Interview:

Gary Hartshorn, President and CEO, Organization for Tropical Studies, Duke University




Q: How do you define biodiversity?

GH:Biodiversity is not only the diversity of species, but also genetic diversity, community diversity and, most importantly, ecosystem diversity. So it spans a very broad spectrum, far greater than just species.

Q: What are the most significant threats to biodiversity?

GH: From my perspective, as a specialist on tropical forests, clearly the greatest threats are the conversion of forest to nonforest uses. These changes, particularly deforestation, are destroying at least tens of thousands of species, maybe hundreds of thousands of species, many of which we don't even know.

Q: Why should people care?

GH: Well, one thing is clear, and that is that the planet earth, that we all share with millions of other species, is getting ever smaller. We are on one earth, and we all share this planet. If we are not concerned about our fellow species that are out there, then there's very little chance that they will survive. And that is, of course, particularly important for people from the First World. We can help fund the conservation of biodiversity, but we can also make the case to other donors, to banks and aid agencies and so forth, that conservation of biodiversity is a global issue. And we have to be concerned about it in the Amazon, in New Guinea, in other parts of the world.

Q: What other kinds of things should we be doing?

GH: I think we have to be, first of all, concerned, committed to conservation of biodiversity. That's fundamentally important. We can do many things: we can donate money; we can write letters; we can call responsible officials. Oftentimes we can travel to these areas and see biodiversity firsthand. That's of particular interest to people from developed countries and, of course, that has become incredibly popular as ecotourism or nature-based tourism. A lot of people think that that's a luxury, but, in fact, it often demonstrates to poorer areas, poorer countries, that, yes, those natural resources -- that biodiversity -- is important, it is valuable. It can generate income to those countries. We see a burgeoning of interest, of efforts to capitalize on mostly developed-country interests in biodiversity. That often has a follow-up, in that local peoples -- nationals of these countries that are particularly rich in biodiversity -- also see what they have.

So all these aspects come together. And it's not that any one of us has to do everything, but we should be trying to do our small part.

Q: Is there hope that we could stem the current tide of extinction?

GH: It's very hard to predict what's going to happen with the current extinction crisis. However, I am cautiously optimistic. I see many new efforts at trying to conserve biological diversity. And this is really encouraging.

The problem that we're facing is that we're in a very rapid race here. There are some encouraging signs -- there are a lot of creative, innovative efforts to involve local people, for example, in the conservation of biodiversity. But when we look at habitat loss, destruction of ecosystems -- oceans, forests and so forth -- we're losing a lot of habitat very, very rapidly. So it's a question of how quickly we can scale up these exciting, innovative projects so that they are ecosystem-level significant.

Q: How do you convince a skeptic?

GH: Well, let me clarify -- that extinction is not a crisis?

Q: Right, exactly.

GH: There are skeptics who say that extinction is not occurring, and it's hard to prove the negative, that extinction is occurring, when we know so little about the bulk of the species that occur, particularly in complex ecosystems like tropical forests, coral reefs, and so forth.

But when we look at how localized many species' distributions are, and we compare that with the landscape of those habitats, then extinction has to be happening. And, just by chance, we might find a little reservoir, or a remnant patch of forest that happens to have some of those species, but the numbers have to be astronomical, really.

Q: What are the utility and importance of ecotourism?

GH: The Organization for Tropical Studies has as its goal to turn on impressionable young graduate students to the tropics. And, as you well know, that has worked, and worked incredibly well. But, really, what we're trying to do is expose graduate students -- and now we're moving into undergraduate training, as well -- to these unique ecosystems in the tropics, particularly the very complex tropical rainforest. And what we find is that some proportion -- maybe it's only 5% or 10% -- actually end up devoting part, or maybe their whole career, to research and conservation of tropical forests.

More important is to expose a much broader pool of people -- not only students -- but natural-history tourists, legislators, decision-makers, those kinds of people, to the critical issues facing tropical forests. One of the areas that I am particularly concerned about is what is happening in the forest-rich countries in the tropics. Many of these countries, such as those that share the Amazon Basin, the Congo Basin, the large islands in Southeast Asia -- Borneo, Sulawesi, even New Guinea, the world's largest tropical island -- is that these areas have anywhere from 50% to 80% of their tropical forests still intact, still harboring an incredible diversity of species, genera, ecosystems -- the whole works. These are functional ecosystems. And many of these countries that share these tropical forests have less than 10% set aside as protected areas: traditional national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and biological reserves.

So what's going to happen is that those unprotected forests are available for development, and development is virtually synonymous with deforestation. If we don't come up with viable ways for local people in particular to use those forests without destroying them, we're looking at a tremendous extinction spasm of the bulk of the species on our planet, because they are in tropical forests.

I, and many other people, are working very hard to find viable ways that local communities can use their resources without destroying them. Some are nontimber forest products; for example, medicines, foods, weaving materials, and so forth. We even think that it may be possible to use the tropical forests for timber production in a sustainable way that is compatible with the conservation of biodiversity. That may sound heretical, but I think we're fairly comfortable that we know how to manage a lot of these complex tropical forests timber, for production of nontimber forest products, other kinds of goods and services that will allow people to use the forests without destroying them.

Q: What about the traditional use of forests?

GH: The issue of traditional use of natural resources is a very important one. Indigenous peoples have lived in tropical forests for millennia. They've used the resources, hunting and gathering, even subsistence agriculture. And at low population densities, these are ecologically sound uses of the forests and their resources. It's when people become involved particularly in commercial exploitation of those resources. . . . One of the best examples comes from the Congo Basin where there's a tremendous urbanization going on in the major cities. These people, many of them recent immigrants, actually prefer bush meat -- wild game harvested from the forest -- to beef, for example. So there's tremendous pressure on the wildlife, particularly the preferred species -- such as duikers, some of the monkeys -- by these urban areas.

One of the serious complex problems that occurrs in tropical forest areas that are opened up for timber harvesting -- mostly by large foreign companies that look for only the best tropical hardwoods -- is that their trucks, their roads, permit and provide access to commercial hunters, who go in and decimate the forests of bush meat. Most of that goes to the small cities, and oftentimes even the large urban areas. That's a fundamentally serious problem. And the timber companies will say, well, they're not responsible. It's often the case when governments totally fail to control the exploitation of their resources -- of timber, of harvesting of bush meat, and even the conversion of forest to nonforest uses.

We hear the criticism quite often: Well, you First Worlders come in and tell us that we ought to save our forests, we ought to set aside these areas as national parks -- when, in fact, you've decimated your forests. And it's a legitimate criticism. However, our response should be, don't repeat our mistakes. We have made many of these mistakes. Just like if you want to develop a car, or you want to build a hydroelectric plant, you don't start de novo, from scratch, and learn the physics of motion, or turbines. You import that knowledge; you import those technologies. And what we're seeing happening is that those technologies for destruction of the resources, such as logging equipment, are brought in from outside.

On the one hand, we see the import of these technologies, and, on the other hand, we don't see the concomitant protection of the resources -- by setting aside reserves for indigenous people, for production forestry -- and insisting that they be brought under management, rather than just opened up to mining of the forest resources.

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