Lovejoy, ‘Godfather’ of Biodiversity, Reflects On 50 Years in the Amazon

Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.

When Thomas Lovejoy first arrived in the Brazilian Amazon as a Yale graduate student in the mid-1960s, the world’s largest tropical rainforest was still relatively undeveloped and boasted a diversity that staggered the young student.
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In the five decades since Lovejoy has helped bring global attention to the Amazonian rainforest and the threats it faces, leading seminal research that has helped build the foundation of the field of conservation biology. At the heart of his work is one of the largest and longest-running experiments, in Central Amazonia, on the ecological effects of forest fragmentation. Along the way he helped to coin the term “biological diversity.”

Thomas Lovejoy will discuss conservation and his 50 years in the Amazon at 12 p.m. Feb. 23 in Kroon Hall. The event is free but registration is recommended. Now a professor at George Mason University and an advisory board member for the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies, Lovejoy will visit Yale on Feb. 23 to discuss his decades of work in the Amazon, the evolution of the conservation field, and emerging strategies to finance and executive large-scale conservation in the 21st century.

In an interview, he discusses the remarkable diversity he encountered during his early trips to the Amazon, why he has devoted so much of his life studying its ecosystems, and our evolving understanding of the importance of biological diversity.

Q: What first attracted you to the Brazilian Amazon? 

Thomas Lovejoy: Just the opportunity to have a big adventure. I was looking for a career that would be about science adventures, and had actually been thinking of doing my Ph.D. research on montane forest birds in East Africa, because I basically was besotted with East Africa. And then my former freshman advisor at Yale, Philip Humphrey, told me that if I wrote to Wilbur Downs [onetime head of the Rockefeller Foundation’s arbovirus program] I could probably receive support to spend the summer with him in the Amazon, which I did. And I never looked back.

At that point the Amazon was basically the largest tropical wilderness. It had only one highway at the time, and there was almost no scientific activity going on — or at least very limited. So it was a huge opportunity.

Q: What did you want to learn?

LOVEJOY: I was already interested in the variety of life on Earth — even though we didn’t have the term “biological diversity” at the time. At that point my lens was more ornithological than anything else, but I was always excited to learn about new species and new species biology and ecology. And this opportunity was like a total immersion; I just got dropped into the forest. There were no common names, there were no field guides. You had to learn a lot on your own.

Q: If the term “biological diversity” didn’t exist at the time, it seems appropriate that it would come from someone who had been immersed in the Amazon.

LOVEJOY: Well, it was almost like you wallowed in it. Before I got to the Amazon I was unable to truly anticipate what it would be like there. People imagine that in the tropical rainforest things are jumping out at you all the time, but in fact it’s much more subtle than that. You’re dealing with hundreds of species of trees, and hundreds of shades of green. And it’s all a great blur when you first step into it. But then you begin to perceive the differences, and you begin to see the insect life. You hear a lot, and not just birds, but insects and amphibians and the like. Pretty quickly you do understand that this is one of the most diverse communities on Earth. 

Q: How quickly did you realize that this was place where you would want to devote so much of your time?

LOVEJOY: I thought it would be a place where I would focus my Ph.D., and I certainly did. I lived there for two years, working in those very same forests that I first first saw in June 1965. Then, when I got back in the U.S., I went to work as employee number 13 for this tiny organization called the World Wildlife Fund, United States, which at that point was really the only international conservation organization based in the U.S. In May of 1974 we held a workshop to decide our institutional priorities. And our priorities came back to be science-based, and focused on the Western Hemisphere and the Tropics. Because that’s where the species are, or at least a huge number of them. So that led me back to the Amazon. And back to Brazil.

Q: Was it already evident just how much habitat was being lost in the Amazon?

LOVEJOY: Even while I was doing my Ph.D. field research, people were commenting with surprise about the spontaneous colonization occurring on the highway from Brasilia to Belém. And of course that turned out to be only a prelude to all the road-building and a lot of the destruction that has followed. At that time Brazil was planning a Trans-Amazonian highway system, particularly because they wanted to show their national presence in the Amazon. Which was totally logical, at least on one level. Actually, in 1972 I published a paper called “The Transamazonica: Highway to Extinction?” So in a way the pattern was already set.

Q: That habitat loss of course led to your long-term research into how habitat fragmentation affects diversity in these places.

LOVEJOY: Given the lessons of island biogeography, the logical question was how that might apply to the design of conservation areas, which would end up being islands of protected vegetation and ecosystem in the middle of modified landscapes. At the time, there was a huge controversy over the fact that there were almost no direct data on how this affected ecosystems. It’s sort of a historic concept now; it’s called “single large or several small” [SLOSS]. It basically asks, which is better: One huge reserve or a whole bunch of little ones that add up to the same amount of space? I realized that until we understood that better, we didn’t know whether any of the conservation projects that the World Wildlife Fund’s board was being asked to approve would actually work in the long term.
Since Brazilian regulations at the time required that farmers and ranchers maintain 50 percent of all their land as forest, I had the wild idea that we might be able to arrange the geometry of that in some place and conduct a great experiment on the long-term effects of ecosystem fragmentation. I thought it would be a 20-year project. In fact we didn’t really have the answer to the simple question until after 20 years.

Q: What did you learn?

LOVEJOY: Basically just about everything that relates to the Amazon. The fact that it makes its own rainfall; that forest fragments become very vulnerable to wind and other physical factors, leading to large biomass loss; the magnitude of species loss.
And we didn’t plan on it, but the economics of the ranches where we were doing the experiment basically failed, and the maintenance of pastures surrounding the fragments was basically abandoned. And suddenly we were dealing with secondary succession coming up all around our fragments. And while we have maintained the isolation, it also gave us an opportunity to a.) understand something about secondary succession in those habitats and b.) the influence of the matrix [the land surrounding or between the fragment]. Originally it was pasture grasses around the fragment, then it was secondary vegetation of a couple of kinds. And that made it possible to have some re-colonization events. So, you go with what you’re given.

Q: During those years you helped coin the term “biological diversity,” a phrase that is now so commonly used. How did that happen?

LOVEJOY: There were a number of us in the 1970s who were thinking about those kinds of things — and some very definitely from a conservation perspective. I remember when I met Edward O. Wilson in the mid-70s, we were talking about biological diversity, but we just didn’t have the collective term to use in our conversation. And so in 1980 three of us used that phrase for the first time: Ed, myself, and Elliott Norse, who was at the President’s Council of Environmental Quality at the time. None of us thought we were coining a new term; none of us spent a minute thinking that any of us would have been “first.” It was only years later that Elliott gave a speech at the American Museum of Natural History and concluded that I was the first by a few months… I was just so concerned about the variety of life on Earth that I wasn’t even thinking about that.

Q: Do you feel that people now understand the concept of biodiversity enough that it is actually informing policy that better protects global ecosystems?

LOVEJOY: At the international level we have the Convention on Biological Diversity, we have biodiversity built into the Sustainable Development Goals. And I think we’re at a really interesting moment right now where the biology of the planet is going to be really important in addressing climate change. Not just protecting it against climate change but literally by embracing an age of restoration in which ecosystems of various sorts will be restored all over the world and potentially can pull a half-degree of carbon out of the atmosphere. That’s pretty powerful. If people recognize what’s going on it could profoundly change the way people think about the planet we live on.

If one looks back, it’s quite interesting. Although scientists have looked at the role of forests in the global carbon cycle, it’s only more recently that we’ve realized the extent to which there is a reservoir of carbon in the atmosphere from the destruction of modern day ecosystems. That if we choose to engage in restoration at a significant scale, it could potentially make the difference between a 1.5-degree warmer world and a 2-degree warmer world, which is a huge difference biologically.

I’ve been beating that drum for several years now, and I’m pleased to say that I have lots of company these days. “Restoration” was heard a lot in Paris. The Nature Conservancy now has a big restoration effort. And all the three conventions from Rio have restoration as a priority. I think we really are at a point where we could begin what might be known as the Age of Restoration.

Q: What are some other important trends in global investment for conservation and sustainability that you’ve seen in recent years?

LOVEJOY: One is looking at the value that nature contributes to human wellbeing — the kinds of things that Gretchen Daily has worked on and that Pavan Sukhdev has worked on. Some people really object to that kind of thing; they think it’s putting a price on nature. But it’s actually not. It’s just recognizing some of the value. And if you don’t do that you’re essentially treating the value as “zero.” The idea of putting a price or a tax on carbon — which gets talked about a lot but so far hasn’t been acted on — is essentially the same kind of idea.

Q: For many years you’ve warned about the scale of biological diversity loss in places like the Amazon. Do you remain optimistic that humankind can save some of this rich diversity that is disappearing?

LOVEJOY: There’s no choice. If you’re not optimistic you won’t try. And as long as something still exists in the world it can be saved. I just get up every morning and look at it all as a fresh puzzle.