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Wood cuts

THE FUTURE OF WORLD FORESTS: THEIR USE AND CONSERVATION Edited by Kilaparti Ramakrishna and George M Woodwell Publisher: Natraj Publishers, Dehradun Price: Rs 295 (hardback)

By Rahul
Published: Wednesday 30 November 1994

-- (Credit: Sudeep Mukhia / cse)GLOBAL warming, depletion of the ozone layer and loss of biodiversity have become the most terrifying bogeys of the world community in recent years) and have spawned a series of international conferences and workshops. The book under review is a selection of some of the papers presented at one such workshop in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the USA, held to determine the role of forests in containing these threats. The selection is of uneven quality, with some papers providing a good overview of the problem, written as they are by acknowledged experts in the field. The papers dealing with policy and solutions, however, leave a lot to be desired as their basic perspective is flawed.

Based on a review of literature and his own research work, Richard A Houghton's paper gives us a detailed scientific and quantitative account of the various deforestation practices that contribute to global warming. The most interesting contribution is that of Darrel A Posey, on the importance of indigenous knowledge of tribal people in the conservation and use of forests. He refers to his own extensive fieldwork among the Kayapo Indians of Brazil to show how over the centuries they have selectively acted on their habitat to change it in their favour, and yet maintain its sustainability. These people have collected biota from an area as large as western Europe and grown them in a special reserve called "Atepe", of only a few hectares. The author sounds a warning note against the increasing exploitation of this knowledge base for commercial purposes. The international trade in products based on it has reached a whopping $43 billion annually, which is contributing to the destruction of their resource bases.

Two other papers that break new grounds, propose radical changes in traditional economic thinking. Herman E Daly talks of treating natural resources as natural capital, as opposed to human made capital - because a turning point has come where natural capital has become scarce in relation to human made capital, necessitating its conservation and proper allocation. He calls this a change from an "empty world" to a "full world" economics.

Robert Repetto has done a masterly analysis of the various national and international macroeconomic factors that have led to the decimation of forests worldwide, especially indicting the industrialised nations for their profligacy. Japan, which is the largest importer of wood (accounting for 29 per cent of world trade), uses most of it for concrete shuttering work because it gets its wood cheap. He complains that "there are no macreconomic models or analytical frameworks that effectively link forest exploitation and forest land conversion to various sectoral and macroeconomic policies", and calls for both empirical and theoretical research in this direction.

The introduction by Woodwell and the other policy papers by Jagmohan S Maini, Ola Ullsten and Kilaparti Ramakrishna are all written from the perspective that the international community, being seized of the matter, will be able to gradually pass the legislation and acquire the necessary power to enforce more sustainable resource use. They totally capital ignore the great disparities in economic and political power between rich and poor nations. Ramakrishna even goes to the absurd extent of describing in detail the notoriously anti-people and destructive concentration of powers by the state in the administration of forests in India, as an example, of the efficacy of such concentration.

The new Global Environment Facility, to be funded and run primarily by the World Bank, and a proposed International Commission on the Conservation and Use of Forests, are mooted as the future prudent regulators of forest use. This goes against all evidence, which indicates that the rich industrialised countries have dominated all global trade and political fora, and by coopting the elite poor countries, they have fleeced the world natural resources. The World Bank's record that over the period 1987-94, its annual disbursements have gone up from $14 billion to $16 billion while the repayments to it by its have gone up from $11 billion to billion, thus making it the highest profitmaking bank in the world.

The book has a good introduction the issues, but with the caveat that the reader beware of the politics and agenda of some of the authors, especially those from the Third World.

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