Friday, July 27, 2007

Long-term rainforest study in danger

Of all the ironic things...

It looks like one of the world's watershed ecological experiments is in danger of succumbing to the pressures it was designed to study. The Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragmentation Project (formerly the Minimum Critical Size of Ecosystems Project) is a large-scale field experiment on the effects of habitat fragmentation that has been in existence since the late 1970s. This study, initiated by Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, essentially took a swath of Amazon rainforest and created a patchwork of forest fragments of different sizes. The initial intent was to empirically solve the SLOSS question (Single Large or Several Small) - the question for conservation biologists of whether it is better (biodiversity-wise) to create one large reserve or many, smaller ones who's total area equaled the larger (the SLOSS argument, in turn, was influenced by another seminal work - MacArthur's and Wilson's Theory of Island Biogeography). As with any good scientific endeavor, this experiment has revealed a lot more than it originally set out to - e.g. the importance of edge effects, microhabitat changes, habitat diversity, and on and on...The work that has come out of this study has influenced countless conservation efforts and has been a cornerstone topic for teaching about environmental science, experimental design, conservation biology, and general ecology.

Unfortunately, it now seems that the experiment is in serious of danger of being destroyed by encroaching development. The population in the surrounding area has grown to the point where people are starting to spread out into the experimental area - burning some of the forest plots and raiding research camps. I suppose this sort of thing was inevitable with the rate of population growth, especially in developing countries, but it will be a sad day for science if/when such an important and innovative experiment is forced to shut down.

2 comments:

Kevin Z said...

I agree, but if this was foreseeable maybe it is a sad day in science when scientists can't effectively communicate the importance of experiments to the everyday lives of regular citizens. Maybe it is a sad in science when scientists don't effectively involve local inhabitants into their field research, thus giving them a stake in the whole thing?

The answer is complex, I know. But its a shame that is has to come to looting and burning and not jobs and education for local residents and giving them a stake in the project. I don't know the hwole story though...

Jim Lemire said...

Kevin -
I hadn't really thought of that slant. You're right of course - it is sad that the native population doesn't have a bigger stake in the program and that they would rather burn and loot it. Of course, I don't really know the details myself and perhaps these actions are not indicative of the population as a whole.