Every minute, another 100 acres of tropical forest is destroyed. Every year, at least 17,500 species of plants and animals become extinct in the process. To kick off a major international movement to protect tropical forests, a coalition of environmental groups is marching on the World Bank's headquarters in Washington today during the bank's annual meeting. The groups are protesting the organization's role in financing major development projects in the third world that lead to the destruction of tropical forests.
The march comes at a time of growing realization in the scientific community of the extent of deforestation in the tropics, and of the importance of tropical forests in sustaining millions of plant and animal species. The growing body of scientific data, combined with a new international perspective by the environmental movement, has helped to elevate tropical forest destruction to one of the most critical environmental issues of the decade. Both Congress and the Reagan administration are applying pressure on the World Bank to clean up its environmental act.
``[The World Bank's] policies are the driving wedge for what happens to the environment in much of the developing world,'' explains Sierra Club chairman J.Michael McCloskey. ``Their policies set the framework for planning and their projects have a tremendous impact.''
The World Bank, along with several other international lending institutions, collects most of its money from the US and other industrialized countries and then lends it to developing countries to finance development projects. According to march organizers, the ``multilateral development banks are financing much of the tropical forest destruction with giant dams, agricultural and irrigation projects, roadbuilding, and rural development.''
``These misguided schemes,'' they add, ``are devastating vast areas of the tropics.''
In one such project the World Bank has joined with the Indonesian government in a transmigration plan to move more than 3 million people by 1989 from the most populated islands of Java and Bali to the sparcely settled islands of Kalimantan (formerly Borneo), Sulawesi, and Irian Jaya (formerly western New Guinea).
A recent report from the Sierra Club titled ``Bankrolling Disasters'' takes issue with the project's stated goal of food self-sufficiency for the new arrivals by farming more than 8 million acres of cleared tropical forest. According to experts, cleared land will not sustain food production for more than a few years. Because of relatively high temperatures and moisture levels in tropical forests worldwide, any dead plant material biodegrades quickly and is taken up by plant roots. As a result, much of the forest's nutrients are in the live plant material. Once the land is cleared, the sparse nutrients in the soil are quickly exhausted, leaving the land unsuitable for farming.
Critics complain that the Bank's determination of ``economic return'' does not include the environmental costs and benefits of projects, and therefore is inadequate. They maintain that the costs of deforestation, pollution, fossil fuel use, and pesticides should be included in the economic evaluation. Also, the broadly based benefits of intact watersheds, wetlands, and tropical forests should be compared with the bank's calculations of increased export earnings that benefit only those involved in the export sector, says the Sierra Club.
The environmentalists point to the value of tropical forests as a storehouse of plant and animal species. Industrial products stemming from tropical forests include gums, resins, volatile essential oils, rubber, fibers, dyes, and pesticides.