Activists launch grass-roots drive to save tropical forests

Earth's tropical rain forests are under relentless assault, but a growing grass-roots network is determined to save them. ``Our goal is to turn tropical deforestation into a household topic,'' says Randall Hayes, who founded the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network two years ago.

At a recent conference at the University of Colorado here, Mr. Hayes said his network is trying to coordinate and channel the actions of an increasing number of environmental organizations and prominent academics who have been trying for years to make destruction of tropical forests a conspicuous issue.

The network has affiliated branches in such far-flung places as Lismore, Australia; London; Pulau Pinang, Malaysia; and Nairobi, Kenya.

Alan Trombly, a noted Colorado astrophysicist, was one of several scientists and environmental activists who spoke at the public conference on the worldwide destruction of tropical forests.

The message he and his colleagues delivered was clear: Around the globe, tropical forests are being destroyed at a rate of 50 million acres a year, the victims of:

Large-scale hydroelectric dams and export-oriented agricultural projects financed by multilateral development banks.

International trade in timber, beef, and other commodities controlled largely by the United States, Europe, and Japan.

Institutional corruption and inequitable land ownership throughout the developing world, where most tropical forest exists.

Corporate greed and runaway population growth rates.

The consequences: mass species extinction, further impoverishment of desperately poor populations, the annihilation of indigenous people, possible destabilization of regional climates, the permanent degradation of ecosystems, and the destruction of the world's food base.

``The time is right to push this issue,'' says John Milton, an ecologist and longtime environmental activist whose Threshold Foundation has funded a number of environmental causes, including the Rainforest Action Network.

``In the next 13 years we're looking at about a 14 to 15 percent reduction of the tropical forests of both South America and Africa.'' Mr. Milton says. ``And Southeast Asia stands at the verge of a massive deforesting. The consequences are clearly global. They simply can no longer be ignored.'' That perspective now appears to have penetrated the highest levels of some governments. At the international level there is an ambitious effort to coordinate the forestry policies of all tropically forested countries.

Launched in 1985, the project, called the Tropical Forest Action Plan, is coordinated by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. Under the program, the FAO, supported by a variety of international development agencies, aid agencies, and governments, is helping tropical forested countries formulate national forestry plans which, in turn, follow common broad conservation-weighted guidelines. Cooperating in the effort are, among others, the US Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and all the multilateral development banks. But the program is particularly significant, because from the beginning it has featured the extensive involvement of many of the countries undergoing the most severe deforestation.

Linked to this effort is a project being conducted by the Washington-based International Institute for Environment and Development. The institute, in cooperation with host countries, is putting together a series of in-depth analyses of a range of policies which are affecting the use of tropical forests in each country. The analyses set out long-term strategy options for sustainable development of those forest lands.

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