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utilized. We have come to depend completely on less than 1% of living species for our existence, the remainder waiting untested and fallow. In the course of history, according to estimates made by Myers (1984), people have utilized about 7,000 kinds of plants for food; predominant among these are wheat, rye, maize, and about a dozen other highly domesticated species. Yet there are at least 75,000 edible plants in existence, and many of these are superior to the crop plants in widest use. Others are potential sources of new pharmaceuticals, fibers, and petroleum substitutes. In addition, among the insects are large numbers of species that are potentially superior as crop pollinators, control agents for weeds, and parasites and predators of insect pests. Bacteria, yeasts, and other microorganisms are likely to continue yielding new medicines, food, and procedures of soil restoration. Biologists have begun to fill volumes with concrete proposals for the further exploration and better use of diversity, with increasing emphasis on the still unexplored portions of the tropical biota. Some of the most recent and useful works on this subject include those by Myers (1984), NRC (1975), Office of Technology Assessment (1984), Oldfield (1984), and the U.S. Department of State (1982). In addition, an excellent series of specialized publications on practical uses of wild species have been produced during the past 10 years by authors and panels commissioned by the Board on Science and Technology for International Development (BOSTID) of the National Research Council.
In response to the crisis of tropical deforestation and its special threat to biological diversity, proposals are regularly being advanced at the levels of policy and research. For example, Nicholas Guppy (1984), noting the resemblance of the lumbering of rain forests to petroleum extraction as the mining of a nonrenewable resource for short-term profit, has recommended the creation of a cartel, the Organization of Timber-Exporting Countries (OTEC). By controlling production and prices of lumber, the organization could slow production while encouraging member states to “protect the forest environment in general and gene stocks and special habitats in particular, create plantations to supply industrial and fuel wood, benefit indigenous tribal forest peoples, settle encroachers, and much else.” In another approach, Thomas Lovejoy (1984) has recommended that debtor nations with forest resources and other valuable habitats be given discounts or credits for undertaking conservation programs. Even a small amount of forgiveness would elevate the sustained value of the natural habitats while providing hard currency for alternatives to their exploitation.
Another opportunity for innovation lies in altering somewhat the mode of direct economic assistance to developing countries. A large part of the damage to tropical forests, especially in the New World, has resulted from the poor planning of road systems and dams. For example, the recent settlement of the state of Rondonia and construction of the Tucurui Dam, both in Brazil, are now widely perceived by ecologists and economists alike as ill-conceived (Caufield, 1985). Much of the responsibility of minimizing environmental damage falls upon the international agencies that have the power to approve or disapprove particular projects.
The U.S. Congress addressed this problem with amendments to the Foreign Assistance Act in 1980, 1983, and 1986, which call for the development of a strategy for conserving biological diversity. They also mandate that programs funded