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Problems & progress in tropical forests.

Despite worldwide concern, tropical forests continue to disappear at alarming rates -the latest studies estimate that 50 million acres a year are lost.

Turn to any tropical country and you are likely to uncover reasons for this crisis:

* struggling economies desperate for the foreign currency that timber can provide growing

* populations starved for fuelwood and land for crops and livestock;

* shortsighted loggers greedily and often illegally grabbing all the logs they can, sometimes with the blessings of corrupt government officials.

Fortunately, thousands of scientists, nonprofit groups, foundations, and governments continue to invest in projects that just may make a difference. Some of them focus on finding ways for campesinos to support their families with a minimum of damage to the forest. Other efforts concentrate on improving forest management, with an emphasis on reforestation.

The following assessment of the current rainforest situation and controversies in a dozen tropical countries will leave the impression that a few encouraging signs are appearing, but the battle to save tropical forests is far from over.


At present, Ecuador depends on the export of petroleum for 70 percent of its income, but this South American nation needs to develop new oil fields if this is to continue. One prime site, unfortunately, is in Yasuni National Park, designed to safeguard what some botanists claim is the most biologically diverse rainforest on earth. Also at risk is the Huaorani Indigenous Reserve, adjacent to the park. Conoco is eager to drill in Yasuni and Huaorani, and the oil company claims that new techniques will minimize environmental damage.

At risk are more than 4,000 species of flowering plants, 600 species of birds, 500 species of fish, and 120 species of mammals.

Drilling in Ecuador's Amazonian rainforest is nothing new. The roads to the drilling sites open the forest to colonists in search of farmland, and Ecuador loses its forest at a rate of 2.3 percent a year, the highest rainforest loss in South America.

Conoco has drawn up elaborate plans to turn its drill sites into what the company insists would be an environmental showcase.' The plans would forbid Conoco workers from hunting or fishing within the Huaorani reserve or trading with the Huaorani tribe.

Perhaps Conoco's most persuasive argument is that the Ecuadorian government will certainly permit oil exploration in the park, and if Conoco gives up itS leases, another company with far less concern for the environment will undoubtedly buy them, This reasoning hasn't sapped the resolve of conservationists, however, and an Ecuadorian group called Amazonia Por La Vida (Amazon for Life) has led an aggressive protest. The group insists that the national park and reserve are far too precious to risk, no matter how carefu] Conoco is. History supports their skepticism. Since 1982, about 17 million gallons of oil have spilled in the Ecuadorian Amazon.


Until recently, realtors were beginning to envision suburban condos along the Panama Canal. But then Panama's former natural-resource minister Stanley Heckadon stopped them cold when he succeeded in adding 15,000 acres of forested land on the canal's east bank to bordering Soberania National Park.

How did Heckadon win over Panamanian legislators, who are desperately seeking cash to restart the country's floundering economy? He used an argument that has saved other tropical forests: the need for clean drinking water.

Soberania National Park is just 30 minutes outside Panama City, and its 54,000 acres protect five major watersheds that provide drinking water to more than a third of the population of this Central American country. Demand for clean water has also preserved a national park in nearby Honduras. Nearly half of the water that slakes the thirst of Tegucigalpa, the dry, dusty, overcrowded capital of Honduras, comes from a forested mountain called La Tigra, declared a national park 10 years ago in order to protect the watershed.

In spite of its immeasurable worth, La Tigra is under attack from all sides. More than 10,000 squatters live in the park, burning patches of forests to grow crops or graze cattle. Coffee barons have marched up the steep slopes, clearing land for huge plantations. The financially strapped government, recognizing its inability to control the threats, recently turned over management of the park to a private group, the Honduran Ecological Association. Francisco Martnez, head of the association's wildlands department, says, 'Hondurans don't have much experience with or appreciation for natural areas. But they understand the shortage of drinking water-they live with it every day. If we can teach them about the Connection between La Tigra and their water, they will help us protect their park. "

In the west African nation of Ghana, the forest that once protected the reservoir for the tiny village of Pokuasi was razed for firewood and farmland. Tons of silt washed into the reservoir, which soon became choked with plants.

On june 5, 1990-World Environment Day-villagers joined with Friends of the Earth-Ghana to plant 2,000 trees along the road that connects Pokuasi with three other villages. We connected the role of trees to the village's well-being, " says Lambert Okrah of FoE-Ghana. The villagers quickly grasped the link: Each seedling was appointed a guardian, who waters it daily and shields it from goats. TEAK NEWS: GOOD, BAD, OK? In 1989 Thailand banned commercial logging in an effort to curb devastating floods caused by deforestation and resultant erosion. Conservationists cheered-but it was a brief hurrah. Now Thailand is exploiting neighboring Burma's teak forests, home of 80 percent of the world's remaining teak reserves. The cut-and-run logging is wrecking Burmese rivers, as well as the habitat of rare tigers, Asian elephants, rhinoceros, and Malayan tapirs.

Indigenous tribes are reportedly being burned out of their villages, and thousands of tribal people have fled to Thailand to escape abuse by the Burmese government and the Thai logging companies. The new military government in Thailand is unlikely to welcome these refugees warmly-nor is it likely to lay off Burma's teak. But not all the teak news is bad. Although most of the teak imported to the United States is from Burmese forests, the other major source is the Indonesian state of java. The forests in java are state-owned and managed by the State Forestry Corporation, known as Perum Perhutani.

Intensively managed plantations have been the dominant form of forest cover on java for more than 100 years,- according to Ivan Ussach, director of the Rainforest Alliance's Tropical Timber Program. (See Buy or Boycott Tropical Hardwoods?- on page 25.) The alliance recently awarded Perhutani a "Smart Wood" certificate, given only to companies that can prove their harvesting methods do not contribute to the destruction of tropical forests.

Perhutani determines timber production for teak and a number of other tree species according to sustained yield formulas based on regularly conducted inventories," says Ussach, who visited java recently to inspect the state-run teak plantations.

The East African country of Tanzania is similarly trying to take control of its teak harvesting. The government has banned export of teak by all companies except the state-owned Tanzania Wood Industries Corporation. Abubakar Mgumia, the country's natural-resource minister, says that in the past 30 years Tanzania's teak plantations have shrunk from 8,813 to 1,433 acres. He also announced plans to plant 50,000 acres of teak. CRUEL JOKE IN SARAWAK The largest source of unprocessed tropical timber on the international market is Sarawak, the Malaysian state in the northwestern section of the island of Borneo. Sarawak exports more than 19.6 million cubic yards of hardwood logs. By way of comparison, no other single country in the world-let alone a single state-exceeds more than 1.3 million cubic yards.

About half of Sarawak's logging concessions are clearcut. The rest are in forests designated as protected, and the aim there is selective logging. Concessionaires are required to remove no more than 10 large logs per hectare (2.47 acres), leaving behind the medium-size trees to be logged some 30 years later.

That's the theory. But selective logging is hardly an art form in Sarawak. Haphazard felling and skidding hampers regeneration, causes erosion, and destroys wildlife habitat. Many logging companies simply ignore the 10tree-per-hectare limit. All of which is devastating to the indigenous people living in Sarawak's forest reserves. Four years ago, these tribes began to fight back. The first to organize were the Penan, a small tribe of hunter-gatherers, who have blockaded logging roads despite hundreds of arrests.

The protests attracted international media attention, prompting the government to invite an investigation by the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), whose members are nations that produce and consume tropical timber. The ITTO report noted that Sarawak's forests were being cut at a rate eight to 10 times beyond sustainability and will be depleted within a decade. The investigators determined that harvesting levels should be capped at 2.6 million cubic yards per year.

But the ITTO, which many conservationists have criticized for disregarding forest ecology and indigenous people's rights, ignored this recommendation and endorsed the Sarawak government's proposal to reduce timber exports to 11.7 million cubic yards, although the it can't make even that reduction for 10 to 15 years. Whether Sarawak's forests-and the people who live in them-will still be around in another decade is questionable. STRIP CLEARCUTTING IN PERU

Ask a tropical forester for an example of a successful sustainable forestry project, and you'll likely hear about strip clearcutting in the Palcazu Valley of Peru's eastern Andes.

Funded by USAID, the pilot project was drawn up by the Tropical Science Center (TSC), a Costa Rican nonprofit consulting group. The strip-clearcutting technique is based on recent studies of regeneration in spaces created when large trees fall in a tropical forest. The shade-intolerant species that colonize forest gaps reach the surrounding canopy in only 20 to 30 years. More than 50 percent of the tree species in a rainforest canopy are gap colonizing species.

Under the TSC-designed management plan, trees are cut in a narrow strip 100 to 130 feet wide and 300 to 1,600 feet long, thus simulating a natural forest gap. The narrow width guarantees a variety of seed sources along the harvested strip.

Two demonstration strips were cut in 1985. After 27 months, 155 tree species with saplings of more than three feet were counted in one strip.

Amuesha Indians were trained in land-use classifications so that they themselves could choose the land to be set aside for strip clearcutting. Areas near creeks, swamps, and steep hillsides were excluded and will theoretically remain viable wildlife habitat and potential extractive reserves.

Two strips were cleared in 1988 and three more in 1989. According to Gary Hartshorn, a tropical-forest ecologist who helped design the project, timber harvesting could generate $3,500 per hectare (2.47 acres) after operational costs are deducted. The strips are now regenerating and are scheduled for reharvesting in 40 years.


Throughout the tropics, "protected" reserves set aside for indigenous peoples have always been an easy mark for incursion by loggers and squatters. In Brazil's 2.8-million-acre Maranhense Forest Reserve, home to five indigenous groups, invasions by land hungry subsistence farmers, illegal loggers, and diamond miners have intensified.

The Pro-Indian Commission of Sao Paulo is naming names and pointing fingers despite the dangers of such outspokenness. The commission notes that the governor of Maranhao, one of the largest ranch owners in the area, is not disposed to protecting the densely forested reserve. The commission also accuses the federal police of turning the other cheek.

The commission names businessman Nicodemos Marcos Martins as one of the prime culprits. Marcos has allegedly sold scores of lots in the southern part of the reserve, with the collusion of a government office in Sao Luis, which handily provided what the commission calls "fraudulent property titles. "

The spectacular reserve is more than the home of the Guaji Urubu-Kaapor, Tembe, Timbira, and Guajajara peoples. At a conference in Manaus last year, biologists listing outstanding areas of the Amazonian ecosystem in terms of richness of species put the Maranhense Forest Reserve high on the list.

Panama has similar problems with invasions into Indian reserves in the Bayano River basin between Panama's Pacific and Atlantic mountain ranges. In 1976 a hydroelectric power plant built on the Bayano displaced 2,000 farmers, who pushed into Kuna and neighboring Choco Indian reserves, clearing large tracts of forest for cattle ranching and -disrupting the social and cultural balance of the area,' says former natural-resource minister Stanley Heckadon. Last year, he reports, a Choco Indian was murdered when he confronted an invading rancher.

Meanwhile, loggers are pressuring the Choco and Kuna communities to sell their trees at bargain-basement prices.

Until his recent dismissal from the natural-resource agency, which conservationists claim was politically motivated, Heckadon planned to post guards to prevent incursions into the reserves. But his agency was denied desperately needed funds.

The natural-resource agency's 1991 operating budget is just $5 million, most of it going toward salaries. (South Carolina, about the same size as Panama, spent more than $80 million on natural-resource management in 1990.)


Costa Rica's well-earned fame for conservation efforts that include an impressive park system was blemished last year by a World Resources Institute report noting that the tiny Central American democracy is clearing 7.4 percent of its remaining forest each year, one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.

With this in mind, it may seem strange that a Costa Rican logging company has earned the cautious praise of many conservationists.

The company, Portico, is cutting trees in Costa Rica's rainy Caribbean lowlands, using what the firm insists are environmentally sound techniques. Portico cuts carapa trees, a species common to the Caribbean rim, from the company's 21,000 acres and mills the rich, dark carapa wood into expensive doors for export to the United States.

According to Portico president Mario Barrenechea, the company's foresters make detailed maps noting the location and size of every carapa tree before the chainsaw crews arrive. Some are marked to be cut, others are spared as seed trees left to grow until the next cutting cycle. No more than two trees are cut per football-size area of rainforest.

"Our intention is to maintain woodsupply volume,' Barrenechea says. -After three or four cutting cycles-or in about 50 years-our forests will be more productive than they are now." He adds, "We're doing this because it's good business."

Portico's practices contrast with typical tropical logging techniques that involve taking only the high-value tree species and severely damaging the surrounding trees. Due to inefficient harvesting methods, as much as half the tree remains in the woods; half of what is taken is wasted in antiquated mills.

Hernan Bravo, Costa Rica's natural resource minister, applauds Portico's methods, and his office suite features the company's finely crafted doors. -We need more companies like Portico," he says. "They are doing it right. - Respected tropical biologists like Gary Hartshom of the World Wildlife Fund agree with Bravo's assessment. "There is as much wildlife on Portico's logging sites as on the surrounding forest,' Hartshom insists.

Other conservationists are more skeptical. Their main objection is to the company's work site, which borders the popular Tortuguero National Park, a thin strip of forest along a beach famous for nesting sea turtles. Tour operators and hotel owners complain that tourists who travel to the park are repelled by downed trees and cleared areas. Some conservation groups also believe that Portico's operations will interfere with a proposed biological corridor linking Tortuguero park with another coastal preserve to allow for safe wildlife passage.

Conflicts like this are common in the tropics, where still-forested land is scarce and in demand by a multitude of judicious interests. Although debate rages over Portico's area of operations, it's clear that if all logging companies shared Portico's conservation consciousness, deforestation rates would slacken. AF
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Forests
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Special Coverage: Forests on a Shrinking Globe
Author:Jukofsky, Diane
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1991
Previous Article:Rediscovering the yellow poplar.
Next Article:The tree that fights cancer.

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