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Saving Central America's disappearing conifers.

We have finally begun to study these richly promising trees at the very moment many approach extinction. The "last-stand" rescue effort is gaining momentum and support.

Mayans of Guatemala believe that the last great chief to fall to the swords and Aztec troops of Conquistador Pedro Alvarado was Tecun Uman. In 1953, 425 years later, Dr. Fritz Schwerdtfeger, studying Guatemala's forest insects, found a tree with a stature that could carry Tecun Uman's name. It is a pine that grows up to 180 feet tall and has no branches for almost 90 feet. Even as science recognized Pinus tecunumanii it was disappearing. So were many other almost unstudied conifers in Central America.

Tecunumanii and the other disappearing trees have fallen victim to three forces: the expansion of ranches and farms, short-sighted logging, and desperately poor people who must be short-sighted to survive. For the poor, conservation is at best a rich man's luxury. At worst it is another form of oppression that excludes them from yet one more source of wealth and well-being.

While world attention fixes on rainforests teeming with exotic animals, the most nearly complete destruction of Central American trees has taken place among the once vast pine forests of the highlands.

Most outsiders think of Central America as dominated by jungle and rainforest, so pine and fir seem out of place and unimportant. Mexico and Central America, however, are still home to more than twice as many species and varieties of conifers as exist in the continental United States. Used intelligently, these Latin conifers could yield varieties to reforest eroded hills and worn-out cropland. Many promise to be faster growers than the species tropical foresters rely on today. In short, Central America's trees could be the beginning of a third coniferous forest, in Central America and throughout the tropics and semi-tropics. Late but lucky, we have begun to study them seriously at the very moment many approach extinction.

The balmy highland climate of Central America is hospitable to people, livestock, and farm crops. But neither people nor agriculture have been hospitable to trees. From the air, the hills and mountains that have not been cleared for pasture and crops look densely forested. On the ground one usually finds little more than scrub and brush punctuated by spindly saplings.

Several conifers have been so decimated that it is no longer a question of preserving a forest or even a small stand. It is a race against the farmer, logger, and peasant to snatch the borings, resin samples, seeds, and cuttings necessary to understand what we're losing and to establish the trees in new areas.

The rescue effort got off to a small but promising start in the late 1970s when two foresters traveling through Guatemala grew alarmed at the stripped mountainsides and plateaus. Carl Gallegos, now with the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), was then a research forester for International Paper. His companion, Dr. Bruce Zobel, is now professor emeritus of forestry at North Caroline State University (NCSU). While still in Guatemala they discussed their concern with Wilhelm Mittack, a forester working for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and living in Guatemala.

Zobel proposed that they might adapt a program that had worked to improve pine species int he southeastern U.S. By May of 1980 they had the initial members of a cooperative dedicated to conserving the genetic resources in the region's coniferous forests. The first members were Aracruz Forestal of Brazil, Cartt'n de Colombia, International Paper Company, and Weyerhaeuser Company. A catalyst for the first seed collections was activated when Guatemala's forest service, INAFOR, became the first government member.

Given intergovernmental rivalries, constantly changing politics, and the complexity of government-industry relations, the foresters knew they needed a neutral base. They brought their idea to Erick Ellwood, Dean of NCSU's College of Forest Resources, and Dr. Art Cooper, chairman of the Department of Forestry.

Cooper, a plain-talking, rugged former football player, likes game plans that have an elegant simplicity and promise good yardage. He still gets excited remembering when he first heard of the idea for CAMCORE - Central America and Mexico Coniferous Resource Cooperative. "The idea was to go out before the species got totally decimated," Cooper says," and collect seeds from superior individuals, then preserve those genotypes in plantings at the locations of various government or private entities in different Latin American countries."

For people who see Central America as a place of chaos, vast corruption, military coups, revolution, and buses falling off cliffs, such long-term plans might seem impossible. Taking ideas that had worked in affluent America - with its huge wood-products industry - to impoverished Central America would not be easy. But Cooper knew that if anybody could do it, his people could.

Of CAMCORE's first field director, graduate student Bill Dvorak, Cooper says he has had "probably the toughest assignment of any member of our faculty. A number of times he has spent a month or more out in the field in Central America collecting the seed of these pines."

Dvorak served eight years as CAMCORE's director before taking leave in January 1988 to finish his Ph.D. During those eight years he was traveling most of the year. At times Dvorak and CAMCORE workers had to hack their way through miles of jungle to get a handful of seeds. In the dry forests their work was limited by the amount of water they could pack in. Dvorak and a fellow worker were once dragged down a Honduran mountain behind a mule running away with their seed samples.

Dvorak set up CAMCORE's first office in Guatemala City and learned quickly how to shape its program to Central American and Mexican realities. Dvorak says most people "had always talked about gene conservation being the onus of large government organizations. So here the approach was to let industry take the lead, build a nucleus of core support, and, as the program grows, attract outside support from government agencies." It worked.

CAMCORE began by selecting two endangerd species, Pinus tecunumanii and Pinus oocarpa. Like tecunumanii, oocarpa had been under heavy assault wherever it was accessible in eastern Guatemala and Belize. Oocarpa not only grows straight and tall, but its resinsaturated wood is prized by campesinos (native people) for torches, firewood, lamps, and a ceremonial incense that burns with an almost palpable smoke.

Working with INAFOR and local guides, Dvorak began combing Guatemala's rugged eastern mountains for the cones of tecunumanii. In neighboring Belize's lower but equally difficult Mountain Pine Ridge, CAMCORE collected oocarpa cones from trees with particularly straight stems. Each tree that yielded cones was assigned a pedigree number. When its seeds were planted by CAMCORE members in other countries, that number would allow its traits to be traced in all its offspring. Each member received wood samples and the results of tests on fiber and chemical extracts. By the end of CAMCORE's first full year, members had established some 48 acres of conservation plantings and 100 acres for research studies.

To participate in CAMCORE, members must agree to plant the seeds they receive, to conduct genetic testing according to CAMCORE standards, and to share the results and the newly grown materials with other members.

Dvorak says CAMCORE's approach to gene conservation is different from many others because it does not start with commercial motives. Preservation comes first but may be made much easier by later discoveries of economic values. Dvorak says, "What we're finding is that if you take an endangered species and find some economic value for it, you're going to find that it's extremely easy to preserve." This approach makes even the rarest trees worth studying.

As CAMCORE began to discover new stands of rare trees and collect cones from more species, it attracted new members. Today its 12 active members come from Brazil, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Colombia, and the Republic of South Africa. Government agencies from Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras are honorary members providing regional offices, staff, and field help. Contributing members who apply funds but do not participate actively in research and tree breeding include Mondi Pape Co., Ltd. of South Africa and Weyerhaeuser.

During its eight years of operation CAMCORE has collected seed from nearly 5,000 mother trees in 175 locations in Central America and Mexico. Jeff Donahue, the first field director for Mexico, extended CAMCORE's reach hundreds of miles north from its beginnings near the Guatemalan border. CAMCORE plantings are spread from Honduras and Mexico to Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, and South Africa. Twenty species are now growing in the preservation bank plots of CAMCORE members. The first plantations of tecunumanii have grown as high as 30 feet. Three-year-old plantations of Caribbean and Chiapan pines have grown five to 10 feet a year in their new homes. Some of the plantations have been producing cones for two years.

As these new plantations begin to bear seed, some of the Guatemala stands where the parent trees grew have since been cut down. The disappearances of trees that so alarmed Gallegos and Zobel in the late '70s are not as disturbing to Dvorak. With CAMCORE's protected plantations growing wells, he hopes the most important genetic traits have been saved. One day he hopes someone will be able "to take the seed and recreate that same stand back in Guatemala."

CAMCORE counts among its most important rescues an effort to save the nearly extinct Guatemalan fir, Abies guatemalensis. This fir of southern Mexico and Guatemala suffers from its own versatility. The Mayans in those mountains like to use the soft wood to make crude furniture or to burn down into charcoal. During the Christmas season they lop off branches and sell them in city markets as Christmas trees.

Pinus tenucumanii, another success story, may succeed in reconquering parts in Central America lost by the Mayan chief whose name it bears. Only three years into the program for this species, Dvorak says that "private industry and government agencies realized that this tecunumanii was growing better than what they were using commercially. We believe Pinus tecunumanii is 20 percent more productive than what they were using before. This is before any type of tree improvement."

Both industry and other governments have come to Central America to obtain seed from populations being tested by CAMCORE. Dvorak expects CAMCORE's plantations to be providing orchard seed in six to seven years. In 1989 CAMCORE will begin its second phase, using genetic material that members have generated as a base for breeding superior trees.

What has worked for pines, Dvorak feels, should also work for hardwoods. A new grant from the USAID, an early CAMCORE supporter, has launched the cooperative on its first efforts to save topical hardwood species. The first subjects are in the dry to moist areas where tropical dry forests have been extensively cleared for pasture. But there is no reason, Dvorak says, the work couldn't be expanded to rainforests if funds and personnel were available.

Contrary to the prophecies of skeptics, CAMCORE has survived Central America's volatile politics and social divisions. "The reason we've been so effective," Dvorak says, "is that we've really had tremendous local support."

Governments have indeed changed many times in Honduras, Mexico, and Guatemala. So have the top ranks of their forest services Each time, Dvorak says, CAMCORE's position "gets stronger and stronger because we've been kind of a stabilizing link. We're asked to stay. I would like to think it's because we treat the people very fairly." Dvorak as director and Donahue as Mexican field director have been anything but arrogant Gringos. They speak good Spanish and have developed close ties with both their laborers and professional colleagues. CAMCORE's annual report is published in both Spanish and English.

Poor countries of the world have good reasons to be suspicious of outsiders who take an interest in their genetic resources. Cary Fowler, who works with the Rural Advancement Fund's effort to save endangered food plants, says that with biotechnology becoming big business and huge corporations wanting to patent new varieties of plants and animals, these countries "are beginning to see the value of their genetic resources." Some of them have already seen giant seed companies take away material developed over centuries by a country's peasant farmers. A year or two later the company may patent the very same species or a similar new variety. Ethiopia, a country Fowler says is "one of the richest in the world for genetic resources," has made it a crime to take certain genetically important plants out of the country. India is hoarding its black pepper varieties.

CAMCORE's rules provide that the country where seed is collected must receive not only the full complement of its own seed, but also any material collected by CAMCORE programs in other countries or developed in CAMCORE conservation and breeding programs. "Guatemalans get all the seeds we collect there," Dvorak says. "Not only that, they get Pinus oocarpa from Honduras and Mexico. That arrangement broadens the species' genetic base."

CAMCORE not only sees that every member receives the full benefit of its collections, but it is returning some resources that were taken away a century ago. Dvorak says, "We are taking material-say, from South Africa, where they received material from Central America at the turn of the century - and now taking seed from their advanced generations of Mexican pines and having them replanted back in Mexico." Similar returns have been made to Central America from southern Brazil and northern Argentina's pine areas.

Art Cooper says, "We've made a real effort not to view this just an an American program thrust upon others." Its regional field offices are now run by nationals, and many of its workers have come to North Carolina State University in Raleigh for further study.

The result has been an unusual spirit of cooperation between Latin countries and the northern colossus often blamed for many of their problems. In return Dvorak and Jeff Donahue, who has just returned from five years as Mexican field director, have developed great admiration for their Latin colleagues and employees. "Hard-working people who wants to do a good job - that describes the people we work with," says Donahue.

Once asked what seed collecting in Central America was like, Dvorak replied, "Have you ever slept in a woodcutter's cabin, jail house, wood drying hut, or a chicken coop? Have you ever barely missed stepping on a poisonous snake, only to be nearly bitten by a scorpion? Have you ever walked knee-deep in mud through rain and fog for hours, trying to locate a stand of trees that the local guide claims - once again - is just over the hill?"

The result of this hard work is that in the future it will indeed be easier to find a stand of once-rare conifers just over the hill. But it will no longer be the last stand.

Guatemala Forests in Transition

Last June Guatemala's first freely elected civilian president in 30 years, Vinicio Cerezo, dismissed the entire Guatemalan forest service, The National Institute of Forestry (INAFOR).

One of the nation's two major conservative papers documented charges of corruption against INAFOR by quoting Rigoberta Menchu, a Mayan peasant radical. In her autobiography, she tells how her impoverished people had to pay INAFOR inspectors outrageous bribes to cut trees on their own lands. The same corruption drained the resources and patience of sawmill owners.

Despite statutes requiring reforestation and a strong tree-planting program from the Peace Corps, Guatemala has been steadily losing its forests. In June a group of mayors from rural areas issued a statement saying that INAFOR's corrupt policies had turned the western mountains "into a virtual desert."

Once mountainsides are cleared of trees, peasant farmers begin cultivation, desperately trying to sustain their growing numbers. Inthe rugged Cuchumatanes Mountains, 52-year-old Antonio Herrera said that when he was a young man, members of his Indian community would cultivate mountainside parcels in alternate years. Now, he says, there are too many people. Every mountainside is cultivated year-round.

The resulting erosion has silted Guatemala's once-clear mountain lakes, decreasing income from both tourism and fishing. Even more serious is the clogging of rivers that energy-poor Guatemala relies on for hydroelectric power.

President Cerezo has replaced INAFOR with a new agency, the General Directorate of Forests and Forest Life. Its mission is to shape a national policy for reforestation and sustainable timber yields. Many former INAFOR employees have launched demonstrations, hoping to get their jobs back. The president has promised only that the new agency will bring back the nation's forests.
COPYRIGHT 1989 American Forests
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Kaufman, Wallace
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1989
Words:2755
Previous Article:Report on our stressed-out forests.
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