Ecologists Debate Merits of Rain-Forest Products FROM FRUIT TO NUTS

Article excerpt

DOES "Rain Forest Crunch" really help the rain forest?

Some researchers have their doubts. Nuts, fruits, and oils from Earth's tropical forests are featured in such popular items as Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Body Shop bath beads, and the Rain Forest Crunch candy made by Community Products, a Vermont-based company.

The goal is to create markets for goods that don't damage fragile forest environments and will give tribal peoples who live in the forests some much-needed cash. And that goal has been realized, according to David Mayberry-Lewis, founder of Cultural Survival, a Boston-area organization that pioneered the idea.

The rain-forest products sold to food companies or cosmetics makers by Cultural Survival fetch a premium price, because they carry a seal of ecological soundness. That premium goes into a fund and is returned to the indigenous forest dwellers, Mr. Mayberry-Lewis says.

But efforts to "market the rain forest" may just distract from deeper social and economic issues confronting those critical habitats, argues Michael Dove, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Mr. Dove, whose research has concentrated on Indonesia's rain forests, says efforts to market ecologically benign forest products - as opposed to wood, plantation-grown crops, and beef - are misdirected if they assume that indigenous peoples should be kept from destructive practices like logging.

The "real culprits," he wrote in a recent edition of Asia Pacific Issues, the center's newsletter, are economic and political elites who exploit the forests' trees and land for huge gains. These groups aren't swayed by the relatively small income to be derived from cashews, Brazil nuts, or tropical oils for shampoos or skin care, he asserts.

"Today's search for new sources of income for poor forest dwellers is often, in reality, a search for opportunities that have no other claimants because they are relatively unattractive," Dove writes.

Rain-forest preservationists are divided on the issue. There's general agreement that the marketing of alternative products shouldn't divert attention from bigger issues, like changing Western patterns of consumption that support illegal logging in the tropics.

But there's also a feeling that such marketing has a role in the preservation effort. Beto Borges of the Rain Forest Action Network in San Francisco says that "for some people, it has enabled them to remain in their social setting."

A good example, Mr. Borges says, is in Brazil's western Amazon region, where the Yawanawa Indians are cultivating the urucum plant, which produces a red seed used as a dye for lipstick. The US-based Aveda company has a contract with the Indians that has helped the tribe build a local economy.

But introducing indigenous communities to a cash economy can also create problems, notes Simon Counsell, who heads Friends of the Earth's forest campaign from the organization's London office. …