BETAMPONA RESERVE, MADAGASCAR — FROM his eroding rice field on a steep slope near his isolated mountain village, Marcellin sees a section of what world conservationists are now trying to save: Madagascar's fast-disappearing rain forests. The forest Marcellin looks at fondly as potential cropland is a crowded display of tall trunks swathed in dark green - a tropical remnant from a distant age when trees covered much of this island.
Such surviving forests are refuge to a vast array of plants and animals - including the tree-climbing, button-eyed lemurs, ancient relatives to both monkey and humans. Conservationists say 80 percent of the plants and many of the animals on the island, including the lemurs, are found only in Madagascar, which apparently broke away from the African continent 160 million years ago.
With 80 to 90 percent of Madagascar's native forests destroyed, United States and European conservationists, with the endorsement of Madagascar's government, are taking steps to preserve what's left.
The plan involves guards to keep out intruders, and help to boost crop production of farmers whose ``slash and burn'' practice of cutting and burning trees for new croplands poses what conservationists say is the significant threat to the forests.
Normally, such practices are limited to parcels of land used in rotation every few years. But population and migration pressures in areas around forests have led to increasing cuttings in the forests.
``I'd like to go in'' the Betampona reserve to cut down trees for new farmland, ``but they guard the forest,'' says Marcellin, who has only one name.
Most of the island's forests, however, are unguarded. At 5,500 acres, the 63-year-old Betampona reserve, the nation's oldest, is only one-tenth of its former size. The government allowed the rest to be cut in the 1970s.
At the current rate of destruction, all of the native forests will disappear within 20 to 30 years, says Martin Nicole, of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) office in Madagascar.
Forests cover about 10 percent of Madagascar. Centuries of assault on these forests have left large tracts of country bare and eroded by the torrential rains.
In Madagascar, the resulting massive soil erosion turns rivers red during heavy rains in areas with few trees.
The remaining forests and rich plant and animal life in Madagascar are unique.
``Madagascar is perhaps the most outstanding living laboratory of evolution in the world, far more so than the Gallapagos, which have become famous for Darwin's explorations there,'' says George Schatz, a biologist with the Missouri Botanical Garden working in this country. ``If he had landed here it would have been Madagascar that gave rise to `The Origin of Species.' ''
Such diversity must be preserved, Dr. Schatz says. ``We as a species have no right to bring about the extinction of any species - animal or plant,'' he says. ``It's a moral issue.''
But while Western conservationists are excited about saving plants and animals here, the government of Madagascar has other priorities.
The government's new national environmental action plan, one of the first in Africa, has as one of its goals ``the improvement of the daily living standard of the citizens.''
The government signed an agreement with the World Bank in February that calls for expanding the number of protected forests from 35 to 50 within five years. But this still covers only a fraction of the remaining native trees.
``I think the challenge is to make sure they are not simply 50 isolated pockets of bio-diversity surrounded by a desert,'' says Christopher Ward, of the bank's office in Madagascar.
Western conservationists plan to build dams to increase rice production, provide improved crop seeds, and plant trees to ease pressure on forests caused by the demand for fuel.
An association of private and government leaders is to oversee much of this activity.
``It's still too early to say'' whether such efforts will save the forests, says Baudouin de Marcken, director of the Madagascar office of the United States Agency for International Development, the major foreign financier for such steps.
The Church of Jesus Christ in Madagascar has begun advising farmers in this area on better irrigation techniques and helping set up a village-run pharmacy. ``The main cause [of forest destruction] is the ignorance and the poverty of the rural farmers,'' says Ndranto Razakananarina, in charge of the church's environmental programs.
Marcellin's fields may be too steep to irrigate. He acknowledges terracing might slow erosion, but he says he has neither the tools nor time to build them.
And with the nearby forest reserve closed to them, they are forced to farm the same hilly land year after year.
``The harvest is getting smaller every year because the soil is getting poorer,'' Marcellin says.