area nevertheless has seen significant ecological destruction.

War is also a major cause of rainforest destruction in El Salvador, a country that already had lost 96 percent of its original forest cover. Direct bombing and burning in forested areas by the country's military has added to the already dismal ecological situation in the country.

In Guatemala, the military has adopted the Vietnam-era use of defoliants to combat leftist insurgents in the country's Peten region - famed for its Mayan ruins - where the government ironically has just enacted a measure to protect the rainforests.

Conservation efforts have been severely hampered in Panama by Washington's trade embargo against the regime of Gen. Manuel Noreiga and the resulting collapse of that country's economy. Not only have environmental issues fallen victim to budget cuts, major AID-sponsored projects, such as a $50 million natural-resource management project, have been abandoned.

Local governments and international and regional environmental organizations have placed rainforest preservation on the world community's agenda, yet the subject receives scant attention. Only an urgent campaign to stave off the total loss of this precious resource and a quick resolution of debilitating local conflicts and incapacitating external debt burdens can save the residue of what were once thousands of square miles of virgin forests.

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