Groups in the United States and Latin America seeking to prevent, or at least slow, civilization's inroads into the continent's rain forests differ markedly in their aims and methods. Some seek to preserve natural lands; others are promoting development that takes environmental impact more into account. ``All the activity is encouraging a public debate on conservation,'' says Barbara Bramble of the National Wildlife Federation.
Steve Schwartzman of the Environmental Defense Fund calls attention to a largely overlooked component of the situation: ``Too often the local people are the last to know about the projects that American banks work out with governments. We want grass-roots organizations to get a chance to discuss their views at the highest levels.''
One grass-roots success is that of rubber-tree tappers in Brazil - descendants of those who provided raw rubber for automobile tires before tiremakers' increasing use of synthetic materials reduced the need for rubber. The tappers developed a mixed economy of rubber extraction, hunting, agriculture, and fishing that has sustained communities for decades without undue deforestation. They gained government approval for a 20-to 30-year experiment in five sizable areas, known as ``extractive reserves.'' The project has been endorsed by the World Bank.
``Sustainable development,'' a phrase signifying development guided by environmental understanding, is gaining credit not only among conservationists, but also among multilateral banks and governments throughout Latin America.
The dilemma for US organizations is how to encourage conservation in Latin America without giving the appearance that it is merely a US initiative. Hence the importance of partnerships with indigenous conservation groups. US groups are working to provide training and technical support that will help local organizations gain credibility. The Nature Conservancy, for example, works with partner organizations throughout Latin America and is developing a network of ``conservation data centers'' to keep tabs on endangered species.
The Conservancy's partners are working with governments to develop national parks in Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Peru. The nongovernment organizations help with such projects as planning boundaries, developing management plans, community education programs, and training rangers.
``Public awareness about conservation is really growing in Brazil,'' according to Nicholas Von Behr, a Brazilian who is spending a year with the Nature Conservancy in Washington, D.C. He will be director of development for Funatura, a conservation organization he helped found, when he returns to Brazil.
Over the past decade, environmental groups have been forming in virtually every nation in Central and South America.
Many of these organizations cooperate with their counterparts in the US.
But Robert Blake of the International Institute for Environmental Development sounds a cautious note: ``The idea of conservation hasn't sunk in yet, and probably won't sink in until local environmental groups develop strong support.''