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Fund-raising success of Brazilian ecology group inspires others

Ecology doesn't usually bring to mind dollar signs. But aggressive business methods have become a winning tactic for a Brazilian environmental foundation, Fundacao SOS Pro-Mata Atlantica.

SOS draws its operating funds from business ventures which target Brazil's middle and upper classes. In turn, these funds, now totaling $60,000 to $70,000 a year, enable SOS to link up with foreign environmental groups.

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The group's two-pronged strategy is raking in funds and may be setting an example for other nonprofit groups around the world.

The group's business ventures began last fall with a publicity and fund-raising campaign featuring T-shirts and buttons. Within six months, the foundation was earning more than $5,000 a month on T-shirts bearing a Brazilian flag. The green of the flag background is partly missing, and printed words lament: ``They're taking the green out of our land.'' Brazilian schoolchildren learn that the green on the flag stands for Brazil's lush forests and jungles.

Last month, SOS presented the Central Bank of Brazil with a proposal for Brazil's first so-called debt-for-nature swap, a $100 million debt conversion involving funding from US foundations.

The need for the swap results from Brazil's debt moratorium imposed last year, during which Brazilian borrowers deposited cruzado loan payments at the Central Bank, but the bank didn't pay creditors. The creditors moved to write off part of the loans, and are now willing to sell or donate the remainder.

The foreign funding will help SOS save and carefully develop 772-square miles of estuary and lagoon known as Lagamar, on Brazil's southern coastline. The area is part of an original estimated 135,000 square-mile stretch of forest and coastline that has been reduced to about 5 percent of what it was before the Portuguese arrived in 1500.

Home to 3,000 fishing families, plus thousands of species of birds, fish, shellfish, trees, and plants, Lagamar isn't polluted. But lumber companies, unchecked by the government, are rapidly cutting down its trees. Many fishermen drag huge nets through its waters, picking up not only valuable mature shrimp, but also crustaceans that are not fully grown.

The people who have long lived there - the ``Caicara,'' descendants of Indians and Portuguese settlers - are being pushed off the land because they don't have clear title to it. And the real estate is attracting nearby urban dwellers looking to build vacation homes.

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All of SOS's activity has stunned some US-based environmentalists.

``A lot of organizations wouldn't think of bringing in [in fundraising] even a tenth of what they bring in,'' says Carlos Quintela, Brazil project officer at The Nature Conservancy, a Washington-based foundation.

Mr. Quintela notes that SOS's strategy was ``featured prominently'' at an information-sharing meeting this month in Costa Rica, where environmentalists are also working to sell T-shirts, nature guidebooks, and maps. He said he hoped others would try the business approach, but added that it might not work in smaller countries where the number of potential consumers and contributors is small and large corporate participants don't exist.

To write its debt-swap proposal, SOS drew on the expertise of an attorney working at a large US bank. According to the attorney, the proposal is similar to swaps completed recently in Ecuador and Bolivia. If approved, however, it would be Latin America's largest. And he said it would encourage other groups in Brazil and neighboring countries to follow suit. SOS President Rodrigo Mesquita said he expects a Central Bank decision by mid-July.

If the Central Bank approves the proposal, SOS will formally approach US foundations, museums, and scientific groups, to ask them to participate in the debt conversion.

SOS wants to use the money to help carry out a detailed project to map the Lagamar area, develop environmental education programs, fund scientific research on local species, foster controlled wildlife tourism, and set up training programs to provide new skills for the local population.

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