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Brazil's Budget Saps Environmental Groups

THE telephone at Funda,cao S.O.S. Mata Atl'antica, one of Brazil's environmental groups, rang unanswered last week. The switchboard operator and most of the headquarters' 23 employees were on paid leave. The directors didn't have time to answer the phone.

Instead, they were out trying to try to save their projects and programs - and Brazil's environment.

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S.O.S. Mata Atl'antica is just one of about 200 Brazilian nongovernmental environmental groups that were struck a severe blow by President Fernando Collor de Mello's March 16 anti-inflation plan.

``There will be a slowdown and this could disorganize foundations on the action level. If they [foundations] can't reorganize, it will seriously harm the environment because the government does very little to deal with the problems,'' says Clayton Ferreira Lino, director of science and protected areas at S.O.S. Mata Atl'antica.

Aimed at Brazil's chronic inflation, which topped 80 percent in March, Mr. Collor's plan put a squeeze on liquidity and government spending. It froze much of most people's savings and investments, including those of groups like S.O.S. It suspended tax breaks for corporate gifts to environmental and cultural causes.

One of the plan's first effects was a drop in the value of the dollar. Strapped individuals and companies were forced to cut unnecessary - and even necessary - spending.

``We'll have to fire almost a third of our employees, and we may have to go on a half-day work schedule,'' Mr. Lino says.

``The problem is the morale effect,'' says Nikolaus von Behr, public affairs director for Funatura, a Brasilia-based foundation that depends heavily on corporate giving. Fifteen of Funatura's 18 projects have come to a halt. Projects funded by foreign institutions are in the best situation, but even these will have to adjust because US dollars are suddenly worth little more than half of what they bought before the plan.

This is the problem in the case of a three-year project to develop an alternative to Amazon clearing, funded by the Ford Foundation and the Conservation Foundation.

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Funatura and other groups have already asked international foundations, including the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and the World Wildlife Fund, for emergency monies.

According to Funatura, foreign groups give Brazilian nongovernmental organizations a total of $1 million annually.

But environmentalists are just one of hundreds of interest groups lobbying Bras'ilia to help them out of financial trouble. The issue, says federal deputy F'abio Feldmann, who is reputed to be the only environmentalist in Congress, ``has taken back seat to discussion and negotiation of the plan itself.''

Still, Brazil's new president committed himself in his inauguration speech to doing more for nature.

And the new government is reportedly negotiating the sale of ``ecological bonds'' in the international financial community, to fund a large Amazon reforestation project.

``We hope that Jos'e Lutzemberger [the new environment secretary] will be sensitive and use his influence on Fernando Collor to get us out of this situation,'' says Mr. von Behr.

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