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Though environmentalists have riveted public attention on the loss of the Amazon rainforests, another Latin American ecosystem at least as diverse faces even greater threats, botanists concluded at a symposium late last month in New York City, Sunflowers that bloom at the foot of glaciers and others that grow into 20-foot-high trees form but a small part of the rambunctious biodiversity of the montane forests in the Andes.

Some 90 percent of these mountain forests have disappeared from the northern Andes, says James L. Luteyn, a botanist with the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). In comparison, developers have slashed and burned at most 20 percent of the Amazon rainforest, says Enrique Forero, director of the NYBG's Institute of Systematic Botany, Yet the public remains unaware of the dangers to the montane forest.

"The problem is that people only think of diversity in terms of trees," says Forero. And while many more tree species grow in the Amazon lowlands than in the mountains, the diversity of herbs, shrubs, epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants), and mosses increases with altitude, he adds. This diversity includes economically valuable plants. In fact, the Andes ranks as one of only 12 places worldwide where major food crops originated. Potatoes, lima beans, quinine, and some spices are among the plants first discovered in these mountains.

Humidity and elevation help explain the richness of the mountain flora. "As altitude changes, the climate changes and plants adapt," Forero says. In contrast to the relatively homogeneous Amazon basin, "unique species may live in narrow bands extending only 500 meters up a mountain slope," he says. Species proliferate in the cloud forests, located between the lowland Amazon and the alpine grasslands. Plants from these bordering ecosystems crossbreed in the cloud forests, creating new species, explains Fausto O. Sarmiento, a landscape ecologist at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Mountainous Peru, with over 25,000 plant species, typifies the region's diversity, The species richness includes wild relatives of crop plants, which form a valuable genetic pool for farming. Furthermore, local people employ 3,140 plant species in many aspects of life, including medicine, cosmetics, birth control, stimulants, and ornaments -- 33 different uses in all, reports Antonio Brack-Egg with the United Nations Development Program in Quito, Ecuador.

Many of these resources are rapidly vanishing. Unlike the Amazon rain, forests, the montane forests are extremely delicate, and pressures from the burgeoning population threaten what lit tie remains. Migration from rural areas to mountain cities has swelled over the last 30 years. Today, more than 70 million' people call the northern Andes home, making it the world's largest high-altitude population. People harvesting timber and clearing the way for roads, cattle, and crops are denuding the forests, Forero says.

Case studies of different countries point to specific problems, Sarmiento adds. "In Ecuador, the main problem is gold mining; in Costa Rica, cattle ranching; in Bolivia, coca for cocaine; and in Colombia, coca and poppies for opium," he says. In 1992, Colombian drug dealers converted 11,000 hectares of pristine montane forest to poppy fields, reports biologist Jaime Cavelier of the University of the Andes in Bogota, Colombia.

No quick fix exists for the forests. The symposium, which brought together 120 scientists, 60 of them Latin American, discussed conservation efforts. These include biological inventories to determine the most threatened areas, ecological restoration, and on- and off-site conservation. Sarmiento argues that solutions must encompass "population policies, redistribution of wealth in the Andean countries, and international cooperation."
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Title Annotation:montane forests in the Andes
Author:Wuethrich, Bernice
Publication:Science News
Date:Jul 10, 1993
Words:581
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