Ecologists Debate Merits Of Rain-Forest Products


DOES ``Rain Forest Crunch'' really help the rain forest?

Some researchers have their doubts. Nuts, fruits, and oils from Earth's tropical forests are featured in such popular items as Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Body Shop bath beads, and the Rain Forest Crunch candy made by Community Products, a Vermont-based company.

The goal is to create markets for goods that don't damage fragile forest environments and will give tribal peoples who live in the forests some much-needed cash. And that goal has been realized, according to David Mayberry-Lewis, founder of Cultural Survival, a Boston-area organization that pioneered the idea.

The rain-forest products sold to food companies or cosmetics makers by Cultural Survival fetch a premium price, because they carry a seal of ecological soundness. That premium goes into a fund and is returned to the indigenous forest dwellers, Mr. Mayberry-Lewis says.

But efforts to ``market the rain forest'' may just distract from deeper social and economic issues confronting those critical habitats, argues Michael Dove, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Mr. Dove, whose research has concentrated on Indonesia's rain forests, says efforts to market ecologically benign forest products - as opposed to wood, plantation-grown crops, and beef - are misdirected if they assume that indigenous peoples should be kept from destructive practices like logging.

The ``real culprits,'' he wrote in a recent edition of Asia Pacific Issues, the center's newsletter, are economic and political elites who exploit the forests' trees and land for huge gains. These groups aren't swayed by the relatively small income to be derived from cashews, Brazil nuts, or tropical oils for shampoos or skin care, he asserts.

``Today's search for new sources of income for poor forest dwellers is often, in reality, a search for opportunities that have no other claimants because they are relatively unattractive,'' Dove writes.

Rain-forest preservationists are divided on the issue. There's general agreement that the marketing of alternative products shouldn't divert attention from bigger issues, like changing Western patterns of consumption that support illegal logging in the tropics.

But there's also a feeling that such marketing has a role in the preservation effort. Beto Borges of the Rain Forest Action Network in San Francisco says that ``for some people, it has enabled them to remain in their social setting.''

A good example, Mr. Borges says, is in Brazil's western Amazon region, where the Yawanawa Indians are cultivating the urucum plant, which produces a red seed used as a dye for lipstick. The US-based Aveda company has a contract with the Indians that has helped the tribe build a local economy.

But introducing indigenous communities to a cash economy can also create problems, notes Simon Counsell, who heads Friends of the Earth's forest campaign from the organization's London office. He says there's ``always a risk that even these goods will be exploited in an unsustainable way by industry.'' The demand for a particular product could also plummet, leaving in the lurch local people who have altered their lives to concentrate on that product.

On the other hand, Mr. Counsell says, in circumstances where indigenous communities are faced with the choice of either developing economic resources or selling off their lands, ``markets for forest goods can help save the forests.'' He sees this happening not only in parts of the Amazon, but also in Africa, where Malawian forest dwellers, for instance, have been able to take advantage of a market for honey and beeswax.

Still, the strategy of giving local people new, if limited, economic opportunities may have little impact on the economic forces working to undermine rain-forest ecology. Willem Groenevald, a Dutch scientist involved in conserving the forests, is quoted in information put out by the Rain Forest Action Network: ``... people talk a lot about sustainably harvested rain-forest products, but in practice the only significant market is for lumber (a currently nonsustainable product), which generates 1,000 times more revenue than any other product.''

``I agree - you can empower local people, but that won't stop big-time ranchers or timber operators,'' says Dan Katz, director of the New York-based Rainforest Alliance. His organization tries to moderate destructive economic forces through a program of ``certifying'' ecologically sound logging and agricultural practices. The alliance's ``Eco-OK'' mark can be found on bananas produced by Costa Rican planters who have agreed to guidelines concerning pesticide use, cultivation of additional land, and respect for animal habitat.

The Rainforest Alliance also runs a ``Smart Wood'' campaign. Logging operations in Mexico and Honduras have signed on to guidelines for preservation of watersheds, sustainable yields, and impact on local communities.

Mr. Katz also advocates efforts to bring about economic diversification. ``If we can convince people in Costa Rica to grow vanilla instead of raising cattle, it'd be a great service. ''

Dove recommends a policy shift among large donor organizations like the World Bank and USAID to link development aid to tougher regulation of logging, mining, and agricultural practices that harm forests and indigenous peoples.

Mayberry-Lewis emphasizes that Cultural Survival's agenda, too, is much broader than rain-forest marketing. Since 1972, his organization has championed the rights of indigenous peoples through public advocacy and legal help.

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