Nature Watch special, with Ron Freethy

TRAVELLING to Venezuela and the West Indies to investigate the problems they face in protecting their natural water supplies and the delicate balance of the region's its ecology, it is easy to understand just how crucial the environment is to the lives and livelihoods of the people living there.

For in the West Indian islands in particular, where the economy was once almost wholly dependent on the sugar cane industry -- now wrecked by the growth of the sugar beet in countries that once imported cane products -- 80 per cent of their income is dependent on tourism. That means clean beaches are vital.

But the Caribbean Sea that laps up against them acts as a sump into which the rivers of South America, such as the mighty Orinoco, pour. And they are pouring pollution -- caused by deforestation and by the use of pesticides in agriculture. It is an ecological paradox that countries striving to produce more food can end up damaging their water supply.

But while offering biological advice -- based on the lessons we have learnt in the Mersey Basin on protecting and improving water quality -- to the Caribbean countries wrestling with this problem, I was also able to explore some of the area's wonderful sights and wildlife.

On St Lucia, I went into the heart of a volcano which is still active but apparently safe. The pools of water and mud were boiling like a witch's cauldron. Local experts pointed out that the bubbling of escaping gases worked like a valve in a pressure cooker. They would only be worried if the pressure was trapped and then the island of St Lucia would "probably explode" as it did almost 200 years ago.

St Lucia is a lovely island with wonderful beaches, one of which was used as the location for the film Dr Doolittle was shown at Christmas time on TV.

There, I went inland into a lagoon which has been under threat from industrial development. And though very salty and quite shallow, it was teeming with fish.

Among the tangle of mangroves. I twisted my way by boat and my net was able to catch starfish and seahorses.Oysters were growing on the roots of the mangroves and ever since 16th-century Spaniards were loading up their treasure ships there, these oyster beds provided wonderful pearls.

This was very much pirate country and was the location for Robert Louis Stevenson's (1850-1894) classic adventure story Treasure Island. And in its mangrove swamps I found lots of breeding and roosting brown pelicans. From St Lucia I went off by ship to the island of Dominica which is doing its best to preserve several species of parrot, two of which are now very rare indeed. Parrots live in the high rain forests and although I expected to be bitten to death by insects this proved not to be the case.

It was a welcome change from the tropical heat of the sun to have the cool shade of the rain forest. It even rained for a while and it felt like a warm shower. Within an hour my clothes were dry.

Parrots have been kept as pets for centuries (remember Long John Silver's in Treasure Island?) and the birds still welcome tourists today. Parrots can live for more than 100 years and those who buy them as pets need to check whether their grandchildren are prepared to keep a parrot! The secret of preserving parrots (or any other species) is to protect not the bird but the habitat in which it lives. If the habitat is healthy then the species will look after itself.

But the rain forests of South America are taking a terrible beating at present. So far, the offshore islands have been left alone and, providing sensible management plans are put in place, then the wildlife there will be safe. Once the rain forests are gone the whole ecology disappears forever. Tourism is the solution, but even this industry needs to be carefully managed. And Politicians of many of these areas now realise that their environment is vital.Only when all countries realise this, can ecologists relax. Our planet is not yet safe, but there are signs that things are improving.

The UK is now getting its act together -- I await with some trepidation to see what the new American administration is going to do about the environment problems that we all face.