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Ecuador battles problems of deforestation

The determination with which Ecuador is conducting its national reforestation programme is virtually unrivalled in Latin America.

Approved by the Ecuadorian parliament in 1983 84, and launched in 1985, the Plan Bosque (Forest Plan) is the Government's latest effort to solve a problem that has concerned several national groups for almost 20 years. At first glance, it might appear strange to speak of reforestation in a country where almost halt the land is covered by an impenetrable jungle. It is a fact, however, that the country's other two wooded regions, the Andean altiplano (the Sierra) and the coastal area, are witnessing the rapid disappearance of their forest cover (about 200 000 hectarea a year), particularly as a result of the sharp increase in the demand for agricultural land and pastures, and in response to the domestic demand for timber and coal. Denuded of 90 per cent of its trees, the southwestern area of the country resembles a desert.

In the late 1970s, industrialists in this sector voiced their alarm clearly: rapid deforestation is a threat to the survival of an industry which already shows a considerable deficit; in 1981 the losses caused mainly by wood pulp, cardboard, and paper imports amounted to almost $34 million annually. And they were not the only ones to request government intervention. In 1980 the Fundaciatura, a private non-profit organization, joined forces with them to attract public attention to the risk of erosion and degradation threatening the country's richest land.

With only $180 000 initially, Fundaciatura launched its awareness campaign by contacting all ministers and issuing daily press releases to the media on environmental themes. Its second enterprise, phased over a period of four years, consisted in sending educational material to 60000 teachers nationwide, for a total cost of $660 000.

Fundaciatura also initiated a reforestation programme in the region of Cotopaxi, in northern Ecuador. Densely populated and intensely cultivated, this altiplano region is also very poor. In three years the peasants have planted 2.5 million trees there and have learned to protect the seedlings against damage by domestic animals. The areas reforested (always with native species) are often communal land. In other areas, special attention has been given to improving small family farms.

Government action is geared to more strictly economic objectives. The first is to ensure a sufficient timber production to cover the country's household and industrial requirements. The second is to rehabilitate land bordering the farms and abandoned fishing areas, and reintegrate them into the country's economy.

Totally financed by petroleum revenues and with an initial budget of $12 million, the Plan Bosque is also addressed to inhabitants of the coastal area and Sierra region, but it mainly benefits the richer farmers and large landowners. Half the funds allocated by the Government are entrusted to the Ministry of Agriculture - under which comes the National Forestry Service - the other half being earmarked for the creation of a line of credit with the Banco Nacional de Fomento.

The only requirement for obtaining a loan, with a fixed interest rate of 9 per cent, is that one must own no more than 900 hectares of cultivable land. The farmer can use his loan to purchase local and foreign seed and start up production; he also receives agricultural advice during the various phases of development. If after two years 70 to 80 per cent of his trees are still alive, he can choose either to pay back his loan immediately or to sign a contract with the Ministry of Agriculture whereby he undertakes to maintain and cultivate his forest until the tress reach maturity. In the latter case, it is the Ministry that pays back the loan; when it is time to fell the tress, 10 to 20 years later, the farmer will repay the Ministry with no interest. The programme is so popular that in the first year requests under the Plan Bosque totalled 38 000 hectares, but the programme is geared to finance only up to 20 000 hectares annually.

This is a laudable project, but it has raised some criticism. In particular, the Government has been accused of reforesting the country in a disorganized manner, without considering either the subsequent phases of exploitation or that the domestic timber yards have to be supplied with timber from different areas of the country, some of which are of extremely difficult access. In this respect, however, it appears that after the initial phase, the Government project envisages that its reforestation programme will be oriented more strictly toward meeting the country's timber and coal requirements.

Another problem is the absence of local know-how in forest management and maintenance. This problem must be solved if the wooded areas are to maintain an optimum growth rate. In a recent interview, Roque Sevilla, Director of the National Forestry Service, stressed the importance of arousing "forestry awareness" in a country where half the land area is covered by jungle: part of the Service's annual $1.8 million budget is devoted to educating and training forestry experts.

The Government is not alone in its efforts to develop Ecuador's forests: a joint proposal by the Banco Nacional de Fomento and the Ministry of Agriculture led to the creation, in 1981, of EMDEFOR - Empresa Mista de Desarrollo Forestal - whose objectives are to develop forests in collaboration with more than 200 farmer organizations and to promote research with the help of students from the Chimborazo Polytechnic. This mixed enterprise has an initial budget of $2.5 million. It proposes to plant fastgrowing species (such as eucalyptus and Pinus radiata) and use the timber for industrial purposes.

Dani Blain