WHEN primatologist Patricia Wright identified a rare species of lemur in Madagascar, she also found a threat to their future: slash-and-burn agriculture. So the Duke University professor sought help.She returned to the United States and took her case to a Duke colleague in environmental policy at the Durham, N. C., campus. They then turned to professors of soil science and forestry at nearby North Carolina State University here. Soon the group grew to include professors of population and public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Today this collaborative "seed" program among the three North Carolina universities is not only aiding Madagascar, it is also answering a worldwide trumpet call to help stop environmental deterioration. Duke, North Carolina State, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill together have launched The Center for World Environment and Sustainable Development. Its mission is to combat global environmental destruction: threatened species, deforestation, malnourished populations, eroding land, polluted air and water, and global change. The faculty-founded center emerges at a time when environmental consciousness has never been stronger: "It's the ripe time and the right time because of the awareness of the problem," says Pedro Sanchez, professor of soil science at North Carolina State and the center's initial director, during an interview in his office. More and more, people are realizing that environmental problems need to be addressed not just by conservation scientists, but also by political scientists, economists, sociologists, biologists, agronomists, public health experts, and others. With a healthy crop of such scientists, the center has mapped out three areas of concentration: * Tropical conservation and development. * Environmental problems in industrializing countries. * Worldwide environmental change. Madagascar, where one of the center's initial projects is under way, is an "extreme case of environmental degradation," Dr. Sanchez says. University scientists are working with the Malagasy government and people to preserve the Ranomafana National Park and help mend the tattered environment. With funding from the US Agency for International Development, research is being conducted in wildlife protection and park management, agroforestry as an alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture, and public health. "The greatest source of plant and animal diversity is in tropical forests, and also deforestation is contributing a good chunk to the greenhouse warming," explains Sanchez. "But you can't tell that farmer out there: 'Hey, don't slash and burn this forest because that's going to mess up biodiversity and increase the greenhouse effect, he says. Instead of prohibiting people from doing something, you have to consider the whole picture and give them "user friendly" alternatives, Sanchez says. "This is a nature-based development," says Isabel Valencia, executive officer for the center, who recently returned from Madagascar. Farmers are working with soil scientists to find ways to improve agriculture while preserving the park's natural-resource base. People who live around the park participate in its activities - serving as guides or selling crafts. Public-health scientists are looking at water quality and the health of the local population. THE universities find themselves in logical positions for teamwork. Located in North Carolina's Research Triangle, they have engaged in joint projects over the years. Even more important, the schools have complementary strengths. For example, the center will draw from the strengths of Duke for wildlife protection, conservation, biology, and environmental policy; NC State for agriculture and forestry; and UNC-Chapel Hill for public health, population studies, and policy. Says Sanchez: "Unlike other consortia, this one is not of 'like' disciplines." Faculty from these schools already conduct research at some 50 sites around the world. "It's almost as if we were planning this for the past 25 years," says Malcolm Gillis, dean of arts and sciences at Duke and chair of the board of trustees for the center. "We really do have more of the sort of talent that's required for such a thing than anywhere else in the world." Such collaboration is exemplary of a larger, "long overdue and welcome trend in higher education," says William Moomaw, director for the Center for Environmental Management at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Increasingly schools are reformulating education for global change, he adds. In addition to participation in the Madagascar project, members of the center are conducting solution-oriented research in various other tropical regions including Peru, Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Indonesia. Several have started to work on pollution problems in Eastern Europe. On the campuses, collaborative research and teaching will continue to benefit students and faculty, center members point out. A joint-course on conservation and sustainable development is already in its fourth year and very popular with students, who range from environmental lawyers to peanut breeders. "We're building on an institution that has been around a long time - an inter-university agreement which allows students to take courses at any of the three universities," says Richard Andrews, director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill and a member of the center's steering committee. "But it has always been rather a passive device in the past. Now we're using it actively, saying: 'Here is an area in which students can build a much stronger program through using the resources of all three universities. Initially, the three universities provided equal contributions to fund the center. According to trustees and faculty, future funding will be in the form of grants from government agencies in the United States and abroad, as well as from private foundations and organizations. When will they know their work is having an impact? "That's easy," answers Sanchez. With Madagascar, for example, it will be "when you see farmers that have their sustainable agriculture in place and national park developed. Most of all when the Malagasy are absolutely capable and they don't need our presence anymore. "Our goal is to work ourselves out of these jobs," he adds, "to empower the local people."