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Third-world nations start facing up to severe pollution problems

In Chile, the government last year set aside the first National Chinchilla Reserve, to protect the endangered Long-Tailed Chinchilla. In Cuba, whose Havana Bay is one of the most polluted harbors in the world, there is now a full-fledged environmental protection agency.

India, where about 2 million acres of forest are stripped down for fuel wood each year, in 1981 launched a $125 million ''social forestry'' program.

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The environmental ethic is not limited to rich, developed nations. In 1972, only 11 third-world countries had environmental agencies. Today 110 have arms of the government whose sole purpose is to protect land, water, and air, according to a soon-to-be-released book by the UN World Environment Center.

''There has been a dramatic growth in environmental awareness since 1972,'' says Libby Bassett, project director for the report.

But these fledgling Environmental Protection Agencies face daunting problems. Some of the nastiest pollution in the world occurs in small, poor nations. And ''even those countries with established environmental regulations often do not have the resources - technical, human, and financial - to monitor and enforce them,'' concludes the UN World Environment Handbook.

Take Kenya, one of the most environmentally advanced countries in Africa, according to the UN. Kenya's Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, now five years old, has 30 scientists to deal with the pollution caused by the fastest-growing population in the world.

The demand for fuelwood in Kenya is so great that there will be little forest left in a decade, unless depletion slows. Coastal factories often pollute with impunity. Dairy-processing waste and slaughterhouse refuse is dumped directly into the waterways surrounding Mombasa and into Lake Victoria.

Kenya's environmental programs are often ''not effective,'' says the UN, because of pressures generated by the fast-increasng population.

A sampling of environmental actions in other nations, as detailed in the UN handbook, includes:

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Chile. Though Chile has no overall environmental agency, 30 different government offices have some responsibility for protecting the environment. The country's major environmental problems are related to land use: desertification and erosion, for example. Contamination from industrial sources is growing. In the basin surrounding Santiago, the country's capital, limits on auto emissions have reduced smog only slightly.

Cuba. Cuba's Center for the Protection of the Environment and Rational Use of National Resources was established in 1980, along with bylaws protecting soil, forests, air, and water.

The cleanup of Havana Harbor is listed as a national priority in the country's latest five-year plan; a reforestation program has already begun. Ironically, one area of the country that is endangered by population expansion is the Sierra Maestra Range - the pine woodlands that sheltered President Fidel Castro's guerrillas before the revolution.

India. India's Department of the Environment has a staff of 150 and a budget in 1983 equal to $650,000. Deforestation is the most acute environmental problem facing the India. Only 12 percent of the nation has adequate tree cover, according to government estimates.

Philippines. The Philippines, an archipelago of some 7,000 islands, has much coastline, and much coastline pollution. Half the coral reefs surrounding the islands are dead or dying, according to UN estimates. The country's National Pollution Control Commission was created in 1964, but has come under criticism from other government agencies for lax enforcement.

Mexico. The rapid urbanization of Mexico has created some of the most acute pollution problems in the world. Mexico City's smog is legendary; the Panuco River basin, on the Gulf coast, receives untreated waste from 15 million people and 35,000 industries. A Secretariat of Urban Development and Ecology was recently established, but ''environmental degradation, caused in large part by poverty, is worsening,'' the UN warns.

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