Overexploited and attacked by pollution, the forests and woodlands that cover one-third of the earth's surface are disappearing at an alarming rate. Their destruction -- and the break in the natural cycle of forest regeneration this represents -- increases the possibility of drought or flash floods.
Tropical forests, a great natural resource for developing countries, are disappearing at the rate of 11.3 million hectares a year. Causes include road building, clearing land for cultivation, gathering firewood, and accidental fires.
These are some of the issues that emerged from a world forestry seminar held last week by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN agency for third-world development based here.
Many FAO projects give priority to conservation and development of forests, especially in areas of rural poverty where small landowners and landless peasants rely on wood as the main source of energy. In some areas, development of wood-fueled industries has reached high levels of sophistication. In La Cruz, Brazil, paper factories run on eucalyptus wood, and steel smelters on charcoal. Philippines' electrical plants use wood.
But for many families in developing nations, the supply of cooking and heating fuel has been nearly exhausted.
An FAO survey estimates that, worldwide, some 2 billion people rely on wood for home energy. Most of these people live at survival level. About 64 percent of them are in Asia, where the wood fuel shortage is most acute.
``How can you persuade people who are living barely at subsistence level that they cannnot cut down trees for tomorrow's cooking fire?'' asks an FAO forestry expert.
FAO's answer, which is by necessity a long-term one -- even a fast- growing tree takes a few years to reach maturity -- is to involve local people in development programs so they, and not central governments, reap the benefits.
Governments, too, are realizing the importance of the cooperation of local people. In Nepal, forests are managed by local communities, not the central government, although that government provides training and supplies seeds. In Peru village forest committees have been set up to oversee the planting of trees and monitor woodcutting.