A Pioneering Biologist Discusses The Keys to Forest Conservation

During a half-century of studying Central American forests, Daniel Janzen has witnessed the steady destruction of tropical woodlands. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, the noted conservation biologist discusses his ambitious plans to use 21st-century technology to engage the public and halt forest loss.

Daniel Janzen made his name in 1965 by discovering the extraordinary co-evolution and “mutualism” between two rainforest species, a study so well-known it goes by its own shorthand: “the ant and the acacia.”

In the ensuing decades, Janzen — the Thomas G. and Louise E. DiMaura Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Pennsylvania — has gone on to additional groundbreaking research in the forests of Central America. But by the mid-1980s, Janzen had grown so alarmed at the rapid rate at which forests were disappearing in the region that he and his wife and research partner, Winifred Hallwachs, threw themselves into conservation projects.

Daniel Janzen

They worked to expand a small national park in northwestern Costa Rica into a 300,000-acre reserve — the Area de Conservación Guanacaste, or ACG — encompassing dry tropical forest, rain forest, cloud forest, and marine areas. With Costa Rican colleagues, including President Oscar Arias, Janzen demonstrated that denuded tropical forest can be re-grown, a landmark achievement in ecological restoration.

Janzen — who leveraged a $3.5 million donation into a permanent $30 million endowment for the park — recently set the ambitious goal of raising a half-billion dollars to endow the entire Costa Rican park system in perpetuity.

Now 71 — and still pursuing a decades-long inventory of moths, butterflies, and caterpillars of the ACG — Janzen has recently turned to another significant endeavor: the development of a “barcorder” device, a kind of taxonomic iPod designed to quickly identify the world’s organisms (viruses, invertebrates, plants, animals, and birds) by their DNA in conjunction with a vast database to deliver that information to users. Janzen and his partner, Paul Hebert, have championed the device as a way to open the public’s eyes to the world’s biodiversity and the growing threats to it.

In an interview with author Caroline Fraser, who profiled the biologist in her recent book Rewilding the World, Janzen speaks about the vast areas of Central American forest that have been lost in his lifetime, the resistance among entrenched conservation organizations to some of the most promising forest preservation schemes, and the reality that when it comes to saving wilderness, size matters. Only “big chunks of nature,” says Janzen, will survive in the face of two major threats: spreading human civilization and climate change.

Yale Environment 360: The last time we talked in 2007, I started by asking you about something you’d written 20 years earlier, in Conservation Biology. You wrote: “The conservation community is fighting a brave battle in the tropics, but it is losing.”

Daniel Janzen: Right.

e360: And in 2007 you said, “I feel that that’s still true.”

Janzen: That’s right.

e360: Has anything changed in the past few years?

Janzen: In terms of the dark cloud expressed, no. In terms of a possible light on the horizon, because I’m an optimist, and I’m always looking for the light on the horizon… Ironically, this whole carbon fuss does bring a potential bright light. And that bright light is that if the world does get serious about what is packaged under the acronym of REDD [Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation] and puts in a big bucket of money that is used to lock down big chunks of forest in a permanent carbon storage state, that has the potential — and I have to underline the word “potential” — for truly saving big blocks of wild areas. And there are a lot of ifs between the big picture wish or international agreements and actual on-the-ground doing it.

“All the science I see says that the only places that are going to survive in the long run are big conserved pieces.”

But if there were a bucket like that that was available so that people like me, who are seriously out there trying to lock down big chunks of forest, that could become a financial instrument for actually doing it. That could be a major tool. I’ve used the word “big” about six times, and my feeling is that all the science I see says that the only places that are going to survive in the long run are big conserved pieces. Small pieces may be very pretty, but they die, just because of insularity. They turn into islands. And we all know what happens on islands. Islands never have high species richness. And even when they do, like Hawaii did when people got there, [they are] very, very fragile, very susceptible to human perturbation.

So only the big ones, in my opinion are — to be blunt here — worth saving. In the sense that they’ll still be with us at some reasonable time in the future.

e360: Given what happened in Copenhagen, do you see anything happening with REDD?

Janzen: I’m in the optimist category that says there are enough financial agendas at stake — enough people’s personal health, lifestyle, and [other] agendas at stake — my feeling is that those will be drivers that will eventually get us to some kind of REDD.

Now, how long it takes and how much damage will be done to the planet before we get there? People will continue to trash the planet, and the more damage they do, the more intense will become other people’s agendas, to stop or slow or rectify the situation. Those two forces work against each other all the time. One’s pushing the thing one way, one’s pushing the other, and when you finally come to a solution and you finally do something about it, then you look and see how badly damaged the planet got before we got there. But I think it will happen.

e360: In 1987, you called for a dramatic increase in the number of participants fighting for the tropics. What is the best way to make that happen?

Janzen: Well, I come from the technical side of things, and I look for a technical solution. And my feeling is that there are two answers. One is these things that are happening to us now in electronic communications, with computers, iPods, Blackberries, with Google… All that technical side allows everybody, when they want to, to communicate with each other. That, to me, is a freebie that society has generated on its own. We should use it maximally, and we are using it, in many ways. So that’s the strong blessing side.

The second half of the answer is that apathy is the real killer of conservation. You know, I’m 71 years old. So I’ve seen [biodiversity] go from vibrancy all around us — wild forests everywhere — to trashed and void landscapes in my lifetime. So I remember what it was like when there was primary forest right up the side of the road, on 50 percent of the roads in Costa Rica. Today there’s none — it’s all gone. The only piece of intact forest on a paved road in Costa Rica is 22 hectares. And that piece is the only piece between the Panama Canal and Mazatlan, Mexico. Which I can say with authority because I have driven all of those roads.

Now, the next generation — the one that’s got the laptops and the iPods and the Google access — has not seen that. The landscape you see today is their ground zero. This creates apathy of two kinds. One is they don’t have any idea what could be there. They don’t have any idea of what they, themselves, could be seeing, or what they could have in their backyard.

What this does, of course, is creates for them a world where the biodiversity they are exposed to is that which they get electronically. The butterfly’s only a picture on your laptop screen.

e360: So what do you do about that?

If people can ‘read’ biodiversity, they will then find it much more valuable to be interested in it.”

Janzen: Well, I sat in my little pool of gloom about that, very intensely, up until 2003. And then in 2003, this phenomenon called DNA bar coding suddenly came on my radar screen. I’m working very intensely on it on a global basis, and my feeling is that within five to ten years, you and every other human on the planet can have in your back pocket, something that costs what a comb costs, that you can use to identify anything, anywhere, anytime — what you ate, what bit you, what you’re sitting on, what you just picked up. It can be a feather, it can be a hair, it can be a leaf, it can be a butterfly wing, it can be a leg off a cockroach in your kitchen. And you can know what it is on the spot, by putting it in a little hole in this gadget in your back pocket, and what I call a DNA barcorder, as in something that records the bar code of the object. And by getting that, you can get the name, which means then you have access to all this electronic wizardry and miracles that we have.

Because right now, still, the planet is blind. In other words I can step off a plane in the forests of Brazil and understand it. But 99.9999 percent of the planet cannot. And so whether you’re eating in a restaurant in New York City, whether you’re a Nigerian farmer, or whether you’re a school kid walking to school in Arizona — it doesn’t matter. You are blind; you are illiterate. And this gives you the chance to be able to read. That will change our relationship to biodiversity enormously. And I feel that’s the only chance for [combating] apathy. If people can “read” biodiversity, they will then, for their own reasons, find it much more valuable to be interested in it, and as a consequence, [are] much more likely to be willing to save key pieces of it. [Otherwise] the world will never give the planet back to the wild world. Not willingly.

And the only way that societies will be tolerant of big chunks of nature is if those big chunks are offering them something. And if you’re blind to what’s in it, you’ve suddenly cut the list of what it can offer you down very severely.

e360: So if you were advertising a bar cording device to an urban population that has no connection to biodiversity or to the tropics — who maybe doesn’t even know what the word “biodiversity” means — how would you sell it to them?

Janzen: I’d give them away for free. Humans are curious…

And we now have the bar cording center, I guess is the right word for it, set up at the University of Guelph. It’s under a global institutional initiative called iBOL. We have this consortium, now, it must be 50 countries involved, who’ve all agreed: If you send your sample to Guelph, it will get bar coded. And the cost works out to about $10 a sample — one cockroach leg costs about ten bucks.

I mean, China just decided to barcode all their plants. China just put 30 million dollars on the table and said, “Build a bar code sequencing factory here — now.” Poof. And that’s being constructed apparently, at this moment.

India wants to do it themselves, as well. Brazil wants to do it themselves. Because the Guelph thing now is fully transparent, operative, and copyable.

e360:Â To go back to Costa Rica, how is the fundraising to endow the entire park system going?

“ Each entity has got its own particular agenda that they want to push because it gives them salaries, consultancies.”

Janzen: Limpingly. I have to say that because I’m the failure in part, in the sense that I’m the one who sort of sparked the idea. And then understandably, many people thought, “Well, now, Dan will go forth and find 500 million dollars.” Well, Dan is a human being — and Dan has small agendas, as well as this one monster one, and Dan has been, if you like to be brutal about it, a colossal failure, in the sense that I have not been able to even get near somebody who could write a $500 million dollar check. It’s turning out to be extraordinarily difficult.

Now, on a smaller scale, 10 percent of the $500 million is very real. It was set in motion by Larry Linden of the Linden Conservation Trust in New York City — he’s a former Goldman Sachs [general partner and managing director] who has his own conservation foundation. He heard the spiel and took on the task of raising $50 million dollars, out of the $500 million.

And so he got together with the Moore Foundation and with The Nature Conservancy and the government of Costa Rica, and they’re working together. And my understanding is they have $35 million pledged at the moment, and they’re looking for the remainder. They’re shooting for the end of this year, to have that 50 million. So that’s 10 percent.

But the other 450, I’ve tried to get near a couple people who could have helped with that seriously, but I have failed. They are very hard to get near.

e360: It sounds like conservation needs some kind of Davos.

Janzen: Well, it has them periodically. But what happens is, the agendas get filled up with lots of small agendas. Because each country and each entity has got its own particular agenda that they want to push because it gives them salaries, consultancies. And the outcome is that the entire effect sort of creates lots of little useful cameos, but no big solutions… My problem at the ground level is, that — on a country by country basis — it is a drop here or drop there.

e360: I have been so struck by how the conservation bureaucracy”¦ doesn’t seem to be connected to the solutions on the ground.

Janzen: That’s right.

e360: They don’t seem to be searching out what is working where, and how to magnify that; how to spread it around.

Janzen: Let’s just take two things. The easy one is the big chunks. Why doesn’t that take off? Because that goes counter to many, many small, individual people’s agendas. Costa Rica has 160 different little pieces of conserved wild lands. Every one of those things is someone’s salary, someone’s career, someone’s motivation. And they couldn’t care less about the whole thing. They care about the pieces in their backyard.

And so the outcome is that you have 160 pieces which add up to 25 percent of the country. Well, if you ask me, I will tell you brutally that 50 percent of those will be dead and worthless in 50 years. But that doesn’t help the guy whose job it is to protect it, to raise money for it. He wants his income now. And the fact that it’s going to die 50 years from now couldn’t matter less.

“If I can walk in with a $500 million check, that is powerful enough to change the whole country of Costa Rica.”

So I’m sitting outside looking at this, and what I see is, it’s like patches of snow melting. Here, here, here, here. And the only patch that’s going to survive is the big chunk that’s 60 feet deep and covers a half an acre. And that one will survive a lot of melting and a lot of attacks and a lot of people taking snowballs. But it’ll survive. All the rest die. But while they’re dying, they’re supporting people.

And they’re supporting the conservation community, too. And it gives the guy at the very top, you know, the CEO of The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International. It gives them a magnificent salary and a sense of career development and all those things. I’m not saying anything new. The world knows it…

The only way I can see to change it is to endow 25 percent of it. If I can walk in with a $500 million check, that is powerful enough to change the whole country of Costa Rica. That way, with that kind of money put on the table, we can preserve or safeguard a lot of the people’s smaller agendas, while we [work on] the big agenda.

You might say, why does it matter? Who cares about Costa Rica? Well, my take on it is that the Mexicos and the Brazils and the Colombias and the Indonesias and the Perus — they’ve got the resources to do it themselves. [But] they don’t have an example. Now Costa Rica comes in as an example…

We all started out, back in the 60s, trying to save this and that and the other thing. And people often say, “Well, was that useful?”

Well, it was. It’s given us the raw material that we have. Because if we hadn’t started in the 60s, if we started now trying to conserve what’s left, we wouldn’t even [be able to save] any big area anywhere. We still have some big areas, some big chunks or somewhat smaller pieces that can be consolidated into bigger chunks because we tried then. And all the failures along the way have hurt, but not destroyed those things.

I sit there and I look at the ACG [Area de Conservacion Guanacaste in Costa Rica], and I say, you know, “Does it matter?” If [climate] change washes over us and trashes 50 percent of the species that are in the ACG, did it matter that we tried to save the ACG in the first place? The answer is yes. The 50 percent we saved is more than the zero percent it would be if it was all cornfields. If we hadn’t started in the ACG it would be cotton fields, cornfields, and plantations right now.

Suriname [French Guyana] has said to the world “Hey, look, we’re still 80 percent original forests: You pay us for the carbon that’s in that forest and we’ll leave it all one big national park.” And Norway is definitely nibbling. But the sad counter-example is Ecuador. It’s got a big oil reserve. And the Ecuadorian government said, “Look, you give us half the value of that oil in the form of paying us for the carbon stored in the forest deposit, and we’ll leave the oil in the ground.”

And the conservation community, if I understand correctly, has dithered and dithered, and finally not done anything. And the president of Ecuador, about a month ago, put out an edict that said, “Look, you guys haven’t responded, so we’ve just opened it up for bid.” And China has just bid on it.

The problem is this. If you say to Conservation International [CI] or one of the really big [NGOs], “Here’s this opportunity.” Now, can CI or The Nature Conservancy put all their energy into making it happen? Go out and talk to the Richard Bransons of the world and say, “Look, we need a hundred million from you and five hundred million from you; and from the government of Norway we need another billion.” And put it together. Probably it could be done. But it wouldn’t feed the ego or the internal financial agendas of those big guys to actually do that.

The way the world works is that that’s a one-time deal. You cash all your fundraising chips and you get this one result and it’s done. [That’s] one of the negatives of endowments. You see, if somebody helps us raise the $500 million for the endowment of the Costa Rican park system and so on, who’s going to have the money? The money goes into a trust fund in a bank. And it gets managed there. That’s out of the hands of whoever [raised] it. The income stream goes in and pays people on the ground to actually do whatever they need to do for the conservation side of things…

That solves their conservation problem. And suddenly it isn’t a little industry anymore. It’s just a bank with a trust fund and money going to the guys on the ground doing the work. Well, guess who just got cut out of the loop? The middle man. And the middle man is the guy who raises the money. And so we have this funny contradiction. You’re asking the middleman to kill his source of income. When we went to Conservation International and made the same pitch, we explained it to them, and they sat back and looked at us, and said, “Never.”

e360: Do they nakedly admit that?

Janzen: They do to me, but I’m personal friend.

e360: But what was [the] reason for turning you down?

Janzen: Because they want to go out and raise money for their own little projects all over the place. [They] could see it was good for Costa Rica, but not good for Conservation International or any big institution.

e360: I think we covered a lot of topics. Is there anything else that you would like to bring up?

Janzen: I had to give a five-minute talk in California a few months ago, and I found myself saying, “Look, the threats are fragmentation, apathy, climate change, and small size.” Those are the threats. And the solutions are endowment, bigger size, and the barcorder.