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Science / Medicine : Rain Forest Depletion Doubles

Compiled from Times staff and wire reports

The world’s tropical forests, thought to be vital to life on Earth, are vanishing at a rate twice as fast as that estimated 10 years ago, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said last week. First estimates from the agency’s 1990 Forest Resources Assessment showed that the annual rate of deforestation rose sharply from 37,000 square miles in 1980 to 66,000 square miles 10 years later--an area about the size of Oklahoma every year.

Ecologists believe that cutting down rain forests could damage the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the Earth’s air and contribute to the so-called greenhouse effect, the heating of the atmosphere and oceans with potentially disastrous results.

In Africa, deforested areas grew by 1.7% every year of the 1980s, the agency said. In Asia they grew by 1.4%. In Latin America, the devastation spread more slowly, at 0.9% per year, but because of the vast size of the continent’s rain forests, it actually lost 28,500 square miles per year, compared to 18,300 square miles in Africa and Asia.

“While forests in tropical countries were assumed to be disappearing at a rate of 0.6% in 1980, probably underestimating real losses, the present rate has doubled to 1.2%,” said agency Director General Edouard Saoma, in Nairobi, Kenya, at a U.N. environmental conference.

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