Preserving Biodiversity in the Amazonian Jungle
By Robin Herron
Last summer, one of Thomas E. Lovejoy’s colleagues sent him a photo of an enormous eagle perched high in a tree in the Amazon. Lovejoy was thrilled with the photo and the discovery of this rare and hard to see Harpy Eagle, the largest bird of prey in the world.
That’s the kind of thing that makes the research project in the Amazon he established 33 years ago so continuously rewarding for Lovejoy, University Professor of Environmental Science and Policy and Public and International Affairs.
Designed to test a theory about species and isolation, the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project, as it’s now known, has grown to include some 40 different sites in the Amazonian jungle, where Lovejoy had studied avian ecology as a PhD student at Yale University.
The project looks at “what happens when you break up a forest into fragments,” a subject of great controversy in the early 1970s. Lovejoy says he was able to persuade the Brazilian government to arrange areas undergoing development so as to create a giant experiment with fragments of different sizes. By cataloging the plants and animals in the fragments before they were isolated and then tracking them over the years after isolation, researchers could measure changes in fauna and flora. At the same time, matching plots in continuous forest served as controls.
Lovejoy says the work so far has answered his original question and demonstrated that big protected areas are important. For example, in a small plot of about one square kilometer, half of the forest interior bird species were lost in less than 15 years—“a pretty dramatic and clear result,” he says.
Lovejoy’s “island” experiment, one of the most cited and productive field projects in the tropics, led to Brazil creating “uniformly large protected areas across the board,” Lovejoy says. The project has also provided research opportunities for about 200 master’s and PhD students and generated some 600 research papers. He estimates that about 40 scientists and graduate students are working on the project at any one time.
“So here we are in year 33, and I’m in the process of trying to institutionalize [the project] so that it’s no longer so dependent on me and can continue in perpetuity,” says Lovejoy, who still returns to Brazil frequently.
Back in the United States, Lovejoy also tackles public policy issues related to conservation: everything from climate change to deforestation and lack of awareness.
How did Lovejoy move from studying birds in the Amazon to writing policy papers for presidential commissions?
He laughs, then says, “Basically, my plan was to be employed by whatever organization would allow me to have a maximum number of scientific adventures.”
He first dipped into the policy arena as a project administrator at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “I thought I’d do that for two years, then go back on the science adventure track,” he says. “But it became so intrinsically interesting in itself, and it became more and more apparent how important it was. So I basically continued forever after on the interface of science and policy.”
Lovejoy stayed at WWF from 1973 to 1987, becoming its executive vice president. While there, he originated the idea of debt-for-nature swaps, in which a portion of a nation’s foreign debt is forgiven in exchange for investments in conservation. He also coined the term biological diversity (later shortened to biodiversity).
He then joined the Smithsonian Institution, where he held two different high-level positions. In 2002, he joined the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, and became its president. He still maintains ties with the center as its biodiversity chair. He came to Mason in 2010.
Lovejoy has managed to successfully toggle between hands-on work in the jungle and policy work in the nation’s capital, using the Brazilian research site as a place to demonstrate the importance of biodiversity to politicians and corporate executives.
Along the way, Lovejoy has edited several important books, including the 1992 Global Warming and Biological Diversity with Robert L. Peters and its 2005 sequel, Climate Change and Biodiversity with Lee Hannah.
In the first book, Lovejoy says, all they could really do was predict what might happen with climate change. By the time the second book was written, “you could already begin to see nature responding to climate change—and it’s just accelerated ever since.” He and Hannah are now working on a second edition of the 2005 book.
The many impacts of climate change and greenhouse gases on biodiversity have Lovejoy terribly concerned, yet he’s convinced that nature can be man’s ally in solving these global problems.
“I’ve come to believe that one of the best things we can do is restore ecosystems, which would have an enormous capacity to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere,” he says.
This article originally appeared in Mason Research 2012 in a slightly different form.
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