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Running against time

Biologist Thomas Lovejoy says that part of the devastated Amazon Region has to be restored to save the forest and tackle climate change

PublicityLovejoy: lecture in São Paulo on Biodiversity DayPublicity

The combined effects of climate changes, deforestation and slashing and burning could unleash a damaging process that will lead to the loss of the Amazon Region’s biodiversity when 20% of the territory is devastated. This projection, included in a report prepared by the World Bank, is used by U.S. biologist Thomas Lovejoy to emphasize the urgent need to restore degrading ecosystems. Lovejoy has studied the Amazon Region for forty years and introduced the term biodiversity to the scientific community in the 1980’s. “The restoration of ecosystems, such as the reforesting of the Amazon Region, on a global scale also establishes the possibility of retrieving part of the CO2 in the atmosphere and converting it into live beings,” says Lovejoy, who is the president of the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, a member of the Oversight Board of the Brazilian Foundation for Sustainable Development and a consultant for the World Bank.

Lovejoy will be in São Paulo on International Biodiversity Day, celebrated on May 22, at the invitation of the Biota-Fapesp program to give a lecture on the 3rd Global Biodiversity. Outlook (GBO3) is an initiative of the Convention on Biological Diversity, whose objective is to monitor a reduction in the extinction rates of species, destruction of habitats and the services provided by ecosystems. In the following interview, Lovejoy addresses these issues and talks about perspectives for the preservation of biodiversity.

The preliminary version of the Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 report says that the goal established in 2002 to “obtain a significant reduction in the current biodiversity loss rate” was not achieved. Why not?
The goals were established soon after and it always takes some time to define the activities and organize the institutions. However, the awareness of the fact that the goals were not being achieved raised discussions on the need to define goals more assertively. The problem was that the issue was not being taken seriously enough in global terms.

What is your opinion on the policies and actions taken to protect the Amazon Rain Forest in the last 10 years? Changes in the Amazon Region that could lead it to turn into a savanna-like environment were specified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes (IPCC) as a likely consequence of global warming. Do you believe  this scenario?
There has been a dramatic and positive change in the last ten years in the Brazilian Amazon Region. This includes an abrupt decline in deforesting rates, improvement in the land deed granting process, and a generation-related change in the leaders of the states in the region. However, this is a race against time. A recent study conducted by the World Bank showed that the combined effects of climate changes, deforesting and slashing and burning could unleash a process leading to the total destruction of the forest when 20% of the Amazon Region is devastated. This would result in major problems for agribusiness and for hydroelectric power generation to the south and to the east because of the rains stemming from the Amazon Region’s hydrologic cycle. This makes the aggressive reforestation of the Amazon Region an urgent priority in order to reestablish a safety margin.

How can the mitigation of biodiversity loss help deal with poverty, promote development and deal with climate change?
Pavan Sukhdev, from the Deutsche Bank, conducted a major study two years ago in which he documented a significant portion of the income of poor people generated by products and services resulting from biodiversity and ecosystems. Biodiversity is tremendously important for the poor. However, all of us – and not only the poor – benefit from biodiversity. The hydrographic basin of New York supplies high quality water to the city at a cost that is one tenth of the value that would be spent on a water treatment station built for the same purpose. Humanity benefits on a regular basis from the contributions of wild species and ecosystems, even though we make the mistake of rarely taking this into account. The restoration of ecosystems, such as the reforesting of the Amazon Region, conducted on a global scale, establishes the possibility of retrieving part of the CO2 from the atmosphere – probably the equivalent to 40 parts per million – and converting it into live beings.

Doubts in the results of climate sciences have been used to attack the conclusions of the IPCC. How do scientists deal with the criticisms related to biodiversity loss?
There is some inevitable disagreement on the details, but all scientists that study biodiversity basically agree that the crisis exists. I predict that at some moment there will be a coordinated effort to say that this crisis exists, but that it is not anything to be worried about. However, even former state governor of Mato Grosso Blairo Maggi knows that his soybean crops depend on the rains that come from the Amazon Regions, and that it would be madness to disregard this fact or allow the rainfall system to deteriorate.

What are the main differences between the GBO3 and the previous reports in terms of the quantity and quality of global data and the use of indicators linked to the protection and sustainable use of biodiversity? Has Brazilian science helped in the sense of providing solid data?
Like its predecessors, the GBO3 was prepared based on national reports as well as on other data. The national reports are clearly much better and more robust nowadays in contrast to the GBO1 and GBO2 reports. I didn’t see the Brazilian report, but I suppose it’s also good and robust. Brazil is very strong in scientific terms, including the field of conservation biology The Biota program and institutions such as FAPESP have contributed significantly to conservation, and to this report and will do so in the next ones.

There is a tendency among multilateral entities to convert protection of biodiversity into environmental services, using them to quantify the progress of issues related to the conservation of biodiversity. Do you agree with this? Some people say that this is an anthropocentric simplification, because the services are being considered as beneficial to humans.
The services of the ecosystems are an important perspective on the value of nature for humanity; but there is an abundance of discreet “products” that emanate from a single species or from groups of species that should not be ignored. It is essential to acknowledge that the species are the structure of an ecosystem and the sum of their functions provides a service.

What is your opinion on Brazilian science linked to conservation and to the sustained use of biodiversity?
Brazil has ecologists, specialists in biodiversity, conservation biologists and other world-class scientists. They contribute enormously on a national level and make a significant contribution on a global scale. The world stands to benefit if Brazil’s scientific influence in these fields continues to grow.

What is your opinion on the anti bio-piracy policy in Brazil?
Broadly speaking, there has been exaggerated concern over bio-piracy in Brazil. We are living in a new time in which scientists from all over the world are sensitive to this issue and are subject to authorizations from the countries where they work. The real bio-pirates are the people who destroy biodiversity, because the destruction of biodiversity will prevent knowledge and well-being of the citizens from improving. There was a time in the last decade when the policies related to authorizations were heavy-handed, with the objective of discouraging foreigners from participating in research projects. The progress of science is much greater when international collaboration is facilitated.

Do you consider the criticisms on Brazil’s strategies to obtain energy fair? Hydroelectric power plants and bioenergy are clean options, yet they are being criticized in relation to their impact on biodiversity and on food safety.
Brazil is in a position to contribute significantly in the field of energy, particularly in the field of biofuels, even though details are always important. At the same time, there are huge opportunities to increase energy efficiency. I think Brazil needs a new national model to meet its energy needs in a much more sustainable manner – able to incorporate efficiency, concern about land use and the adequate ways to build dams on rivers. Until Brazil develops this new model, it will be subject to problem-filled projects such as the Usina de Belo Monte hydroelectric power plant project.