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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 planning and management. Wherever you go in the world, there are a lot of moving parts that aren’t very coordinated. Whether it’s the Amazon or parts of the United States, transportation decisions are made separately from energy decisions and agricultural decisions, and we need to be thinking about it on a landscape scale.

What are you doing now in the BDFFP?

For the last 34 years, more or less, a team based in Manaus has been running the project, making sure that the students get what they need. My job these days is to build an institution with enough financial flow so that the project can continue in perpetuity. There is a headquarters building on the INPA campus that we built with U.S. government funding. A Congressman liked the idea and gave us the money. That was good, because that way we didn’t have to ask INPA to build us a building; we’ve always been careful not to ask too much and to recognize that we are guests.

Do you also teach?

I only have to give one course each semester during the year, and the university is really happy for me to do what I do. One activity is institutionalizing the fragments project, and another is the ongoing preoccupation with the future of the Amazon. For 30 years I’ve worked on what’s called climate change biology—changes affecting nature. But also for the last several years I’ve worked on how nature can contribute to solving the problem of climate change. There’s a project now to produce a map by the time the Paris Climate Conference is held, a global map of ecosystem restoration potential, to show biologically what you can do, which is probably to pull half a degree Celsius of climate change out of the atmosphere before it happens.

How can that be done?

Reforestation, restoring degraded grazing lands, agricultural systems that accumulate carbon and restoring coastal wetlands. The amount of excess CO² in the atmosphere from the recent centuries of mistreatment of ecosystems is quite large, and when you restore them, you regain all the benefits that those ecosystems provide.

In the Amazon in the 1970s, when some areas of study for the BDFFP had already been isolated

In the Amazon in the 1970s, when some areas of study for the BDFFP had already been isolated

In the 1980s you introduced the term biological diversity. Were biologists just not thinking along those terms at the time?

It’s really interesting. In the 1960s you had the theory of island biogeography, and there began to be a lot of papers written about species richness, but we didn’t have a collective term to refer to the variety of living creatures in nature. I can remember—probably around 1975 or 1976—the first time I met Ed Wilson [American biologist Edward Wilson]. We were having lunch together and we were talking about biological diversity, but we did not have the term. We discussed where the World Wildlife Fund should be concentrated and we both agreed it should be in the tropics, because there are more species there than in, say, Alaska. And that was pure biodiversity. What’s fascinating is that people just started using the term. I used it in 1980, Ed Wilson used it more towards the end of that year—people just started using it. We didn’t even stop to think about where it came from, and it was only later that Elliot Norse went back and said, “You know, I think you were first.” The “biodiversity” contraction came later on, in 1987. There was a symposium organized by the National Academy and the Smithsonian Institute, and it was contracted for that symposium. The term is a bit technical, but I am told that the country with the highest recognition of the term is Brazil.

You have worked for the WWF for many years. In your opinion, when and how should a scientist go beyond academia? ​

There are some things that academia is not a great place for. I have tenure at the university where I teach now. If I had been at a university doing a long-term research project, I would never have gotten tenure, because it takes a long time to get the results. When you look at all the challenges that are out there—two billion more people, and climate change—sometimes you could just close the door and never engage again. But every day I see really good things being done, so that makes it easy to deal with the negative side of the agenda. As I like to say, optimism is the only option.

But working in a place like the WWF also requires a special talent to go from scientific knowledge to real policies.

That’s right. I think many more of them can do that than are doing it now. You have to be practical, but you also have to push the envelope, because that’s how change happens. But I’ve always done what I’ve been able to do in countries like Brazil in partnership. Every Christmas, I call up Paulo Nogueira-Neto, who is just about to turn 93, because he’s almost like a father. And within three sentences he wants to talk about environment. So you develop some real friendships in the process that completely transcend any national boundaries.

Do you still get to go to the Amazon?

Yes, I do! This is what’s so interesting about having a 50-year perspective. In 1965 there was only one highway in the entire Amazon—that’s equivalent to the 48 contiguous United States. It was the highway from Belém to Brasília, and people were talking in amazement about the spontaneous colonization happening along the highway. It was sort of a foreshadowing of everything to come. Now there are hundreds of thousands of roads and highways, and the Amazon is probably about 20% deforested and it’s an ongoing saga. But what was not as apparent to the public is the positive side of the conservation ledger. In 1965 there was only one national park in the entire Amazon, and it was in Venezuela. And there was one national forest, which was in Brazil, in the Tapajós, and one demarcated indigenous area, which was the Xingu. Today more than 50% of the Amazon is under some form of protection. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment that we never would have dreamed possible. But the story is not over, right? What we now know is that the Amazon has to be managed as a system. Managed in a way that maintains its hydrological cycle, so that it continues to be able to be a rainforest, and so the agricultural areas in Mato Grosso continue to get enough rain, and some rain gets distributed all the way to Argentina and São Paulo.

We still don’t know if the current droughts are related to deforestation, but do you think there is data pointing in that direction?

I think there are two or three things going on at the same time. One is real climate change, and another is a reduction in the amount of moisture coming from the Amazon, which is probably both a function of normal climate fluctuations, and also because the Amazon is now 20% deforested. The science on this is imprecise, but that’s probably close to the tipping point in which the forest would change into a different form of vegetation, like the savannah vegetation in the southern and eastern part of the Amazon. And then, of course, there are the local deforestation issues in the São Paulo watersheds. And there’s some good news here: it’s perfectly possible to do some significant reforestation of that destruction and build back the margin of safety against Amazon dieback. In terms of global climate change, doing that kind of thing around the world is in fact a very good way of reducing the amount of climate change. Not everybody agrees on it, but we see increasing recognition of the importance of the Amazon’s hydrological cycle and the need to maintain it. On a global scale, the idea of restoring ecosystems and capturing CO2 back out of the atmosphere is beginning to get some real attention.

If measures are not taken, could the Amazon be reaching the point of no return?

Yes. We don’t know precisely where that point of deforestation is, but I think it’s around somewhere close to the current level of deforestation. Nobody wants to find out precisely where it is, because then they’ve made the tipping point tip. Human beings are very good at using a resource right up to the limit, and then discovering that some other factor comes along which pushes them over the edge. In this case it makes sense to back off and essentially play it safe.

Have you been following the large hydroelectric projects in the Amazon?

I have, and I think it’s important to develop a new plan for energy from the Amazon. Some of these projects, like the Madeira River dam, have been designed, as I am told, to take account of fish ecology, for example. But others are based on older models. It’s time to rethink all of that, and of ways to do it with less impact. Of course, the big problem in the Amazon is that, when you build a road, you create the access that everybody was talking about when I first was there, around the Belém-Brasília Highway. It’s really hard to build a dam without building roads, right? So there just needs to be a more integrated way of thinking about all of that. It could be very innovative. In Amazonian Peru, an oil and gas project called Camisea, which I had a lot to do with, was built and operates without any roads.

How is that possible?

The first company that was doing the exploration just said, “We’re not going to build roads.” So they brought everything in by air and up the river. The wellheads are connected by buried pipelines with sensors, so if there’s a problem, you know exactly where the sensor is and you can go in a helicopter right to that spot.

Could that lead be followed here?

Certainly, since Urucu follows the same model as Camisea. Going back to what I said earlier, the Amazon has to be managed as a system, and that means really integrated planning and management.

Today there are ecologists, environmentalists, universities and NGOs working in the Amazon. How do you evaluate this?

To start with, I think the transformation in terms of scientific capacity and civil society capacity is remarkable. There is no question that Brazil is a major leader in those ways. And it’s not just environment in the narrow sense. The capacity of Embrapa in tropical agricultural research is some of the best in the world. And so the challenge here is how to fit all of these things together in a harmonious way.

What do you envision for the future of the Amazon?

Here’s my dream: that all the countries of the Amazon will work together to manage the Amazon as a system, and have much more coordinated and integrated planning and management. And it’s not about just what happens in the forests; it’s also what happens in cities. The quality of life in Amazon cities is a very important part of reaching the ideal solution.

Does that mean organizing the development of the cities so you can have good quality of life in concentrated areas without affecting the surroundings?

Yes. The interesting example, of course, is Manaus, as an economic free zone with all the assembly plants and manufacturing that goes on there, so that the state of Amazonas itself has a very low rate of deforestation. Thinking about the entire Amazon requires thinking about the cities as well. Usually, the Green people think about the forest, and the socially-oriented people think about social problems in the cities, and they don’t put them together.

We hope you have no plans to retire anytime soon.

I will retire with my boots on.

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