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Pressures on Central American forests.

In recent decades, Central America's population has been growing as fast as Africa's, according to James D. Nations, research director of the Center for Human Ecology in Austin, Texas. At current rates, the region's population will double within 24 years. And that portends further ecological destruction in this area, Nations says, because "population expansion is most rapid in low-lying tropical forest regions, where soils are generally poor in quality and where most of the region's remaining forest resources are located." While reducing population growth must be a long-term goal, Nations believes that this, in itself, won't be sufficient to save the region's remaining trees. Existing populations are already large enough, he says, to easily wipe out Central America's remaining tropical forests. And over the next 30 to 50 years they will, he says, unless they are given political and economic incentives to reduce further forest exploitation.

One short-term step to conserve the remaining forests, he says, is to create more and larger national parks, wildlife reserves is the only certain way we have of knowing that there will still be something left to conserve in this region 30 years from now," he says. But even the parks and reserves will not survive if the long-term pressures contributing to deforestation are allowed to continued, he maintains.

One of the most important of these pressures "continues to be the expansion of the beef cattle industry in tropical low-lands," says Nations. Since U.S. consumers, and their pets eat 25 percent of all beef produced in Central America, Nations believes that they can and should take some of the responsibility for the continuing deforestation there. Knowing the country of origin of the meat they eat and avoiding purchases of meat from areas where cattle raising threatens forests might be a first step, he says. (At present, it's difficult, if not impossible, for individuals to obtain that information.) "An even more important step," he says, "is to maintain pressure on the multi-lateral development banks [like the World Bank] and commercial banks to stop subsidizing the region's beef cattle industry."

Another important deforestation pressure -- perhaps the most serious, Nations says -- is the slash-and-burn practice of peasant farm families who migrate into forests (generally illegally, many as economic refugees) on newly bulldozed roads. Since these people rarely get agricultural extension services and the financial support they would need to farm these soils continuously, weeds, pests and soil erosion force them to periodically clear more forest. By mid-1985, an estimated 16 million peasants were attempting to farm tropical forests in Central America and southeast Mexico. And every year, their numbers grow. This pressure can only be alleviated, Nations says, by developing methods for increasing farm yields with techniques that do not further degrade these already poor soils.
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Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Jan 4, 1986
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