Américas / January-February 1999
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON -- Huge investment in the timber, mining and petroleum extraction industries of South America is rarely viewed as a bad thing. But a new study by Conservation International -- especially in the three Guianas -- warns that the region's most biologically rich ecosystems are being logged, mined and drilled more rapidly than ever imagined.
Between 1991 and 1996, for example, investment in minerals exploration in Latin America jumped 130%, from $300 million to $700 million per year. And in a 1996 survey of the CEOs of the world's largest mining conglomerates, seven South American countries were rated among the 10 most promising over the next decade.
Likewise, privatization of the timber industry -- along with preferential trading agreements, heavy subsidies and improved economic conditions -- have made Latin America much more attractive to logging firms. In the last seven years, timber exports have risen 120%, from 1.4 million to nearly 3.0 million cubic meters.
"The sheer scale of investment, as measured by the number and size of concessions, threatens to open up vast expanses of previously undisturbed natural areas," writes the study's author, Ian Bowles. "Secondly, the rate at which new concessions have been granted over just the last five years means that this threat is an immediate concern for conservationists."
So perhaps the news out of Suriname -- which has more rainforest than all of Central America combined -- should make ecologists happy.
Earlier this year, Surinamese President Jules Wijdenbosch announced that his government had established a 4-million-acre nature reserve -- an area the size of New Jersey -- to safeguard the largely uninhabited virgin forest from uncontrolled development by Malaysian, Indonesian and other Asian logging firms that have descended upon the former Dutch colony of 450,000 inhabitants in recent years.
"The people of Suriname are glad to invest in nature because we realize today that by protecting our tropical forests, we are also preserving our planet," Wijdenbosch said in a statement read at a June 17 ceremony in New York.
The Central Suriname Wilderness Nature Reserve covers 10% of the nation's land area, according to Conservation International, which secured private-sector funding to establish a $1 million trust for management costs of the new protected area. The money will be used to help Suriname develop a strategy for conservation-based investment in ecotourism, bioprospecting, non-timber orest products and agroforestry. Private funding for the trust was provided by U.S. philanthropist Adam Albright and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.
"This is a revolutionary move on the part of Suriname's leaders," said Russell A. Mittermeier, president of the Washington-based non-profit organization. "They are breaking away from traditional and usually ecologically devastating patterns of economic development that exploit natural resources, and making protection itself an economically beneficial land use. Suriname is telling the rest of the world they don't have to destroy their forests in order to develop economically."
In a related development, Suriname's minister of natural resources, Errol Alibux, has inked a $30 million accord with the Dutch government to create the Forestry Production Control Project. This program, backed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, will monitor logging activities through the use of mobile inspection units. According to government sources, it's one component of a larger plan to rebuild the Forest Service's infrastructure -- wiped out in Suriname's 1986-92 civil war -- as well as to establish a Timber Institute to control logging and promote investment in the forestry sector.