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Naturalist's plea: include environment in Latin debt issue. Scramble to pay debts may worsen environmental woes

When decisionmakers discuss Latin America's $380 billion external debt, environmental issues are hardly their first consideration. But the environment is closely linked to the debt crisis, says James Gustave Speth, president of the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based think tank focusing on environmental issues.

As countries scramble to service their debts, there is the danger that efforts to protect or enhance the environment could be relaxed or overlooked. Some examples:

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In Ecuador, logging restrictions have been loosened in order to raise money to meet interest payments.

In Haiti and Guatemala, masses of unemployed people have gone ``back to the land'' to forage for food, destroying 50 percent of the productive capacity of those nations' land in the process.

But while debt may exacerbate environmental problems, environmental considerations may be a part of the solution to the debt, says Mr. Speth. For example, if management of natural resources was more often a part of the requirements of those lending money to Latin American nations, he says, the resulting increased production could provide an important part of the answer to the debt crisis.

At a symposium on the Latin American debt held here this week by Emory University's Carter Center, Speth's views definitely sound like a cry in the wilderness. The discussion between former chiefs of state, economic ministers, economists, political scientists, bankers, and businessmen focused on restructuring the debt. This is generally seen as the most immediate solution to the debt problem, because it is believed that if the debtor nations are relieved of some of their debt burden -- either through lowered and deferred payments or directly writing off some of the debt -- they can begin to grow economically.

This growth would allow the countries to put people to work and to export enough to earn the foreign exchange needed to eventually pay back their debt.

Economic growth is key to every solution offered to the debt crisis. Speth agrees that growth is part of the solution, but notes that the push for growth can be destructive to the environment.

``If you want growth that will work in the long run, you've got to pay attention to the resource bases and management of resources,'' Speth said in an interview.

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Prospects for economic growth are in agriculture, fisheries, forests, energy, and minerals, he says.

But, says Speth, the ``long-term growth prospects are being diminished by resource deterioration, a deterioration that the debt crisis is hastening.''

He traces the evolution of third-world development from the capital-intensive projects of power plants and highways to the later concept of investing in health, nutrition, and education to increase individual productivity. ``A similar intellectual shift is now needed to demonstrate returns from investments in natural resource productivity,'' he says.

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