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The Disappearing Forest

Ecological arguments are usually put forward to preserve an environment that is pleasant to live in. But there is also a strong economic case for conservation. Dr. Norman Myers in a new book 'The Sinking Ark' (Pergamon Press) argues that this is particularly the case for tropical moist forests which he believes could be destroyed by the end of the century.

Much of this destruction comes from transnational timber corporations rushing to meet the growing demands from Western nations for tropical hardwoods.

If the forests are destroyed, instead of carefully cut down, the developing world is going to lose an important - and renewable - foreign exchange earner. But their disappearance will also have a critical effect on food production. Forty per cent of developing world farmers live in valley lands and depend heavily on the 'sponge effect' of surrounding forests. Without the sponges the rainy season water is suddenly released in a flood which is followed by a months-long drought - and both phenomena destroy harvests.

When forest trees disappear millions of other species also disappear with them. Of the five to ten million species that are believed to exist on earth, up to half of them are believed to be in moist tropical forests.

In Indonesia alone some 4,000 plant species are thought to have been used by native peoples as food yet less than one tenth of these have come into wide use.

But as well as being the genetic source of food, the tropical moist forests are also the main repository of drug-yielding plants. At least 70 per cent of the 3,000 species of plants that are known to possess anti-cancer properties are found in the tropics - mainly in the forests.