Q&A: Thomas Lovejoy

Betty Dillard bdillard@bizpress.net

Tropical and conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy has made it his life’s mission to solve our global environmental problems and protect the planet’s biodiversity. Lovejoy pioneered biodiversity research, coining the term “biological diversity” in 1980 during his tenure as director of the World Wildlife Fund-U.S. He started his career in 1965 working in the Brazilian Amazon, where he helped bring attention to the issue of tropical deforestation. His groundbreaking research in the Amazon rainforest led to the Minimum Critical Size of Ecosystems project, also known as the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project. Now in its 36th year, the project is the largest long-term experiment in the history of landscape ecology. It is designed to define the minimum size for national parks and biological reserves as well as management strategies for small areas.

Lovejoy originated the concept of debt-for-nature swaps, in which nations exchange part of their foreign debt for investments in conservation. The model has led to conservation of millions of acres of critical habitat for endangered species around the world. He also made the first projections of global extinction rates in the Global 2000 Report to the president that year. The Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) will honor Lovejoy for his life’s work in biodiversity protection with its 2014 International Award of Excellence in Conservation. Lovejoy, the 20th recipient of the award, will be recognized during an awards luncheon on March 28 in Fort Worth at the Omni Fort Worth Hotel. BRIT also will honor Texas Christian University, Sundance Square and John Merrill with Regional Awards of Excellence in Sustainability.

“Tom Lovejoy truly deserves this award,” said S.H. Sohmer, BRIT’s president and director. “Tom’s work in the field of conservation is a remarkable study of how one person can make a difference through the creative application of knowledge. He has been engaged for decades in helping conserve the Amazon rainforest; and his other programs, like his innovative debt-for-nature swap concept and his conservation biology initiatives, are helping save Earth’s precious biodiversity.”

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A professor at George Mason University, Lovejoy holds the Biodiversity Chair at the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment and was president from 2002-2008. He chairs the Scientific and Technical Panel for the Global Environment Facility. He served as the senior adviser to the president of the United Nations Foundation, as the chief biodiversity adviser and lead specialist for the environment for the Latin American region for the World Bank, and as the assistant secretary for environmental and external affairs for the Smithsonian Institution. He also has served on advisory councils in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. Lovejoy was awarded The Tyler Prize in 2002, and in 2009 he received the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award, the same year he was appointed Conservation Fellow by the National Geographic Society. In 2012, Lovejoy received the Blue Planet Prize in Rio de Janeiro during the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. In his acceptance speech, he offered these words of advice:

“The state of biodiversity is the ultimate indicator of the habitability of a region or, for that matter, the planet as a whole. We ignore that to our peril. The alternative is to open our eyes not only to the central importance of biodiversity to human well-being, but also to the sheer wonder, beauty and fascination of life on Earth. To embrace biodiversity is to embrace a better future.”

When did you make a commitment to environmental conservation and why? I think it was inherent in my fascination with living things. Certainly all my mentors cared. One said any biologist with a conscience should spend some time on conservation. And then I got the chance to work for WWF-US in 1973. What fascinates you about the natural world we live in? I find all living things fascinating, their variety, their beauty and how they work together in ecosystems and indeed make up the living planet. Wondrous, really. We are lucky to be part of it and need to care for it. You made the first projection of global extinction rates. Are we making any progress in slowing down the reduction of biological diversity, which you called the most basic issue of our time? Are we doomed to a continuing decline in biodiversity? I think there will be a decline in biodiversity for some time but a lot is going on on the “positive side of ledger.” For example, more than half of the Amazon (the size of the 48 contiguous states) is now under some form of protection. And the picture is much better for all the good work going on. Does global warming exist? What do you tell people who don’t believe in global warming? Absolutely. There’s no question about climate change. It is happening. And, in fact, the basic science was done in 1896. For non-believers – just look around you. You can see the imprint of climate change on nature wherever you look. I say to people don’t be distracted by a single weather event – you can’t tell whether the tide is coming in or going out by just looking at what a single wave does. What impact are debt-for-nature swaps and the Forest Fragments Project having on conservation funds and the ecology of the tropical rainforest? The Forest Fragments Project has led to change in conservation so that protected areas are large and when possible connected by natural corridors to other forests. Debt-for-nature has provided important funds from Madagascar to Indonesia but is only one source. What investments do you think we should be making to protect and preserve our environment? Major efforts to conserve unprotected biodiversity. Major ecosystem restoration could pull back CO2 from the atmosphere and lower otherwise inevitable climate change. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? Listen.

What makes you happy? A great nature experience, and working with people who care and have a sense of humor. As Gerald Durrell once said, “One needs the fireflies of humor to light the way.”

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What makes you hopeful? Young people make me more hopeful than anything. What do you think will be your legacy? My legacy? Now that is a hard one … because it is not over yet.