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Genetic variation, accumulated in all living organisms on earth during some three thousand million years of biological evolution, constitutes the genetic resources of our planet. This diversity provides a buffer against environmental changes and is thus essential for maintaining the stability and biological balance of the biosphere.

In addition to buffering species in the wild against changes in climate, soil and other adverse environmental influences (including pests and diseases), genes from the wild are needed to ensure the adaptation to changing environmental conditions and socio-economic needs of domesticated plants, including those 16 major crops that today provide the bulk of human food, worldwide. Further domestication and long-term use of these species and species yet to be identified, are dependent on the availability of genetic variation from which new varieties can be developed through selection and breeding. Increased genetic knowledge and technologies such as genetic engineering, may provide new possibilities to utilize genetic materials from a great variety of species to improve cultivated plants.

Foresters are in a key position to help ensure the conservation and wise use of natural renewable resources. Forests and woodlands contain not only woody species but - especially in the moist and seasonal tropics and in many areas of the sub-tropics - a wealth of other species of actual or potential socio-economic value. Loss of genetic resources of plants and animals residing in, or dependent on, the forest, bridge environmental and economic consequences of deforestation and the degradation of forests and woodlands, having also potential adverse effects on the social plane.

We have a clear responsibility to keep options open and prevent, to the best of our ability, the depletion or destruction of natural areas and the genetic diversity they contain. Fortunately, genetic resources are a renewable resource: their sustained and careful use is generally compatible with their conservation.

FAO, in collaboration with Unesco, UNEP and IUCN, has recently published a booklet entitled “Plant Genetic Resources: their Conservation in situ for Human Use”. The booklet, based on FAO Forestry Department's long-standing experience in the field of genetic resource conservation, on-going field projects, and case studies provided by institutes and individual scientists from 8 developing countries, aims at illustrating to decision-makers and the public at large, the long and short-term benefits attainable through conservation. It stresses the fact that conservation must be considered an integral part of short, medium and long-term development programmes, and concludes that the key to success lies in harmonizing conservation with sustainable use and management. The booklet also reviews the relationship between in situ conservation of plants and animals and the already existing worldwide network of protected areas; and between in situ conservation and the management of renewable natural resources for the provision of goods and services.

The booklet is complemented by a fold-out leaflet, briefly explaining the nature, reasons and methodologies of in situ conservation: what, why and how.

The in situ booklet is available from FAO's Distribution and Sales Section and from FAO authorized booksellers; the leaflet is available from the Forest Resources Division of FAO's Forestry Department (Via delle Terme di Caracalla, I-00100 Rome, Italy).

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