CONSIDER the iguana: With its pendulous jowls, beaded skin, and perfectly blank stare, this ungainly inhabitant of Latin America's forests appears to be little more than a piece of prehistoric nostalgia. But the unprepossessing lizard may be part of the solution to one of the area's most serious problems: deforestation. A valuable source of protein, the iguana can yield more meat per acre than cattle. And while cattle ranching necessitates the clearing of tropical forests, raising the tree-dwelling iguanas spurs precisely the opposite - the planting of trees in deforested areas.
According to herpetologist Dagmar Werner, the iguana can help farmers reap a profit without destroying the environment.
Dr. Werner is spearheading a movement to introduce cultivation of the green iguana to farmers in Central America, where its once-plentiful population has been decimated by hunters and shrinking habitat. Equally important, where iguana cultivation goes, reforestation may follow.
``If we want to save the planet, science has to be used in a positive way,'' shouts the German-born Werner above the din of her jeep as it lurches over the rutted road toward her research project in western Costa Rica. The surrounding patchwork of pastures, fields, and forest testifies to Costa Rica's rate of deforestation, which (outside its national parks) has been ranked the highest in the hemisphere.
When tropical forest is cleared, the land is often productive for only a few years until the soil becomes exhausted, prompting the farmers to cut more trees.
``I'm trying to make the farm productive enough so that the farmer doesn't have to leave it and cut the virgin jungle,'' says the self-described ``Mama Iguana,'' expertly steering the jeep around a cow and her calf ambling down the middle of the road. Werner has found that a 2.5-acre wooded area can produce about 800 kilograms (1,765 pounds) of iguana meat per year. The same amount of high-quality pasture land produces about 300 kilograms (662 pounds) of beef, while degraded pasture produces as little as 33 pounds.
``These are really amazing results,'' says Werner, pulling up to the Green Iguana Foundation, a cluster of cages and compartments in a private wildlife reserve near the village of El Limonal. About 6,000 iguanas live in the football-field-sized compound.
``This is Ignacio,'' she says, pointing to a 5-foot-long, 11-pound male basking in the sun. ``He's the king, of course. He has hundreds of children.''
Ignacio looks as though he'd be just as comfortable eating a replica of Tokyo on a Hollywood movie set as the hibiscus flower she offers him.
This month, about 2,500 iguanas hatched in May will be released. Some will be raised by nearby families, who will be instructed on the finer points of iguana cultivation by Werner and her staff.
The project is popular among the local people, according to Fernando Munoz, one of the project's seven employees. ``They're happy they'll get to eat the iguanas again,'' he says.
Carlos Umana, a rancher from nearby Coyolar, adds, ``We'd like more trees planted, too. In the last 15 or 20 years, we've been eliminating those as well.''
Mama Iguana has had unprecedented success with her cold-blooded charges. After earning her PhD from the University of Basil, Switzerland, and studying iguanas on the Galapagos Islands, she took charge of a project for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama in 1983. There she studied iguana cultivation, with surprising results.
Using such spartan materials as drainage pipes, wire mesh, and styrofoam ice chests, Werner built nests, incubators, and cages that boosted the survival rate of the lizards in the first year from 2 to 90 percent. Raised in captivity until they were seven months old and then released, the iguanas didn't wander far if high-protein cornmeal was set out as a supplement to their diet of leaves, flowers, and fruit. (``The iguana,'' notes Werner, ``does nothing unless it has to.'')
Equally encouraging, iguanas only eat about 70 percent of what chickens eat to produce the same amount of meat, because they warm their bodies by basking in the sun, instead of using food to generate body heat.
Werner enthusiastically shared her findings with farmers in the Panamanian villages of Llano Grande and Chumpapa in 1986. They took up iguana farming - and reforestation - with gusto, she says. Supplied with free materials to build cages, nests, and incubators, they began to rebuild the iguanas' habitat by planting strips of forest five trees deep around their fields and pastures. These ``shelter belts'' allowed them to continue raising their traditional crops, while supplementing their incomes - and stewpots - with iguana meat. Meanwhile, the trees forestall erosion and produce crops - fruit, lumber, and firewood - that would otherwise have been taken from the forest.
The projects in Panama are continuing, but Werner left the country last year when her five-year, $500,000 grant from the Virginia-based W. Alton Jones Foundation ran out and the country's political situation dimmed prospects for more funding.
WERNER is now a professor at Costa Rica's National University. Her research runs primarily on $100,000 per year originating from the Norwegian government and distributed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), based in Gland, Switzerland.
The IUCN is ``extremely interested'' in raising its outlay to $600,000 per year for five years, according to Stephen Edwards, coordinator of the IUCN's species conservation program.
``If we succeed in developing this program, it will be the model for a whole string of sustainable development programs that we're thinking of getting into - everything from frogs' legs to farming coral reefs,'' says Mr. Edwards.
The demand to implement the project is ``incredible,'' says Werner. But she adds that much research needs to be done before it can be a safe commercial venture. Werner, along with a board of advisers, has started the groundwork for establishing the market for iguana products. Part of the job has been done for her: Iguana meat is already popular in Latin America.
``It's really good, a thousand times better than chicken,'' says Omero Asinto, a waiter at the Pochote Bar and Restaurant in Barranca, near Costa Rica's Pacific coast. The restaurant's stew of iguana, squash, onion, garlic, and spices draws tourists and locals alike. The main ingredient is bought from a group of iguana hunters who ``bring them in by the sackful,'' says Mr. Asinto.
The meat isn't yet in high international demand, although a smattering of restaurants in New York and San Francisco have called Werner about its availability. But there is international demand for the skins. ``It's coming from Italy and France, for sandals, handbags, watchstraps - all that stuff they do,'' Werner says with a grin.
Werner is not at all sentimental about the iguana's final destination inside a pot in Costa Rica or outside a checkbook in New York.
``I believe that's how the iguana can be rescued,'' she says. ``Iguana management and an international marketing system will protect, rather than exterminate, the iguana.''
Nor is she romantic about the power of iguana cultivation to save tropical forests. ``I don't think iguana farming will stop deforestation,'' she says. ``But I think it will contribute a great deal.''