THE old man chopping wood on the edge of Perinet nature reserve looked surprised. A foreign visitor had just asked whether he was aware he was cutting down trees in one of the world's most endangered rain forests, containing rare primates, orchids, and prehistoric ferns.
''Why no,'' he says, standing amid stumps of old trees with axe in hand. ''Sure I care about the forests and the lemurs that live in them. But we have to work.''
He was taking the wood, he says, to fuel the stoves in the factories of a graphite mine that employs hundreds of people.
The encounter illustrates the problem facing developing countries: On the one hand, people must grow food and utilize resources on ever-dwindling land. On the other, policymakers and environmentalists want to protect species endangered by the encroachments of humans.
According to international environmental groups, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Madagascar is a particularly dramatic case, with its unusual flora and fauna. Some 90 percent of its 250 species of reptiles are unique to the islands, along with 29 of its lemur species and 80 percent of its 10,000 plant species.
An island off Mozambique in the Indian Ocean, Madagascar's wildlife, such as lemurs - a relative of the monkey found nowhere else - evolved in isolation. Naturalists now fear that with the country's population of 12 million expected to double in 25 years the rain forests will disappear.
Rain forest for firewood
Living in one of the world's poorest countries, many of the people of Madagascar barely subsist on a per capita income of $200. An estimated 750,000 acres of forest disappear each year for slash-and-burn agriculture and much-needed firewood. The indigenous wildlife also face threats from poaching, uncontrolled ranging of livestock, and ornamental-plant collection.
''This is the most urgent thing we must tackle and the most difficult, how to meet daily human needs like water, fuel wood, and food versus stopping the overexploitation of finite resources,'' says Taka Hirishi, deputy director of policy for the United Nations Environment Program in Nairobi.
His and other environmental groups are struggling with how to balance the two. International bans on practices such as whaling and ivory trade are not enough. Mr. Hirishi says the most successful solution seems to lie in the communities themselves. This means raising awareness and offering means of economic support to residents so that they do not have to resort to poaching and other destructive measures to survive.
The WWF says its most successful programs have been in integrating community economic development with environmental protection.
''That is a universal theme, linking human needs and conservation. The task is to find a way to balance conservation with the pressing human needs for resources,'' says Jim Leape, senior vice president for programs at WWF. ''It is as true in the Amazon [and] in Papua New Guinea as it is in Madagascar.''
The nature of the challenges varies around the world, but the fundamental issues remain the same. In Asia, large-scale fisheries are depleting maritime resources. In Latin America and Asia, ecologists are concerned about how trade in coffee and bananas is leading to deforestation. In the Pacific Northwest of the United States, forests have been threatened by a surge of large-scale timber concessions by large multinational companies.
International environmentalists agree on the key to success: identifying what communities need so that they don't destroy their environment as they attempt to provide economic benefits to the population.
For instance, in communities surrounding the Central African Republic's Dzanga-Ndoki National Park, the WWF has helped organize fishermen and tradespeople to determine the most effective use of their ''conservation dividend'' - the 40 percent of tourist fees that the association receives. As a result, local people now view elephants as economic benefits. That is reducing illegal hunting.
Similar efforts around Nepal's Chitwan National Park to engage the community in conservation are helping save local tigers. By encouraging development projects for communities around Peru's Manu National Park, the WWF has helped protect what is nearly 10 percent of the world's bird species seeking shelter there.
Nowhere, perhaps, are the challenges greater than in Africa, the world's poorest continent, beleaguered by political instability, war, and severe desertification. The mountain gorillas of Zaire and Rwanda are being threatened as their habitats are cut down for firewood by refugees fleeing war. Elephant herds were wiped out in Angola by rebels seeking to fund their civil war. Likewise in Mozambique, government and guerrilla troops killed much of the rich animal life in national parks during famines and 16 years of civil war. Even in peacetime today, officials will turn a blind eye if paid enough by poachers and smugglers.
But southern African countries, such as Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, which are relatively more affluent and keenly aware of the tourist value of their rich natural heritage, have been more successful. They're regularly cited by international wildlife groups as examples of how to combine conservation and development.
Villagers benefit from tourists
But what about Madagascar, which was one of the first countries to benefit from debt-for-nature swaps (whereby a conservation group ''buys'' a country's debt, and the country uses the proceeds for environmental purposes) and whose government has over the past few years woken up to the benefits of ecotourism?
Just a couple miles down the road from the lumberjack, Volunteers in Technical Assistance, an Arlington, Va.-based nongovernmental organization, has been training local guides to take tourists on walks through Perinet's pristine rain forest. VITA is overseeing a program there that offers villagers 50 percent of national-park proceeds for projects ranging from chicken coops to granaries.
The project is of one of 17 across the country set up since 1991 by authorities, with the help of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), to integrate community development and conservation.
Villagers are becoming more aware, especially those benefiting from the VITA program, that future generations' survival is linked to preserving the forests and the animals living in them.
''If we can fill our stomachs, our souls don't have to go searching in the forest,'' says the chief of one village on the edge of the forest, Julien Randrianarison, as he receives a team of USAID and VITA officials evaluating the projects.
But just as many do not care. Environmental officials report a lack of coordination with other departments, such as the ministry of mines, which handed out permits for logging the forest without consultation.
Policing hunters and poachers is difficult. Locals relate how trucks appear in the night, ostensibly gathering rare plants to sell. Young boys holding chameleons on sticks approach foreign visitors on the edge of the park, either oblivious or indifferent to restrictions on their sale.
The enemies are not just loggers, hunger, and greed, policymakers say.
''Time is our biggest foe,'' says Andriamahaly Rasolofo, a director of evaluation and planning at the National Association for the Development of Protected Areas.
''We are trying to test these new methods and hypotheses, and the results are not yet evident,'' he says.
He pauses, his eye glancing over an old map where forested areas have already disappeared. ''However, if something is not done in time we will have a major ecological disaster on our hands and Madagascar will die,'' he says.