Conservation in the developing world. Rural folk share results of successful projects

`YOU take trees for granted,'' says Sheikh Mohamed, indicating with a sweep of his hand the lush stands of maple, willow, and oak shading this tiny village on the shores of Lake Champlain. Back in Somalia, he continues, trees are precious, and ``no one cuts one down.'' At least not the way they used to. Throughout vast stretches of East Africa and the rest of the developing world, trees are a primary source of fuel. Whole forests have receded before the population's need to heat homes, cook food, and graze animals. In Mr. Mohamed's home city of Merca, on the Indian Ocean coast, overgrazing brought the threat of engulfment by sand dunes.

That threat helped nurture a tree-planting project that has begun to anchor the creeping dunes with thousands of young eucalyptus, palm, and other trees adapted to Merca's arid climate. Mohamed, deputy mayor of the city of some 300,000 people, has been a prime organizer of this conservation effort.

``In order to survive, we have to stop the dunes,'' he says. That is his message, and it has gotten through. Legions of volunteers now help to plant trees and guard them.

Merca's ``Dune Stabilization Program'' was among dozens of local campaigns discussed during a recent conference here on ``building support for conservation in rural areas,'' sponsored by the Atlantic Center for the Environment. Counting the staff who helped organize the gathering, about 80 people participated, many of them from Latin America, Africa, India, the Caribbean, and other far-flung corners of the globe.

Their enthusiasm would seem to indicate that while the environmental movement in the United States may have a somewhat lower profile now than in the recent past, the impulse to protect the environment is sending down roots in many parts of the world.

Take, for example, the work of Gabriel Charles from the tiny, recently independent island nation of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. Mr. Charles is a man whose quiet exterior hides a zeal for conservation and a quick sense of humor. A government forester, he took the lead in launching a campaign to save the brilliant St. Lucian parrot, a species teetering on the edge of extinction. Laws designed to protect the parrot and other wildlife had been on the books for years, but enforcement had been lax at best. The birds were hunted at will.

Charles lobbied his higher-ups to ``please me for once'' and make ``an example'' out of just one poacher. The opportunity soon came, and word that the offender had been charged in court was ``blared on our radio,'' Charles recalls with a smile. People realized that the law now had teeth. In the years since, the parrot has become the symbol for conservation on the island, with billboards proclaiming Charles-inspired messages such as ``A bird in the hand breaks the law of the land,'' and bumper stickers avowing ``I love Jacquot'' (the parrot's popular name).

The rare bird is making a slow comeback. But equally important, says Charles, the campaign to save it has heightened the environmental awareness of everyone in his seven-year-old country -- as well as that of numerous people on neighboring islands.

Concern for the parrot's habitat has highlighted the crucial and difficult problems of land use and deforestation, things politicians used to shy away from. The Canadian International Development Agency has helped fund forestry and fisheries projects on St. Lucia, and Gabriel Charles, for one, sees cause for optimism.

In other parts of the world, the means used by conservationists might be a little different, but the end is the same: a change of attitude in society about the relationship between man and nature. A few more examples:

India's Chipko movement has rallied thousands of its country's people, especially women, to protest the indiscriminate cutting of trees. Women actually hugged trees to prevent their destruction by woodsmen. That dramatic image fired the nation's imagination, making the movement a ``national event,'' according to M. K. Prasad from India's Kerala state. The ``conservation impulse started by this movement has spun off into other concerns, such as the protection of wildlife,'' he said at the Vermont conference.

Kenya's Wildlife Clubs have grown from 12 local chapters to 1,400 over the past decade. The goal has been to make Kenyan children sharply aware of their country's natural heritage, particularly its abundance of animal life. Tree-planting projects have been launched, as well as efforts to help national park rangers curb poaching of wildlife. Nathaniel Chumo, national organizer for the clubs, says he's seeing ``a change of attitudes, of thinking'' as the concept of stewardship over land and animals takes hold, and the lingering resentment over displacement of humans during the formation of the nation's wildlife preserves ebbs.

Pilar Sevilla of Ecuador's Fundaci'on Natura says that her organization's greatest success has been its ``very strong work with the mass media.'' Decisionmakers and average citizens alike have become aware of Ecuador's environmental challenges -- pesticide use, for example, and protection of forests -- through the foundation's press conferences and other publicity efforts. Fundaci'on Natura has 2,500 members, with 13 to 15 ongoing projects, she adds.

All such efforts represent starts at addressing the often massive environmental challenges confronting the developing world. Since much of that world remains rural, in fact and in attitude, gatherings like the recent one in Vermont serve to pool ideas among people who might otherwise operate independently in their respective corners of the globe, notes Dart Thalman of the Atlantic Center, a branch of the Quebec Labrador Foundation.

Mr. Thalman underscores the ``real clash'' between the immediate need for economic development and the long-term goals of conservation. People struggling to ``meet daily needs don't have the luxury of looking down the road,'' he observes. At the same time, he and others at the conference remain convinced that residents of rural, underdeveloped areas can grasp the value of taking steps to protect natural resources.

William Eddy, a longtime consultant on international conservation, suggests that the crucial step is to understand the language and folkways of rural people. If you want to work effectively with these people, the key initial question, he says, may not be ``What needs to happen?'' but ``What do they think makes something happen?'

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