Chain Saws Invade Eden

Vast, pristine forests in South America's sparsely populated Guyanas ought to be safe. Not so.

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From high atop a massive bald rock called the Voltzberg, visitors to Suriname can look in awe at the same sight that greeted explorer Sir Walter Raleigh 400 years ago: an emerald forest that seemingly stretches to infinity in all directions. Even though the world has 11 times as many humans as it did in Raleigh's day, the north coast of South America still contains one of the largest unbroken tracts of tropical forest left in the world. Fewer than 50,000 people live in a natural kingdom larger than California that encompasses nearly all of Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana and is buffered by virgin rain forest in Brazil and Venezuela. Some parts of the woodland are so isolated from civilization that monkeys are more curious than fearful when they encounter humans.

That may soon change. The governments of Guyana and Suriname have begun to open huge tracts of forests for logging by timber and trading companies from Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia. Conservationists around the world are horrified at the prospect, aware that in southern Asia the loggers have ravaged forests, leaving a legacy of eroded hills, silt-choked rivers and barren fields. If such exploitation cannot be prevented in sparsely populated countries like Guyana and Suriname, the environmentalists ask, can deforestation be stopped anywhere? For thousands of years, deforestation has presaged the fall of civilizations. Now, for the first time, humanity is facing the consequences of forest destruction on a global scale.

As the international logging juggernaut lurches toward Suriname and Guyana, several conservation groups have chosen to make a stand in this unspoiled part of the world. Some, like Washington-based Conservation International, are trying to show the two governments that large-scale logging is not the only way to get income from these magnificent forests. Another possibility is prospecting for natural medicines produced by the area's trees and flowers. San Francisco's Rainforest Action Network and Britain's World Rainforest Network have taken up the cause of the region's indigenous peoples threatened by logging. Even the World Bank, whose investments have led to deforestation elsewhere in the tropics, has become involved, encouraging Guyana to slow down the pace of logging and look at alternative means of development.

Only circumstance has protected the Guyanas, as the region is called, from the chain saws and bulldozers leveling forests elsewhere. Though colonized centuries ago by the British, Dutch and French, the area became known for its penal camps and slave rebellions and never had enough appeal to draw huge numbers of European settlers. Today the population of Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana totals only 1.3 million people, nearly all of whom live in coastal cities. Up to now the city dwellers have put little pressure on the forests or the few thousand indigenous Amerindians who live in the woodlands. But economic hardship and the lure of logging revenue have begun to make the region's natural treasures more vulnerable.

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