WHEN primatologist Patricia Wright identified a rare species of lemur in Madagascar, she also found a threat to their future: slash-and-burn agriculture. So the Duke University professor sought help.
She returned to the United States and took her case to a Duke colleague in environmental policy at the Durham, N. C., campus. They then turned to professors of soil science and forestry at nearby North Carolina State University here. Soon the group grew to include professors of population and public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Today this collaborative "seed" program among the three North Carolina universities is not only aiding Madagascar, it is also answering a worldwide trumpet call to help stop environmental deterioration.
Duke, North Carolina State, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill together have launched The Center for World Environment and Sustainable Development. Its mission is to combat global environmental destruction: threatened species, deforestation, malnourished populations, eroding land, polluted air and water, and global change.
The faculty-founded center emerges at a time when environmental consciousness has never been stronger: "It's the ripe time and the right time because of the awareness of the problem," says Pedro Sanchez, professor of soil science at North Carolina State and the center's initial director, during an interview in his office.
More and more, people are realizing that environmental problems need to be addressed not just by conservation scientists, but also by political scientists, economists, sociologists, biologists, agronomists, public health experts, and others.
With a healthy crop of such scientists, the center has mapped out three areas of concentration:
* Tropical conservation and development.
* Environmental problems in industrializing countries.
* Worldwide environmental change.
Madagascar, where one of the center's initial projects is under way, is an "extreme case of environmental degradation," Dr. Sanchez says. University scientists are working with the Malagasy government and people to preserve the Ranomafana National Park and help mend the tattered environment. With funding from the US Agency for International Development, research is being conducted in wildlife protection and park management, agroforestry as an alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture, and public health.
"The greatest source of plant and animal diversity is in tropical forests, and also deforestation is contributing a good chunk to the greenhouse warming," explains Sanchez. "But you can't tell that farmer out there: 'Hey, don't slash and burn this forest because that's going to mess up biodiversity and increase the greenhouse effect, he says.
Instead of prohibiting people from doing something, you have to consider the whole picture and give them "user friendly" alternatives, Sanchez says.
"This is a nature-based development," says Isabel Valencia, executive officer for the center, who recently returned from Madagascar.
Farmers are working with soil scientists to find ways to improve agriculture while preserving the park's natural-resource base. People who live …