WORD that 50 nations have adopted a treaty mandating wise use of world timber resources is evidence of long-hoped-for progress in conserving and sustaining this basic commodity.
Destructive timber-harvesting practices have persisted despite the fact that conservationists worldwide have for years preached a sustainable-development doctrine.
The new four-year treaty, succeeding the 1983 International Tropical Timber Agreement (ITTA), is to take effect in February 1995 under the auspices of the United Nations conference on Trade and Development. Participating are 23 wood-producing countries and 27 consumer nations.
UN figures indicate there now is a tropical timber resource worth $7.5 billion per year and a world resource of $85 billion a year. UN studies also show that as much forest has been lost in the last 20 years as was used in all previous history.
Now many developing countries have pledged to take steps to sustain their forests, with help.
Japan, which imports more timber than any other country - 15 million cubic meters a year - is being asked to accept extra responsibility for providing financial aid to developing nations, which are sorely tempted to fell their forests to raise the money to meet other needs. Northern Hemisphere nations have pledged to adopt ``appropriate guidelines and criteria for sustained management of their forests and make appropriate resources available to developing countries.'' Many environmentalists are unhappy with facets of the plan, particularly the negotiators' failure to include temperate-zone forests in the agreement; they see compromise as a facade covering up ``lack of political will to face problems of deforestation.''
Former President Jimmy Carter, who has taken a leading role in this debate, says the developing nations ``see ITTA's current tropical focus as a kind of double standard widely condemned at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro - those which require developing countries to abide by standards they [the developed nations] are unwilling to accept themselves.''
None of the treaty's provisions will be easy to implement. But global action is needed. While temperate-zone forests also should have been covered in the agreement, the pact represents a major effort to protect tropical forests and the vital habitats they support.