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Turkey: Talks Of Trees As Deserts Spread

By Breffni O'Rourke and Merhat Sharipzhan

Prague, 15 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The World Forestry Congress now underway in the Turkish resort of Antalya brings together thousands of experts from more than 140 countries.

In the idyllic surroundings of the Turkish Riviera, the experts are spending a week discussing how to improve economic exploitation of the world's woodlands, while also conserving the forests. The site of the conference is well chosen in more than one sense: Turkey, stripped of much of its protective tree cover, is losing some 500 million tons of soil every year. This makes it one of the worst affected countries in the world for soil erosion.

Centuries of bad farming practice, including over-grazing and deforestation in the central plateau, mean that today vast areas of the country are threatened with desertification. And from deserts, no wealth grows for the future. Turkey's representative of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Maharaj Muthoo, said earlier this week that if the erosion continues, it can impact on Turkey's wheat, barley, maize and corn production.

Desertification through misguided human activity has been an accelerating trend since prehistoric times, and has often wrought its eventual revenge on mankind. Muthoo notes that Mesopotamia, eastward from Turkey, was the cradle of civilization, yet now lies in abject poverty. He describes the collapse of Mesapotamian Sumeria as a case study of how a civilization can destroy itself.

Today, the Asia-Pacific region is hardest hit by deforestation, with nearly 90 percent of its original forest cover destroyed. In one of that region's most dramatic environmental crises, a wide part of Southeast Asia was blanketed in recent months with smoke and haze from fires deliberately lit to clear the forests in Indonesia.

The result has been sharp increases in eye and respiratory diseases for millions of people. Although winds have now cleared the smoke away from major populated areas, and the start of the monsoon has helped, satellite photos show more fires are actually burning than at the height of the haze two months ago.

At the root of the problem is the financial subsidy given by the Indonesian government for the clearing of land for plantations. The authorities did not intend to create a conflagration affecting millions of square kilometers, but the case highlights how inept government policies make the situation worse.

An example of the way good intentions can produce bad results is provided by a past Western assistance program for sub-Sahel African nations. Traditional, nomadic pastoral methods had developed because of the scarcity of fixed water supplies. Tribesmen would move herds around over big distances to reach water, thus relieving the grazing pressure on any specific area. With foreign assistance, however, bores were dug at intervals which provided permanent water supplies. The result: larger number of cattle could be maintained permanently in fixed locations -- which inevitably led to over-grazing and desertification. This is only a minor example of mankind's blunders, but it came in a region which is now dying because of the relentless march southwards of the desert sands.

Other regions, such as Central Asia, have built a lifestyle which has long existed despite a lack of forests. Of the five Central Asian states, only Kazakhstan has extensive timber stands, in its northern and eastern areas.

Both in Soviet and post-Soviet times the region has been dependent for timber on imports from the Russian Federation. But with the collapse of the USSR, the situation has become more unstable. For instance last winter in Northern Kazakhstan Oblast, Russia halted energy supplies to the Kazakhs because of unpaid debts. Villagers had no choice but to cut precious forest stands in order to have heat. If that sort of pattern is repeated often enough, the country's remaining forests will soon be gone.

Kazakhstan has also suffered lately from illegal lumbering activities as well as the ravages of fire. Last summer fire destroyed large areas of the unique forest growth of Altai Blue Fir trees. Local forestry experts say that regrowth of the unique and protected treescape is likely to take some two centuries.