As twilight slipped into New Delhi, hundreds of small wood fires flickered into life. The city's homeless families were spreading out their mats and sacking and preparing their evening meal at the side of a busy road.
In the rapidly advancing darkness, scores of Indian women, bangles jangling on their thin arms, broke into a run because of the late hour, even though their heads were stacked with piles of firewood.
Every day, throughout India and the rest of Asia as well as Africa and Latin America, women ransack the countryside to find enough firewood to cook their evening meals and keep their families warm.
But as vegetation gets scarcer, they must set out earlier and travel farther to find their wood, the principal source of fuel for up to 90 percent of the developing world.
While energy comes as instantaneously as the flick of a switch in the Western world, the women of the Ivory Coast in West Africa spend four to six hours, three days a week, scouring the countryside to find fuel, according to Worldwatch Institute, an organization that focuses on global problems.
In Haiti, it is almost not worth the struggle. Between 1950 and 1980, as much as 90 percent of all forests in Haiti were cut down to provide shelter or fuel. According to the Pan-American Development Foundation, trees cover only 8 percent of all the land.
A World Bank official reports that the fuel-wood shortage is so acute in the mountainous Himalayan kingdom of Nepal that children miss three days of school a week because they have to hunt for firewood.
But the problem of deforestation is not peculiar to these three countries.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that half the world's forests have disappeared since 1950. FAO says Latin America has lost 37 percent of its tropical forests, Central America 66 percent, Southeast Asia 38 percent, and Central Africa 52 percent.
Trees are being felled at such a rate that Cultural Survival, an organization of social scientists, predicts that if present trends continue, by the year 2000 only two giant forests will remain: one in western Brazil, the other in Central Africa. Some biologists think it more accurate to say that by the turn of the century there will be hardly any undisturbed forest left.
The World Bank has redoubled its reforestation efforts in recent years and now has some 48 ongoing reforestation and forestry-related projects around the world.
But sources within the bank feel replenishment is taking place at only 20 percent of the rate that it should be. Environmentalists and world institutions blamed the slow pace on lack of motivation in host countries, rather than on inadequate funding. Schools, dams, bridges, and roads seem more attractive and provide a faster return than the more time-consuming business of planting trees.
Coming to grips with deforestation
Dr. Jay Savage, chairman of the biology department at the University of Miami , recently served as chairman of a National Academy of Sciences/Natural Research Council committee studying the impact of economic development on the rain forests of Central America. He says of reforestation efforts: ''We're slipping behind all the time. It's a pretty pessimistic outlook.''
At the same time, there are isolated, yet conspicuous examples - in China, South Korea, and India - where strong community involvement has resulted in the greening of tree-denuded landscapes - often with trees that are faster-growing and more commercially productive than those that had been felled.
A recent survey of some 2,700 rural households in Malawi in Africa, conducted by the Malawi government in conjunction with an FAO/World Bank joint project, revealed that 39 percent of those households had voluntarily planted trees because of the scarcity of trees and the rising prices of fuel wood.
A World Bank official indicated, however, that Malawi's experience was more the exception than the rule. In his view, the problem of deforestation had to be viewed in the context of two different climactic zones:
1. The tropical high forests or jungles of such lush areas as the Amazon, Central America, West and Central Africa, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The scare raised a few years ago - that at the present rate the world may lose practically all its forest cover by the year 2000 - is now seen to be unnecessarily alarmist.
But at the same time, the World Bank spokesman was careful not to minimize the problem. The felling of forests, he said, ''is a serious situation'' and ''is still going on at an alarming rate.''
The Global 2000 Report to the President, a special environmental report prepared for the Carter administration, termed deforestation the most serious environmental problem confronting the globe. The report said that at the present rate, the developing world would lose up to 40 percent of its forests by the turn of the century.
2. Wooded areas outside the tropics. These areas include Nepal, Bangladesh, and India as well as such arid regions of Africa as the Sahel and the Horn. The World Bank official called the fuel-wood situation in these nontropical forest areas ''terribly serious.'' He added, ''In some places it is reaching crisis proportions.''
The problem is especially acute for the urban poor who do not have access to the countryside. They pay as much as 30 percent of their meager incomes on fuel.
Not all the trees are felled for firewood. Poor countries, hungry for foreign exchange, export tropical hardwoods to the industrialized West. The FAO reports that exports of tropical hardwoods went up nearly 15-fold between 1950 and 1980.
And as stands of trees fall to logging companies, new settlers move in and speed the deforestation process. Many of these areas are cleared of their trees to provide new pastureland for herds of cattle. North America's appetite for hamburgers means that more and more forests are being converted to grazing to meet the growing demands of fast-food outlets for cheap beef. But these lands soon become overgrazed and unproductive. The demand, then, is to chop down still more forests to provide more grazing land.
Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and a world authority on the ecology of rain forests, says it is the population explosion that makes the problem of deforestation so daunting.
Dr. Raven, who has served as chairman of the National Research Council's committee on research priorities in tropical biology, points out that with the world population doubling every 39 years, the pressure on the land right now is ''absolutely unprecedented.''
The population overload is most graphically represented in the world's tropical-forest regions, where as much as 52 percent of the world's population is settled. That percentage is expected to rise to 60 percent by the year 2000. Currently 2.4 billion people, one-third of them living in absolute poverty, inhabit these tropical regions.
Dr. Raven says demographics are a critical factor in the deforestation equation: ''If there are too many people in a given area,'' he says, ''forests cannot recover.''
The crush of expanding populations often impels governments to carve out new human settlements in previously forested areas. Narinder Aggarwala, regional information officer for Asia and the Pacific for the UN Development Fund, was recently in Indonesia. He cites the case of Rimbo Bujang, West Sumatra.
Rimbo Bujang, he says, was wild country 15 years ago. ''Tropical hardwood forests shrouded this equatorial region. It was inhabited only by tigers, wild boars, and kubus, primitive tribesmen, living off berries and hunting with bows and arrows.''
Today it is home to 50,000 people. It is one of a series of communities set up by the Indonesian government, which has embarked on one of the world's largest transmigration programs. Millions of Indonesians have moved to the outer islands of their archipelago as a result of the massive population dispersal program.
After initial agricultural successes, productivity in the West Sumatran settlement of Rimbo Bujang is down. Mr. Aggarwala, citing conservation experts, says the deterioration is due to erosion, leaching, and deforestation - ''all attributable directly to the massive, organized human intrusion in hitherto uninhabited regions.'' Expanding deserts
While forests are declining, deserts are expanding. Deforestation, overgrazing, and overplowing mean desert-like conditions are spreading in Africa , the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, and northwest India. The Sahara Desert is advancing not only southward, but also northward. The encroaching desert is pushing the peoples of North Africa, once the granary of the Roman Empire, against the Mediterranean Sea.
Because desertification is viewed by environmentalists as largely a man-made process, the solution requires human adjustments.
A UN official involved in combatting desertification in the Sudano-Sahelian region of Africa says: ''You can't tell people to stop grazing. They need to do this for their survival. You have to give them other economic activities which would pose less pressure on the land.''
In Senegal and Gambia, where peanuts are the main export, leftover peanut shells are converted to charcoal as a way of relieving the energy crisis. African states are being encouraged to grow such drought resistant vegetation as Acacia senegal, which not only produces gum arabic, an exportable commodity, but also provides fodder and wood and enriches the soil with nitrogen.
Interest has also been aroused in another drought resistant crop, Jojoba (pronounced ho-HO-ba), which produces a very fine oil that rivals that of the sperm whale. It can also be used for pharmaceuticals, in shampoo and hair conditioners, and in wax paper. Although the crop has commercial possibilities, it hasn't yet taken off.
Another solution, encouraging the use of more efficient wood stoves, has not made a big impact on villagers. Either money runs out soon after an experimental project ends, or cooking habits in the world's developing villages die hard.
But at least in China and South Korea - countries with vastly different political systems - Johnny Appleseeds are working with alacrity to replace trees as fast as they fall. Both countries are cited as major success stories in reforestation.
According to the environmental organization Earthscan, China has been able to double its forested area in just 30 years - ''a phenomenal afforestation rate of 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) a year.'' China's success story
In just two seasons of one of the world's most prodigious tree-growing programs, 700,000 farmers in northwest China established a 930-mile-long, 40 -foot-wide shelterbelt of trees to screen crops, land, and livestock from hot, drying winds. Despite this conspicuous success, deforestation remains a serious problem in China.
By involving villagers, South Korea has been planting 40,000 hectares (100, 000 acres) a year, or three-quarters of China's rate on a per-capita basis.
Elsewhere, there is a growing recognition that the felling of trees can set off a chain reaction of incalculable harm. Forests act like sponges, retaining moisture during periods of drought and absorbing water during floods. Remove the forest cover and the runoff increases dramatically. Sediment that is washed down deforested hillsides fills dams and rivers, causing them to silt up, overflow, and flood the neighboring countryside.
According to Lester Anderson of Cultural Survival, the flood plains of India are expanding precisely because the destruction of trees high up on the mountainsides of Nepal increases runoff in the plains below. In 1979, India suffered $2 billion in property damage and lost hundreds of lives in the Ganges Valley because of deforestation in northern India and Nepal.
In a recent publication, ''Deforestation: The Human Costs,'' Cultural Survival put the responsibility for the rescue effort squarely on the third world.
''Until the majority of the population in the third world begins to see the connection between their own future and healthy forests, and acts either to protect or replant it,'' he says, ''massive deforestation will continue, and only dangers will grow in the place of trees.''