Dark, steamy rain forests: unmanaged treasures

The hot, humid forests of the Amazon and Africa, crawling with life, packed with plants, the soils fertile with "at least 40 percent of Eart's 5 to 10 million species," were well represented in a conference room in Nairobi last week.

Some 80 scientists and tree experts who study the world's tropical forests -- representatives from Mexico to thailand -- were here to deplore the unplanned exploitation of forests and to suggest a program for their development and protection.

The host for this unusual "meeting of experts on tropical forests" was the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

And some surprising facts about jungle areas were revelead:

Plant productivity from forests surpasses that of any other natural ecosystem and accounts for as much as one- third of all terrestrial plant growth throughout the world each year, Dr. Mustapha Tolba, head of the UNEP, said in opening remakrs.

Yet he pointed out, "We know more about certain sectors of the moon's surface than about remote tracts of [these] forests." Jungles are the world's least-investigated areas of plant life, Dr. Tolba said.

The promise of forests, he said, is their tremendous stores of genetic resources and germ plams, which have agricultural, medical, and industrial uses -- stores that can be of great benefit to third-world countries, which, generally, have larger tracts of forests than developed nations.

Third-world governments, however, have long considered forests to be obstacles to development, Dr. Tolba noted. Forestry department operations in these countries have been overshadowed by other, more powerful government bureaucracies. They are short of funds, short of professional personnel, and, above all, short of "political prominence," he said.

Intelligent development of forests to fulfill their promise for mankind is "a major challenge of the future," Dr. tolba said.

The conference called for immediate worldwide recognition of the importance of tropical forests; greatly expanded surveys, especially through "remote sensing" techniques; more research to devise ways to use forest ecosystems to their best advantage; application of agroforestry; and protection of at least 10 percent of the forests to safeguard the majority of species.

But the scientists emphasized that the major problems to better forestry management are socioeconomic. The majority of populations of the humid tropics are rural. People are moving from urban areas into forest areas. Mass campaigns of public education about more reponsible attitudes to the forests are essential, scientists said.

Warning of imminent dangers in haphazard forestry management, Dr. Tolba added that recent data shows actual forest cover is being wiped out in amounts equal to 50,000 square kilometers a year.

"Due to deforestation in the Himalayan foothills," he noted, "the annual cost of flood damage in India alone ranges between $150 million and $750 million -- the cost of the forestry practices of the past."

There have been encouraging discoveries from new research in jungle areas, and these also were reported at the conference.

Over the last few months, Dr. Tolba said, there have been reported that a tree deep in the heart of the Amazon rain forests has a fruit containing several useful industrial materials. One of the materials is so akin to hydrocarbons that it could serve as a substitute for diesel oil.

Another positive development, Dr. Tolba said, is the increased consumption of the "winged bean," which is finally catching hold outside of Southeast Asia. This year, the protein-rich vegetable is being grown in 50 countries throughout the tropics.

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