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Seed Bank Saves Native-American Past

IT began when Tohono O'odham Indian gardeners were offered free seeds for crops like broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Thanks, they said. But they would prefer seeds for the crops their ancestors grew: brown beans, white-kerneled 60-day corn, orange-fleshed squash, casaba-like melons.

So archaeologist Barney Burns and botanist-author Gary Nabhan set to work planting seeds and grasping the past. Eleven years later, they have a regional seed bank for edible crops and other plants of cultural importance to more than 40 Indian tribes in Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. The bank shipped 30,000 packets of seeds last year. Some 2,700 were given free to Indians, while others paid $1.50 per envelope.

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Edible crops include amaranth, corn in scores of colors and sizes, dozens of types of beans, watermelons, and lentils. Nonedible plants include gourds and devil's claw, used in basketry.

The cultural heritage represented by such crops is essential to traditional Indians, says Angelo Joaquin Jr., executive director of Native Seeds-SEARCH, the seed bank in Tucson, Ariz. ''When a seed becomes extinct,'' says Mr. Joaquin, a Tohono O'odham, ''you've lost not only the piece of life but the songs, traditions, and ceremonies attached to it.''

Today, the nonprofit organization has seeds of some 1,300 varieties of plants representing more than 50 species.

Conference on global warming begins

SOME 160 countries will gather today in Berlin for a United Nations conference to find ways to stop the warming of the Earth's atmosphere. Even before the $16 million event begins, the meager sum of measures taken so far and wrangling over the cost of action and how to share the load between rich and poor countries mean that hopes for progress are slim.

The 11-day event, technically the First Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, brings together the states which, at the 1992 ''Earth summit'' in Rio de Janeiro, pledged to tackle the problem of global warming.

Industrial states vowed to cut emissions of so-called ''greenhouse gases'' to 1990 levels by the year 2000. The chief aim of the Berlin conference is to review progress toward this end, try to set goals into the next century, and include commitments from developing countries.

''Environmental destruction and climate change know no borders,'' says German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel. ''We can together ensure this planet continues to be worth living on, or individually help to make it uninhabitable.''

Elephant seals multiply and mystify

ELEPHANT seals, the two-ton bellowing giants of the seal family, have rebounded from near-extinction and are turning marine biology upside down. Data from sophisticated new instruments has revealed that elephant seals can descend a mile below the ocean surface, beating the sperm whale for the sea mammal deep-diving record.

Even more surprising, they spend only two hours out of every 24 on the surface while foraging at sea, violating all known theories about oxygen use, says Burney Le Boeuf, a University of California at Santa Cruz scientist and one of the world's leading experts on the animals. ''There are a lot of paradoxes,'' Mr. Le Boeuf says. ''Elephant seals really threw a monkey wrench into what we understood of diving biology.''

The animals almost didn't survive. The elephant seal, named after the male's trunk-like proboscis and a bulk that can reach 5,000 pounds, was pronounced extinct several times at the turn of the century because of overhunting. In 1922, the Mexican government sent troops to protect the last known herd, discovered on the Isla de Guadelupe off Baja California. With Mexican and, later, United States protection, the animals spread up the coast. Rookeries now exist as far north as Oregon. Le Boeuf says the population, estimated at 120,000, grows by 8 percent a year.

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