What We Can Do to Save the Rain Forests

MEMORIAL services were recently held in Washington and Brazil for Francisco (Chico) Mendes, the Brazilian conservationist whose fight to preserve rain forests resulted in his assassination. Perhaps the greatest tribute we can offer is to address the issue of where we go from here. Recently we visited Brazil, where we spoke with government officials and journeyed into the forest Mendes died defending. The rain forest is a sight at once awesome and awful - magnificent in its grandeur and the diversity of wildlife and plants it sustains, but dwindling like a pat of butter on a hot skillet.

Americans have a significant stake in seeing that the world's tropical rain forests are preserved. These vast Edens help to regulate the atmosphere by storing carbon dioxide (CO2); through photosynthesis the plants' leaves use sunlight and carbon to produce a food source. Worldwide, the destruction at the rate of a football field a second may alone account for at least one-fifth of the man-made output of CO2 worldwide, according to satellite monitoring.

Climatologists contend that CO2 accounts for about half of the ``greenhouse effect,'' in which heat is trapped in the earth's atmosphere. Scientists predict that the buildup of greenhouse gases will contribute to a gradual warming of the earth's surface, with average global temperatures rising by as much as 8 degrees F. within 60 years. Such an increase could produce catastrophic changes in the earth's climate; today's arable land could be parched, and coastal areas could be flooded as sea levels rose.

The Amazon rain forest is also the world's largest medical laboratory. Fifty percent of all species of plants and animals live in the 7 percent of the earth's land surface covered by rain forests. The loss of those species would rob us and future generations of a genetic base that could contain cures to diseases impervious to known treatments.

But while the destruction of the Amazon rain forest is a concern shared by all nations, the decision to save it rests with Brazil. Brazilian conservationists are cast by their opponents as the tools of foreign, usually American, interests, and we must avoid fostering that perception. The United States can do more, however, to help Brazil make the right decision, for itself and for the world. A four-part strategy could begin the process:

1.Provide better information. We discovered that there are disagreements even within the Brazilian government as to the magnitude of deforestation. President Jos'e Sarney told us that only 5 percent of the rain forest had been cut down, and that there was no longer any significant pressure to cut down more. But the government-funded National Institute for Research in the Amazon estimates that as much as 20 percent of the forest has been lost to development.

The development forces responsible for this loss clearly remain strong, as evidenced by the murder of 1,000 labor and Indian leaders, environmentalists, and journalists. The US should lead the way in working cooperatively with Brazil and other rain-forest nations to fund research on the damage being done.

Rain-forest nations also need more and better information on the real economic worth of those forests. The land beneath the forest is ill-suited to agriculture, usually becoming useless except for grazing after only a couple of years. Aside from its environmental value, the forest is worth far more as an extractive reserve for natural rubber and other irreplaceable resources.

2.Strengthen environmental conditions on lending policies. The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank have begun considering the environmental impact of development loans in certain cases. We need to see that a meaningful and consistent environmental-impact policy is applied to all World Bank and IDB loans. Developing countries like Brazil need capital investment. But loans should not be made for development projects, in the rain forest or anywhere else, that are environmentally shortsighted - especially in the case of deforestation, when they do not allow for sustainable economic development.

3.Leverage forest preservation with debt. Innovative programs that swap debt for forest preservation have been tried on a small scale and should be expanded. Brazil is burdened by an overwhelming foreign debt. In a debt-forest swap program, Brazil could exchange conservation of a set piece of forest for forgiveness of a certain amount of debt - an arrangement that benefits all of us environmentally and Brazil economically, as well. Tax incentives could be used to encourage those institutions now holding the debt to participate in such a program. Other imaginative measures should also be tried to convert external debt to resources that could be used to protect the Amazon.

4.Keep our own house in order. We cannot expect Brazil to preserve its forest unless we too are working to combat global warming. For example, we should halt the dreadful ripping down of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska - the last great rain forest in North America.

Brazil has an opportunity to become a world leader in global environmentalism. These four steps should provide a powerful nudge in that direction.

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