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New Beginnings in the Ashes

June 15, 1998

The fires sweeping through Mexico and Central America have destroyed crops, villages, irreplaceable ecological preserves and the hopes and fortunes of many thousands of people.

In Mexico, 12,800 fires have consumed more than 1.1 million acres since January. Almost 1 million acres surrounding Peten, Guatemala's timeless Mayan archeological zone, have been scorched. Nicaragua has become a raging hell with more than 13,000 fires since last December. In Honduras, nearly 130,000 acres have burned. Similar damage is reported in Costa Rica and El Salvador.

All this is the work of man, exacerbated by terrible drought caused by El Nino. Smoke from the fires has drifted to Texas, Florida and even as far north as Wisconsin. The U.S. Agency for International Development has sent south a heavy-lift helicopter, safety equipment for up to 3,000 firefighters, communications equipment and the very valuable assistance of 41 experts. But much more needs to be done--and continued U.S. assistance and expertise will be important.

The vast majority of the fires have found fuel in the forest and grassland areas where centuries-old slash-and-burn agriculture is practiced by peasant farmers. Sadly, there are also reports of blazes set by wealthy landowners who want to clear the land for grazing and drug traffickers who use fires as diversions to keep the army busy, away from their turf.

Whatever the causes, AID and other agencies should continue to give all possible help. The Latin American firefighters have passed the point of exhaustion.

It will take years to fully assess the ecological toll, but the fires have placed at risk more than a thousand of the world's most endangered animal and plant species. That, however, does not mean that some ecological preserves cannot be reha- bilitated.

The people who live in the burn areas should lead in the restoration. And while ashes still cover the ground, agricultural practices must start changing from the traditional slash-and-burn system of clearing land to modern techniques. An educational campaign backed by government assistance is the key. Local organizations should spread the word that there is a better way, one with a future.

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