Acid soils occupy approximately 30% or 3950 m ha of the world's ice free land area and occur mainly in two global belts where they have developed under udic or ustic moisture regimes. The northern belt (cold and temperate climate) is dominated by Spodosols, Alfisols, Inceptisols and Histosols and the southern tropical belt consists largely of Ultisols and Oxisols.
Sixty-seven percent of the acid soils support forests and woodlands and approximately 18% are covered by savanna, prairie and steppe vegetation. Only 4.5% (179 m ha) of the acid soil area is used for arable crops. A further 33 m ha is utilized for perennial tropical crops. The value of the annual production in these areas is approximately US$ 129 billion. Value of products from forests, woodlands and permanent pastures on acid soils is difficult to evaluate.
Forests of the tropics and wetlands have an invaluable role in global, regional and local ecosystem balance and a protective role for flora, fauna and water resources. While acid soils in the northern belt are increasingly protected and reafforested, the destructive exploitation of timber and abusive modern shifting cultivation have contributed to the loss of >250 million ha of tropical forest during the second half of this century leaving vast areas of anthropic savannas on heavily eroded and degraded acid soils.
The authors believe that attempts to develop acid soils for agriculture and agroforestry in the tropics should concentrate on these deforested and abandoned areas of degraded acid soils. However, this will be difficult without significant initial investment and adequate technology. A three step development approach is suggested, which could help prevent or halt the annual destruction of >5 mill. ha tropical forests by “untraditional shifting cultivators’. It would help to protect the fragile natural ecosystems on tropical acid soils now considered to be indispensable for the future life on earth.