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Me Tarzan: Where's 'tropical rain forest?'

It's now news that the world is losing its jungles. But it is worth taking note when the (US) National Academy of Sciences finds we are losing them at such an unexpectedly fast rate that it raises the alarm for an emergency global effort to ease the impact.

". . . the destruction of these vast ecosystems without the development of ways for replacing them with others equally productive foredooms a large portion of the human race to misery and portends instability for the entire globe by the year 2000," warns a study committee of the National Research Council (NRC), the academy's research agency.

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Far from being useless wilderness, tropical rain forests have been the premier environment for evolution of Earth's plants and animals. They have supplied a host of materials and food plants. And they continue to be a major source of new natural products -- a source whose full potential has only begun to be assessed.

These vast forests also are important elements of the planet's climatic system. Locally and regionally, they are key regulators of water supply. Globally, they have covered so much land that their loss might significantly change energy balances (absorption vs. reflection of sunshine, for example) that influence weather. Also, their loss could exacerbate the accumulation of the heat-absorbing gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, since growing plants use this as a source of carbon.

This, then, is the unappreciated resource that Earth is losing so rapidly that, in the NRC's estimate, an area the size of Massachusetts is destroyed every month. The only sizable jungle areas likely to remain at the century's end would be in the remote Amazon and equatorial Africa. These, too, would be unlikely to survive another 40 or 50 years.

This appalling destruction is both thoughtless and unncessary. As anthropologists Ronald Nigh and James Nations explained in a recent issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, neither hunger nor population pressure is basically responsible. The main reason is the headlong rush for land for cattle raising and for cash crops such as coffee -- products with markets in temperate-zone industrialized countries. It provides foreign exchange for local governments and even wealth for some individuals. But for most citizens of the tropical developing countries that are involve, it only means less land for local food production and more people forced off the land into the cities, where they cannot find work or adequate housing.

At the same time, as poined out by Nigh and Nations, the Research Council study, and United Nations experts, it is possible to retian much of the forests and expand agriculture, too. New strategies of mixed forest and crop farming (agroforestry) -- often with adaptation of traditonal methods -- can boost returns of the countries involved. There is urgent need for aid-giving countries such as the United States to wake up to the needless loss of jungles and strongly support measures to develop these lands intelligently.