A Voyage of Environmental Awareness

IN the 500 years since Christopher Columbus bumped into the Bahamas and puttered around the Caribbean, remarkable things have happened to the Atlantic coasts of North and South America. European explorers, pirates, colonialists, and missionaries, followed by farmers, fishermen, industrialists, and developers, have left their mark - some subtly, some brutally - in ways that proclaim ``I was here.'' Recent stories about Boston Harbor's pollution, medical wastes washing ashore on Long Island, N.Y., deforestation in Haiti, and the population explosion in debt-ridden Brazil leave the impression that the Atlantic coast has become pretty much one cesspool after another.

This book, by journalist and conservationist Roger Stone, gives a more thorough and balanced picture of the regional environment - one that confirms the enormity and seriousness of the problem but also details the progress that has been made in recent years, thanks largely to individuals with the grit and determination to fight modern-day coastal pirates.

The vehicle for the work is the Sanderling, a 38-foot single-masted cutter named for the shore bird that breeds in North America and migrates as far south as Argentina. Skipper Stone is particularly well qualified for the journey and its report: Former chief of Time-Life's Rio de Janeiro bureau, a lifelong sailor, and former US Navy officer, he is now vice president of the World Wildlife Fund.

The journey begins in Camden, Maine, with an overview of the problem best not read right after lunch:

``Before the beginning of the current century, quietly at first, with only a few observers paying close attention, then at an accelerating rate with the boom in `development,' the US coast started to die. The bottoms of the major harbors became lined with dissolved heavy metals, oil and grease, and nonbiodegradable toxic chemicals. As the use of fertilizers and pesticides grew, runoff from nearby farms started to poison the waters. Human and animal wastes drained, sometimes from far inland, into rivers and bays and estuaries, supplying them with growing amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, and other nutrients.... Cities spread, second homes and condominiums proliferated along the bays and beaches, more and more roads were built. Bulldozers trampled over life-nourishing salt marshes and headwaters, pavement replaced sand dunes and other stabilizing grasses. Erosion, instability, and sedimentation increased.''

At the end of the journey, in Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay, Stone finds ``dead mangroves on dried-out mud flats ... waves of scum ... garbage floating in great stripes and bands ... open sewers leading out from the Intercontinental and Nacional hotels.'' Only 17 percent of domestic sewage there gets secondary treatment; 58 percent isn't treated at all.

Along the 7,685-mile track to Rio, captain and crew (mostly graduate students) hit all the major harbors and islands, including an unusual close-up look at Cuba's coastal environment. The author interviews many government officials and private conservation group representatives along the way. And he includes considerable historical data about discovery and development, plus many colorful details of life aboard the Sanderling and the adventure of open-ocean sailing.

The real heroes in this story are individuals like Priscila Holanda, a Brazilian biology teacher in Fortaleza who has organized seminars and exhibits on threats to the coastal environment. Or Lena and Graham Ritter, fishermen who have led the fight to preserve North Carolina's Stump Sound from developers whose condo schemes would have killed off the oyster beds. Lena Ritter's philosophy is simple: ``If nature don't want you to do it, nature won't let you. And if you try to defy it, it'll jump up and bite you.''

In wordier and more sophisticated ways, governments have been coming to the same conclusion. The US in recent years has passed a series of protective legislative measures, and a national constituency seems to be building for the coastal environment. Even Brazil is taking some corrective steps in the wake of a population that has spurted from 65 million to 145 million in 25 years.

Stone found ``many examples of fixes that can be accomplished fairly easily at the local level.'' At the same time, however, he warns that ``many of the coastal problems ... have become far too diffuse to be soluble on the basis of even the most skillful local action.''

Add to this the problem of a still-large US federal deficit (not to mention enormous Latin debt), and the work to be done becomes truly international.

But in the end, he concludes, the future ``will depend not so much on press coverage or political rhetoric, or even court decisions, as on how people end up reacting to their new knowledge - what they will be willing to accept, what sacrifices they will be willing to make.''

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