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The Nature of Development: A Report from the Rural Tropics on the Quest for Sustainable Economic Growth.

Anyone who doubts that global environmental problems have taken hold of the public consciousness should ponder the attention that has recently been showered on our need to save the planet's cornucopia of plants and animals. The word "biodiversity" has found its way into casual cocktail conversation, along with "sustainable development"--the idea that today's growth must not destroy the environment, or there can be no prosperity tomorrow. And journalists are spending considerable time on biodiversity in general-audience books such as Roger D. Stone's The Nature of Development.

This public interest in preserving biodiversity is quite an achievement. The argument for saving the plants and animals that teem anonymously in tropical forests entails complicated science, not to mention a high degree of abstract reasoning. Nevertheless, many have accepted the concept that a single gene from a nameless plant can lead to the cure of a dreadful disease that may someday emerge as unexpectedly as AIDS did. Some indeed predict that the cure for AIDS will come from the tropical forest.

Yet this growing appreciation of biodiversity still leaves us a long way from clear answers to the question of how to preserve our genetic wealth. On the contrary, as often happens when people become enthusiastic about an idea, they risk surrendering critical thinking about its complexities, sometimes over-simplifying to the point of silliness.

A journalist's perspective

Roger Stone's book is far from silly. It is a lucid account of sustainable development, written with literary flair. Stone, a former Time magazine reporter who is now a consultant on environmental issues at the Council on Foreign Relations, takes a journalistic approach to his subject. This makes for lively reading, but by limiting himself to reporting, the author repeats many of the currently fashionable creeds without exploring their inconsistencies and pitfalls.

Stone opens with a general discussion of sustainable development, making biodiversity one of his centerpieces. He describes the pressure put on the environment by population growth and poverty as more and more people, desperate to eke out livings, plunder their surroundings. Unfortunately, Stone says, foreign aid programs have typically emphasized growth at the expense of long-term environmental considerations. This emphasis is not new. Throughout most of modern human history, the paramount goal has not been to respect biodiversity but to cut trees, kill pests, and otherwise tame the environment to make it productive for humans. One of the best sections of Stone's book is his summary of the slow acceptance of the concept of sustainable development, an idea that began with a few scattered, questioning voices that emerged after World War II.

Having provided this background, Stone then skips across the globe looking for examples of people struggling to balance environmental concerns with everyday survival needs.

* In Thailand, he visits the Wildlife Fund Thailand. With help from the World Wildlife Fund and the U.S. Agency for International Development, WFT has designed programs to discourage the destruction of valuable Khao Yai National Park. The more or less successful project includes the provision of credit at reasonable interest rates, which promotes environmentally safe investments and eliminates the incentive to intrude into the park.

* In Irian Jaya, on the western half of New Guinea, Stone looks at a butterfly ranching program. The market for mounted dead butterflies is large, he reports, and many developed countries are now also importing live insects to populate "butterfly houses," which people pay to visit. "Ranching butterflies in the wild is both legal and sustainable," Stone writes, "and if conducted properly results in ever-larger wild populations and rising incomes for the ranchers." The project, however, has not fared well. After Stone's visit, when a Belgian butterfly consultant brought in to help "proved to be untrustworthy, the butterfly ranching project fell into disorder and required reorganization."

* At the port of Vieux Fort, on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, fishermen not long ago dynamited reefs to obtain the lobsters they sold to local tourist hotels. Then a Frenchman started a grassroots project that sought to promote an environmentally acceptable tourist industry. In place of the old free-for-all, visitors are now directed through environmentally rich areas by trained local guides. The hope that tourism would take off has yet to be realized, but the citizens are no longer dynamiting reefs, and the Frenchman is planning similar projects in other areas.

* For years, poachers had free run of Zambian nature preserves, thanks to local villagers' distrust of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), with which they would not cooperate. On a visit there, Stone learned that the NPWS now works with villagers, paying them as guards and giving them a share of the fees paid by safari companies.

From these excursions and many others, Stone draws a list of conclusions about what works and what doesn't:

* "Progress is most likely if local citizens are full partners. Topdown planning seldom flourishes in the field."

* "Progress seems to come most readily when local committees or associations have decision-making power."

* "Very little improvement will occur unless the outsiders entering the world's remote corners are willing to make long-term commitments to them."

A lack of analysis

Stone's on-the-ground descriptions of sustainable development projects provide an honest picture of successes and failures. They show the uncertain process of marrying growth with conservation. Although he excels as a faithful reporter, however, Stone does not probe the significance of some of the difficulties he chronicles.

Consider, for instance, the lack of baseline data for making decisions. As Stone mentions, we don't even know how many species of plants and animals exist. Estimates run from 5 million to 100 million, and we have managed to identify only a couple of million so far. Unfortunately, Stone does not look at the consequences of not knowing such basic information: that it is impossible to know what may be lost in a given circumstance; and if we cannot estimate losses, it is difficult to judge when a project is truly sustainable.

Stone is also uncritical of the naivete inherent in much discussion of grassroots development projects. The common assumption is that citizens of rural Africa want the kind of environmental measures that citizens of London want. On the contrary, there are many different local attitudes, and many people in developing countries don't want environmentally safe butterfly farming, but gas-guzzling cars like the ones they see us drive. Environmentalists would do well to acknowledge that sustainable development is an idea advanced by outsiders like themselves. For evidence of this, one need merely look at the extensive involvement of foreigners in the projects Stone visited.

Stone also repeats but does not examine the naive idea that large international organizations should "relinquish field activities to the new clusters of smaller national and international nongovernmental organizations." As someone who has worked at the World Bank, I can attest to its environmental sins and to the value of adjusting foreign aid to local conditions and aspirations. Still, relinquishing control to grassroots organizations is not as simple a task as Stone and many others make it out to be.

Donors cannot simply walk into a village and hand over a check. Donors must work through effective organizations, which means evaluating those organizations' potential to get the job done and then monitoring their progress. This is all the more complicated because donors must often choose among a great many organizations. As Stone notes, 87 nongovernmental environmental organizations "somehow existed, in 1990, in the chaotic political and economic climate of Peru." Whichever organizations are chosen, of course, are strengthened by aid, which means that the outsider wields considerable influence.

In fact, as much as donors may be embarrassed by it, aid giving and aid receiving are inherently unequal roles. Donors have the power to do good, but to use that power effectively they must make choices. If they don't want to make tough decisions, they should forget about using aid as an instrument of change.

Criticism of Stone is not meant to warn readers away from his book, only to promote thought about The Nature of Development. The book's weaknesses, in fact, are part of Stone's great strength--his ability to give us a vivid picture of what he has found in his wide travels. Deciding where we go from here demands a good deal more debate.

John Maxwell Hamilton is director of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University and author of Entangling Alliances: How the Third World Shapes Our Lives.
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Author:Hamilton, John Maxwell
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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