Mr. Chairman,

The severe tragedy that struck the Central American countries, particularly Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, has indicated clearly to all governments of the Americas that there is a dire need to rapidly coordinate and mobilize assistance to countries hit by natural disasters. Some regions of the Americas face natural disasters continually. Hurricanes wreak severe damage to the Caribbean islands every year, and frequently they also score direct hits on Central American countries. From time to time, earthquakes, volcanoes and floods have also left their scars on many of these Caribbean and Central American countries.

This catastrophe resulting from Hurricane Mitch has caused people all over the American continent to mobilize efforts to render assistance. The affected countries are no longer thought of as far off lands with faceless peoples we hear about occasionally on the radio and television, but as real neighbors who need urgent help. The expressions of solidarity we have witnessed in the provision of assistance are clear manifestations that the nations of the Americas are growing closer to each other and are willing to make sacrifices for each other.

Within the hemisphere, a form of assistance is rendered through the Inter-American Emergency Fund (FONDEM), administered by the Organization of American States (OAS). But this is generally limited to a maximum of $25,000 to each affected country. It can be easily agreed that this paltry sum can do very little to heal the wounds of the peoples of the affected Central American countries hit by Hurricane Mitch and of St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, the Dominican Republic and Haiti after Hurricane Georges swept over them. In St. Kitts and Nevis over 80 percent of the buildings were damaged, and Antigua and Barbuda was still repairing damage caused by another hurricane in 1997 when Georges arrived.

It is now imperative that a reformation of the FONDEM must be carried out. The OAS and the other Inter-American institutions must find ways, and financial resources, to increase the budget of this Fund so that it can more meaningfully assist countries affected by natural disasters.

We are all convinced that the increased discharge of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is the biggest cause of global warming and the savage violence of the resulting hurricanes. But while environmentalists and diplomats pontificate over what countries should do to prevent global warming, the resulting weather-induced natural disasters continue to occur. Meanwhile, each country strives for increased development and production which utilizes existing forms of energy and thus adds more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The cycle perpetuates itself over and over and over.

Countries of Central America and the Caribbean have also implemented limited programs for disaster preparedness, but these involve, in the long run, much resources which have to be pumped into town planning systems, the purchase of emergency equipment, improved building designs, environmental protection, and even increased agricultural production to stockpile in case of a disaster such as a hurricane. Countries generally do not have available resources to do all these. Now, with some countries of our hemisphere literally wrecked, the multilateral financial institutions have to seriously consider the cancellation of these countries' debts, thus enabling them to have more available financial resources for rebuilding.

Since I think our regional and hemispheric institutions wait until disasters strike before they begin to mobilize and remember, natural disasters occur year after year I believe there is a need for the urgent establishment of a special permanent hemispheric unit, spearheaded by the Organization of American States (OAS), to quickly mobilize and coordinate assistance to affected countries. This permanent disaster assistance unit can be made up of representatives of the OAS Secretariat, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA), the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM), the Inter-American Children Institute, the Inter-American Council for Integral Development, as well as interested non-governmental organizations. This body should meet on a planned regular basis to map out strategies. I feel this will be one of the best forms of disaster preparedness.

Currently, the countries of the hemisphere give support to the White Helmets, an Argentine initiative backed by the OAS, the Summit of the Americas process, and the United Nations. However, this unit sends mainly medical volunteers to countries affected by disasters and it is definitely not geared to coordinate and mobilize assistance for large scale operations. In 1994, the first Summit of the Americas decided that a Corps of Development Volunteers would be established to supplement the work of the White Helmets. The idea, propagated by Guyana, is that skilled volunteers in various fields of expertise would be recruited from all over the American continent and deployed to countries in need of assistance. Unfortunately, this body has not yet been established. In light of the problems created by Hurricanes Mitch in Central America and Hurricane Georges in the Caribbean, the need for these volunteers is now of paramount importance.

Long-term assistance to the disaster-prone countries (which are all smaller economies) is now a prime necessity. It must be remembered that these countries are all working for the establishment of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. With the hurricane damage by Mitch and Georges, their limitations to compete fairly in a free-trade environment are now clearer than ever. The necessity of the Regional Integration Fund, proposed by the countries of the Caribbean Community, to help the smaller economies in improving their infrastructure and productive base becomes even more relevant now.

Thank you.