Molecular Tools for Capturing the Value of the Tropical Rain Forest

M. Van Montagu Introduction

The ongoing destruction of tropical rain for ests, estimated now to be proceeding at a rate of 154,000 km2 per year, poses serious concerns not only for ecologists, but also for all responsible inhabitants of this planet. The rain forest harbors the highest diversity in plants, insects and microorganisms of all habitats. The irreversible loss of this biodiversity represents a tremendous setback for both the "classical" biologists as well as for molecular geneticists and biotechnologists. How can the scientist combat this?

Governments of many developing countries have great difficulty in recognizing the value of these forests in light of more pressing economic problems. Hence, they permit the slash-and-burn agriculture of landless farmers, or they collect immediate revenue by licensing destructive logging or, worse still, by authorizing the highly polluting and poisoning action of the "garimpeiros" (gold diggers). The only value recuperated from such indiscriminate logging or burning is additional acreage for agriculture. Sometimes the land surface that is thus recuperated is used for certain monocultures, such as rubber or palm tree plantations, but often, as in Brazil, the soil is so poor that within only a few years the area has to be abandoned.

Traditionally, biologists consider that biodiversity is of intrinsic value for humanity in itself. It is, after all, a monument to life heritage. I would propose, however, that it is of paramount importance to demonstrate the social and economic values of biodiversity. Otherwise, it will be difficult to convince the developing countries to preserve the rain forests and representative freshwater and marine ecoregions that contain the majority of this biodiversity. This is the challenge scientists are facing today.

The tools that are presently being developed by molecular biologists and plant biotechnologists are bringing a unique opportunity to all biologists. The impressive progress that has been made in molecular sciences is enabling identification, stock-taking and preservation of this biodiversity.

It is the urgent task of the scientific community to introduce ecologists, soil scientists, agronomists, taxonomists and physiologists to the molecular approaches available and to establish together the necessary networks that can demonstrate the economic value of this biodiversity for all countries. Only then can we expect serious efforts to be made toward saving the remaining rain forests.

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