Poor Nations Confront Choice of Trees or Jobs
THE old man chopping wood on the edge of Perinet nature reserve looked surprised. A foreign visitor had just asked whether he was aware he was cutting down trees in one of the world's most endangered rain forests, containing rare primates, orchids, and prehistoric ferns.Skip to next paragraph
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''Why no,'' he says, standing amid stumps of old trees with axe in hand. ''Sure I care about the forests and the lemurs that live in them. But we have to work.''
He was taking the wood, he says, to fuel the stoves in the factories of a graphite mine that employs hundreds of people.
The encounter illustrates the problem facing developing countries: On the one hand, people must grow food and utilize resources on ever-dwindling land. On the other, policymakers and environmentalists want to protect species endangered by the encroachments of humans.
According to international environmental groups, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Madagascar is a particularly dramatic case, with its unusual flora and fauna. Some 90 percent of its 250 species of reptiles are unique to the islands, along with 29 of its lemur species and 80 percent of its 10,000 plant species.
An island off Mozambique in the Indian Ocean, Madagascar's wildlife, such as lemurs - a relative of the monkey found nowhere else - evolved in isolation. Naturalists now fear that with the country's population of 12 million expected to double in 25 years the rain forests will disappear.
Rain forest for firewood
Living in one of the world's poorest countries, many of the people of Madagascar barely subsist on a per capita income of $200. An estimated 750,000 acres of forest disappear each year for slash-and-burn agriculture and much-needed firewood. The indigenous wildlife also face threats from poaching, uncontrolled ranging of livestock, and ornamental-plant collection.
''This is the most urgent thing we must tackle and the most difficult, how to meet daily human needs like water, fuel wood, and food versus stopping the overexploitation of finite resources,'' says Taka Hirishi, deputy director of policy for the United Nations Environment Program in Nairobi.
His and other environmental groups are struggling with how to balance the two. International bans on practices such as whaling and ivory trade are not enough. Mr. Hirishi says the most successful solution seems to lie in the communities themselves. This means raising awareness and offering means of economic support to residents so that they do not have to resort to poaching and other destructive measures to survive.
The WWF says its most successful programs have been in integrating community economic development with environmental protection.
''That is a universal theme, linking human needs and conservation. The task is to find a way to balance conservation with the pressing human needs for resources,'' says Jim Leape, senior vice president for programs at WWF. ''It is as true in the Amazon [and] in Papua New Guinea as it is in Madagascar.''
The nature of the challenges varies around the world, but the fundamental issues remain the same. In Asia, large-scale fisheries are depleting maritime resources. In Latin America and Asia, ecologists are concerned about how trade in coffee and bananas is leading to deforestation. In the Pacific Northwest of the United States, forests have been threatened by a surge of large-scale timber concessions by large multinational companies.
International environmentalists agree on the key to success: identifying what communities need so that they don't destroy their environment as they attempt to provide economic benefits to the population.
For instance, in communities surrounding the Central African Republic's Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, the WWF has helped organize fishermen and tradespeople to determine the most effective use of their ''conservation dividend'' - the 40 percent of tourist fees that the association receives. As a result, local people now view elephants as economic benefits. That is reducing illegal hunting.