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Thomas Lovejoy: Fifty years in the Amazon

Dr. Thomas E. Lovejoy was recently interviewed for Revisita Pesquisa FAPESP, the journal of Sao Paulo's science research institute. Reprinted below is the English version of the article.

Thomas Lovejoy: Fifty years in the Amazon

American biologist heads groundbreaking project that has helped define the forest conservation areas


Thomas Lovejoy looks equally at ease wearing clothing suitable for walking in the forest, or jackets and bowties in a variety of print patterns. That versatility signifies a rare ability to move between the jungle where he does scientific research, and the halls of government for environmental policy discussions, and it has won this American biologist a number of awards for his contributions to our understanding and defense of biodiversity. Lovejoy has also earned recognition from the scientific community for having created the expression “biological diversity,” a term now in common usage. “We were talking about biological diversity, but we did not have the term,” he noted.

Yale-educated in biology, Lovejoy, who has been a professor at George Mason University since 2010, went to the Amazon for the first time in 1965 to do his doctoral studies. He has never left. Working with researchers from the National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA), he helped establish, and since the 1970s has headed, a large-scale experiment to study how forest fragments work and the effects of deforestation on the diversity of animal and plant species (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 205). From its very beginnings, this work has guided the planning of conservation areas in the Amazon.






Biology, Yale University (undergraduate and PhD)


Department of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University, United States

Scientific production:

254 scientific articles and 8 books

Lovejoy has been an environmental affairs advisor for the World Bank, the Smithsonian Institute and the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations, and has served as Executive Vice President of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and as a spokesman for the Brazilian government for the formulation of environmental policy. In his view, it is absolutely necessary to plan the management of the region in an integrated way, by bringing cities, forests, transportation, energy and agriculture into the same equation. Dressed in a blue striped shirt and red bowtie during his interview with Pesquisa FAPESP—conducted via Skype from Washington, DC—Lovejoy expressed concern about the future of the Amazon, and told us he has no plans to stop advocating for the region.

What was it that drew you to the Amazon 50 years ago?

I had an opportunity to go there in the summer of 1965 [winter in Brazil] to work with the Evandro Chagas Institute and in the forest outside of Belém, and that’s when I decided I’d like to do my PhD in the Amazon. I’ve always been fascinated with biological diversity, and imagined having a life full of scientific adventures—and the Amazon was this incredible, tropical wilderness. So it was like I had died and gone to heaven. It was sheer fascination, and I gradually began to move from just doing science to doing science and environmental conservation. The Amazon is one of the most important places to work in the world.

I imagine there weren’t a lot of people working there at the time.

The scientific community was really very small. In Belém there was the Goeldi Museum, with a very distinguished history, and there was the Evandro Chagas Institute, doing research in epidemiology and health sciences. And INPA had just been started in Manaus. But I didn’t get to go there until 1976. In terms of doing forest ecology, the field in which I did my PhD, there were just two other people—one in the Peruvian Amazon, the other in Venezuela.

How was it getting settled there and finding your way?

You make it up as you go, and everybody was very helpful, so I fell in love with Brazil right away. I was able to raise money for my field work, and I was formally based at the Evandro Chagas Institute, which was very interested in ecology and natural history as it related to how different kinds of diseases work. I tried to do two theses at once: one was on the ecology of the birds, and the other was on the epidemiology of arthropod-borne viruses. I had such a huge amount of data that I ended up doing the thesis just on the bird ecology, and turned all the virus and epidemiology data over to the Belém virus laboratory. I was very lucky because I never had a really bad tropical disease. Where I’ve been working was not an area where there is malaria—the most serious one.

In the Amazon in the 1980s, with Mary O’Grady of the WWF

And did you ever find yourself lost in the jungle?

Sometimes, but I always found my way. You don’t want to go more than five meters away from the trail, because it’s very easy to get lost. The most important rule about working in the forest is to never go by yourself. On the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project (BDFFP), outside of Manaus, that is basically the rule: nobody goes into the forest alone. And incidentally, today [March 20, 2015] happens to be the day of publication, in a brand-new journal called Science Advances, of a paper looking at forest fragmentation in the world. It has about 25 authors who are taking part in habitat fragmentation projects. The oldest project is the one I started 36 years ago.

What was it like setting up the BDFFP in the 1970s?

The easiest thing to do was to get the agreement from INPA and the agreement from the agricultural zone north of Manaus to collaborate. I got all of those on the first day. But then the hard part was getting the money for it. To a large extent, the project took advantage of what was then the Forest Code, because in those days in the Amazon you had to leave 50% of any project in forest. Today it’s 80%, and that makes sense because of the hydrological cycle. We worked with three adjacent fazendas before they had cut down a single tree. We helped them map their land, so they knew where the streams were and where the flat places were. So it was a big advantage to the ranch owners. And they were the ones who did the deforestation. The hardest thing was to get young Brazilian students to participate, because in those days, if you went to a university in the south of Brazil, you didn’t think about going to the Amazon. We were getting flooded with students from Europe and the United States, but we knew that it was really important to get Brazilians. So we did a tour of southern universities in Brazil, and then it got easier and easier.

Had anyone at that time done any project like that, studying forest fragments?

No. That was the first experiment. When I was living in Belém doing my PhD work, a book on the theory of island biogeography was published. And because it was looking at the numbers of kinds of species on islands, people began to think, “Well, maybe habitat fragments are like islands too.” The question arose as to what is the ideal size for a protected piece of forest: is it better to have a single large one, or several small ones? By that point, I was working for the World Wildlife Fund and I realized that, for all these projects that were being sent for the board to approve, we didn’t really know whether they would succeed in the end until we understood the effects of habitat fragmentation. That’s what led to the project. I thought I would let it run for 20 years and get my answer. But I had no idea about rates of change and I wasn’t paying attention to the value of long-term data sets, which are very rare in the world. I hadn’t quite appreciated how important it would be in terms of capacity-building, and I also hadn’t envisioned that you could actually bring people to spend two or three nights in the forest, talk with students, and experience the forest and understand its importance, understand biodiversity. So I’m always trying to take interesting people there.

You brought some important researchers to the Amazon and it also contributed to the formation of the scientific community around there.

There were about 150 PhDs and master’s degrees, at least half of whom are Brazilian. One of our graduates, Rita Mesquita, from Belo Horizonte, was the first person in her family ever to go to university. Two days after she graduated, much to her father’s unhappiness, she accepted an invitation to do intern work on the project and then did her master’s degree and her PhD degree. And at one point she was in charge of conservation for the entire state of Amazonas. Her father is very proud. And now she is back in the Ecology Department at INPA. It is a wonderful thing to see students of different nationalities working together as if there were no national differences.

What was your conclusion about the minimum desirable size for the reserves?

By inference, you could imagine that large size was very important, because a tapir, for example, needs a large area. So if it’s smaller than a tapir’s territory, it’s not going to work. But the way these fragments—which result from deforestation—lose species is quite dramatic. A paper in 2003, whose senior author was Gonçalo Ferraz from Portugal, now at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, showed that a 100-hectare fragment loses half its bird species in less than 15 years. And these are birds that don’t like to go out into sunlight, so they are dependent on the resources in those 100 hectares, and with fragmentation the forest is not sufficient to support them all. But here is the really funny thing: the minute that project was started, it influenced decisions in Brazil about the creation of national parks. And every park that was created was very large. That was when Maria Tereza Jorge Pádua was head of national parks, and she was very interested in what science had to say. She knew that scientific knowledge needed to enter into decision-making, and she just incorporated it into the way she did things. The same was true of Paulo Nogueira-Neto, the first secretary of SEMA [Special Secretariat for the Environment].

More recently do you find that there is an opening from government authorities to listen to what science has to say?

At the Ministry of the Environment, they are very interested in what science has to say. They have world-class scientists heading big divisions, like Roberto Cavalcanti heading the Biodiversity Division in the Ministry and Carlos Klink heading the Climate Change Division. Minister Izabella Teixeira also has come up through the professional ranks in science.

Do you have a direct channel to talk to them?

We email.

The BDFFP is the longest-running experiment in tropical forests. Did you get the answers you expected?

We got the simple answer to the simple question, about the minimum size at which forest areas should be maintained. But we also know these fragments will continue to change for hundreds of years. The small fragments change very rapidly, the larger ones more slowly and in a more complex way. There is every reason for the work to continue, and I’m trying to set it up so that it doesn’t end with me. But we also started studying things that we had not included in the initial plan. One of them is the impact of the matrix around the fragments. So, once the subsidies that supported the cattle ranching were taken away, the ranches were abandoned, and we had second growth come back. That began to change how isolated these fragments were. We began to study the vegetation succession in the surrounding areas. And now we have climate change affecting it as well. We don’t have a strong signal yet, but there does seem to be something going on.

So now do you have a good understanding about what should be done with those fragments that are left behind, and about how you reconstitute the forest there?

In terms of the larger policy questions, the most obvious thing to do, whenever you can do it, is just to reconnect fragments so they become part of a larger system and don’t lose so much biodiversity. In general, I think we need much more fully integrated landscape