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Conflict Marks Endangered Species Treaty

November 20, 1994|MARLA CONE | TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Sitting at opposite ends of a cavernous auditorium, under a canopy of flags from around the world, Brazil and the Netherlands waged a polite but emotionally strained debate over a tree that grows thousands of miles away.

The chief delegate from the Netherlands--whose Dutch people are fierce rain forest defenders--argued that mahogany trees are disappearing from the tropics so rapidly that trade in the wood must be restricted. Brazil's delegate fervently protested, saying his people should control the Amazon forests.

For the 118 nations that gathered in Florida for two weeks of high-level talks on the environment, which ended Friday, both arguments were persuasive. Ultimately, the government ministers voted, by a slim margin, to leave trade in mahogany unrestricted.

The conflict over mahogany--a rich, highly prized tropical wood that graces the living rooms of many American homes--symbolizes a new direction for the world's largest and most powerful conservation treaty, the 21-year-old Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Should its decisions on wildlife be based on science, politics, economics or emotion? Is it firstly a conservation treaty, or a trade treaty? For the 124 nations that signed the pact, the answer is increasingly all of the above.

At the core of the debate is one of the most wrenching environmental questions: Which of the world's creatures warrant protection? Already, international trade is prohibited for more than 600 species from leopard skins and tiger bone to whale meat and rhino teeth. Trade is restricted for 25,000 other species.

In last week's talks, it was evident that more nations are prepared to accept the concept of "sustainable use," which maintains that if governments are allowed to trade threatened natural resources, such as elephants or wild orchids, or the plant used to manufacture the anti-cancer drug taxol, in limited amounts, then they will have more economic incentive to manage such resources in ways that will not drive them to extinction.

"It is a critical time for (the treaty)," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Mollie Beattie, the chief U.S. delegate. "I see it moving into a much more thoughtful mode than it has been in. . . . People have realized that (sustainable use) is really the keystone of this treaty. It is a means of having countries help other countries and help themselves."

Sustainable use adds a new twist to the classic battle between the international haves and have-nots.

Like any global treaty, the environmental pact known as CITES must navigate the murky and sometimes treacherous waters of international conflicts. Wealthier, pro-preservationist nations, especially in Europe, are often pitted against cash-poor but resource-rich nations such as Malaysia and Zimbabwe.

When the treaty was drafted 21 years ago, trade bans were rapidly enacted as tigers, crocodiles, chimpanzees and leopards slipped toward extinction. But now nations such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, Japan, Norway and Malaysia that are vocal supporters of allowing more trade in protected species increasingly are being heard.

The result has been a softening of extremes: Nations that used to demand to be left alone have agreed that they have to manage their natural resources well today to ensure their future existence. And those that used to support inflexible bans on trade now realize that if countries have healthy economies, they will have more money to spend on improving the environment.

Marinus S. Hoogmoed of the National Museum of Natural History in the Netherlands said that when he was a delegate in 1979, many of the nations that gathered were too rigidly preservationist. He heard the first rumblings of a shift in 1992, and this year in Ft. Lauderdale, many nations voted to ease restrictions that had seemed unthinkable a few years earlier, he said.

"Certain animals are still such a hot emotional item, such as elephants, that it is nearly impossible to even have any conversation about it," Hoogmoed said. "But as far as I can see in the European Union, there certainly is an understanding that CITES is a mixture of trade and nature conservation, and you have to have both of them."

Much of the credit--or blame--for the easing of restrictions goes to South Africa, which has won a lot of converts with its strong efforts to protect wildlife. Johan Neethling, who directs a South African conservation program, said the right to sustainable use is "vital to the long-term health of this whole organization" and "a principle of paramount importance for conservation in all of Africa."

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