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Yale University Press
Lessons from Amazonia: The Ecology and Conservation of a Fragmented Forest

Lessons from Amazonia: The Ecology and Conservation of a Fragmented Forest


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Deforestation is occurring at an alarming rate in many parts of the world, causing destruction of natural habitat and fragmentation of what remains. Nowhere is this problem more pressing than in the Amazon rainforest, which is rapidly vanishing in the face of enormous pressure from humans to exploit it. This book presents the results of the longest-running and most comprehensive study of forest fragmentation ever undertaken, the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project (BDFFP) in central Amazonia, the only experimental study of tropical forest fragmentation in which baseline data are available before isolation from continuous forest took place.

A joint project of Brazil’s National Institute for Research in Amazonia and the U.S. Smithsonian Institution, the BDFFP has investigated the many effects that habitat fragmentation has on plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates. The book provides an overview of the BDFFP, reports on its case studies, looks at forest ecology and tree genetics, and considers what issues are involved in establishing conservation and management guidelines.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300084832
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 12/11/2001
Pages: 496
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Richard O. Bierregaard, Jr., is assistant professor (adjunct) in biology at University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Claude Gascon is vice president for field support at Conservation International, Washington, D.C. Thomas E. Lovejoy is chief biodiversity adviser and lead specialist for Latin America and the Caribbean, the World Bank. Rita Mesquita is in the ecology department at the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazonia, Brazil.

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Copyright © 2001 Yale University
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ISBN: 0-300-08483-8

Chapter One

The Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project

Overview and History of a Long-Term Conservation Project


The Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project, in its twenty-third year as of this writing, is the world's longest-running and most comprehensive attempt to assess the effects of habitat fragmentation on a tropical rainforest ecosystem. Over its two decades of existence it has evolved from a somewhat narrowly focused experimental attempt to identify the "minimum critical size" (Lovejoy and Oren 1981) of an Amazonian rainforest ecosystem to a much more broadly focused investigation of the many effects that habitat fragmentation has on natural communities. Most significantly, perhaps, not only has the scope of our research broadened from the effects of fragment size, but the very scale at which we ask questions has changed.

The project has grown and evolved in some ways that we might-and others that we were unlikely to-have foretold in 1976, when the idea for the project began to take form in the mind of Thomas E. Lovejoy, then vice president for science at the World Wildlife Fund-US. The path from conception to reality was tortuous and both politically and financially challenging, again in ways that we had not envisioned. In this chapter we chronicle the logistical and scientific evolution of the project and may, in a general sense, provide lessons to anyone beginning a cooperative research project in Brazil. Readers will find a thorough description of the study area and of the project's experimental design, and an overview of the project's major research efforts (completed and in progress) in Chapter 4, and in the complete list of BDFFP publications and theses (p. 371).


The BDFFP grew from Lovejoy's realization that a great need for experimental data on the effects of habitat fragmentation could be filled easily, at least in concepts, by taking advantage of a Brazilian law requiring landowners in Amazonia to leave half their land in forest. Lovejoy saw that under the right circumstances cooperative ranchers would let us redirect their clear-cutting in such a way that a bit of the land that they had to leave in forest anyway would wind up as isolated patches of different sizes in the middle of pasture land. Because we would be arranging for the isolation of the forest remnants we would have the unprecedented opportunity to study them quantitatively before they were isolated from the surrounding forest.

Lovejoy knew that Brazil's National Institute for Research in Amazonia (INPA) was headquartered in Manaus and that just north of the city a series of large cattle ranches was being established under rigid control of the Manaus Free Trade Authority (SUFRAMA). This constellation of undisturbed primary forest being developed in a controlled situation, only 80 km from a major metropolitan area and the INPA campus, permitted experimental study of the effects of habitat fragmentation.

The results of the early years of study showed us that fragmented forest patches were not truly isolated from their surroundings. Rather, the two interacted in dramatic and often unexpected ways (although with time, the "unexpected" quickly becomes the expected in tropical ecosystems). And in turn, what happened in the area surrounding the forest remnants was dictated by a myriad of socioeconomic factors that we never dreamed, twenty years ago, would alter the very course of our experiment.

As the project grew and our basic scientific program evolved, we recruited Brazilian students from the universities in the south, initially as field interns and later as graduate students, several of whom earned M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees under the auspices of the BDFFP. And moving a step further down the career path, several of these project alumni are now full-time project researchers, including the project's current scientific director, Heraldo Vasconcelos. As more energetic and promising Latin American students passed through the project, we realized that we had an opportunity to help train a sizable cohort of scientists who would no doubt assume influential positions on the Latin American conservation scene.

That the project would turn into an educational goldmine never crossed our minds as we set out hypotheses about fragment size and species survival, but what better way to reach the ultimate goal of the project-rainforest conservation-than to emphasize the training and outreach aspects of our efforts? In television documentaries and newspaper and magazine articles, the project has been a flagship for tropical rainforest conservation. More than sixty master's and doctoral theses have been written, and twenty more are under way. A field course in tropical ecology, modeled after the successful Organization for Tropical Studies program in Costa Rica, established in 1993, has introduced more than one hundred students from all over Latin America to the beauties, mysteries, and rigors of the Amazonian rainforest and given them the basic skills required to ask and answer scientific questions in the forest. Dozens of Brazilian and foreign legislators and government agency officials have spent their first night in the rainforest at one of our camps, and a more structured program has been initiated to get our results into the hands of important policy makers in the region.

History of the Project

Prelude and Planning

In the mid-1970s the impending threats to the world's tropical rainforests were recognized by only a handful of biologists, most of whom had worked in the tropics, drawn there more by their fascination for these exuberant ecosystems than any concern for their persistence. Conservation was for the most part the purview of "conservationists," while "biologists" sought ever-diminishing natural systems in which to ply their trade. Conservation was mostly a question of saving endangered species-most of them such charismatic vertebrates as the panda, African elephants, and peregrine falcons. The first issue of the journal Conservation Biology was more than a decade from publication.

In 1974 the World Wildlife Fund-US, realizing that the programs and initiatives that it would undertake should be based on sound science, hired Lovejoy-the first Ph.D. to join its ranks-to mix science and conservation. Lovejoy, with experience in the Neotropics, saw tropical rainforest conservation as an issue looming ominously on the horizon. As tropical forests began to retreat from the onslaught of chainsaws, bulldozers, and hydroelectric projects, a key priority was clearly to save representative samples of tropical ecosystems.

So how big should protected areas be? This question was being passionately debated by biologists (see Chapter 2), but there were little data on which to base strategic planning decisions. In 1976, in fact, the question came up in a National Science Foundation office in Washington, D.C., where Lovejoy and a few of his colleagues were discussing an especially hot question in conservation biology: Would a single large reserve contain more species than a series of smaller reserves with an area equal to the single large one? When the assembled group could agree on only one point-that there simply were not enough data to answer the question-Lovejoy audaciously proposed that an experiment in the Amazon was both needed and feasible.

A Brazilian law required anyone developing rainforest land to leave half of their parcel in forest. Knowing that large tracts were going to be opened up near Manaus, the site of INPA, Lovejoy saw an opportunity to create an experiment at the landscape level. The only way to ever get before-and-after data on the effects of habitat fragmentation would be to have someone else underwrite the costs of the deforestation. The Brazilian government, through a program developed to spur agricultural development around the landlocked free-trade port of Manaus, was paying roughly 75 percent of the costs of establishing cattle ranches, in the misguided hope that the ranches would one day feed the growing population of Manaus. This gave us an opportunity to set up the experiment. INPA's presence provided an institutional, intellectual, and logistical base for the operation.

Late in 1976, Lovejoy flew to Manaus, where, somewhat to his surprise, his idea was enthusiastically received by both INPA's director, Warwick Kerr, and scientists at INPA and the managers of the Agricultural Research and Development District 80 km north of Manaus. It was on 15,000-hectare (ha) cattle ranches in this district that the experiment could be turned into a reality.

The plan was elegantly simple. We would establish a series of forest plots ranging in size from 0.1 to 10,000 ha in forests north of Manaus that were slated to be cleared for cattle pasture. By arrangement, the ranchers would leave our plots in the middle of their pastures, creating the world's largest manmade laboratory of island biogeography. By monitoring selected subsets of the flora and fauna before and after the isolation of these experimental plots, we planned to quantify species-area relationships in this particular ecosystem. With these numbers in hand, our intention was to address the issues inherent in the project's original title, the Minimum Critical Size of Ecosystems. Specifically, how big an area of undisturbed forest would be needed to preserve the full complement of species and, most important, their interactions in a given region?

The initial request, made in 1978, to the Brazilian government for authorization to conduct the experiment characterized the work as a foreign expedition. In 1979, as the proposal was nearing approval, we received the sage advice to reformulate the proposal as a joint effort between INPA and WWF-US. Herbert Schubart, then head of the ecology department at INPA and eventually the institute's director, agreed to be Lovejoy's Brazilian counterpart and co-principal investigator. The new proposal was approved that year by the Brazilian National Research Council (CNPq).

With Brazilian colleagues and authorization on board, it remained to persuade the ranchers to give us access to their land and to leave our experimental forest plots in the middle of their pastures. It was our good fortune that all of the ranchers proved to be generous and tolerant of our presence, even if they did not not always fully understand what we were up to. The project has succeeded over the years in no small part because we have maintained cooperative relationships with the landowners. In fact, as we traipsed around in search of our experimental plots, we wound up doing most of the topographical surveys on which the ranchers planned their pastures.

The physical and temporal scale of the project was such that funding was unlikely to be forthcoming from the conventional sources, such as the National Science Foundation. So the seed money was obtained from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Man and the Biosphere Program of US AID, and the Weyerhauser Family Foundation in exchange for a vague commitment to write inventory manuals. We were ready to launch the effort.

Up and Running, or Well-Laid Plans Meet Reality: 1979 to 1980

Richard O. Bierregaard, Jr., hired to direct the project in the field, moved to Manaus in mid-1979. In August he located the first reserve -still in pristine forest-and in October, data collection began. With no room on the INPA campus for us to set up offices, we established in-town headquarters in a residential neighborhood several kilometers from INPA. Our absence from the INPA campus was seen by some as symptomatic of our lack of integration with the scientific community at INPA, and more broadly in Brazil itself. This image problem has plagued us almost continuously (e.g., Gama 1997), but it eased somewhat in recent years when we moved to headquarters on INPA's campus.

In the field, executing what appeared to be a relatively simple research plan was everything but simple. On the ground, a 0.1 ha plot was impracticably small, and a 10,000 ha plot impossibly complex to see through to isolation. We had to select our study plots in areas for which no accurate maps existed and fit them into what we conceived the future landscape would look like so that the reserves would be fully isolated and the ranchers would not be inconvenienced. The carefully designed configuration of isolated forest patches that we had mapped out in Washington was unceremoniously discarded within weeks of cutting the first survey trails.

Because of our limited budget, we were not able to recruit and hire scientists to tackle specific lines of inquiry. Rather, we had to lure the research staff at INPA and other institutions into the project with nothing more than the offer of room and board, a field hand or two, a relatively dry spot in the forest in which to hang a hammock, and a chance to work in soon-to-be-perturbed primary rainforest.

As it turned out, in the early years we were able to cover at least representative groups of plants, vertebrates, and insects. Birds and canopy trees were studied by Bierregaard and Judy Rankin-de Merona, respectively, monkeys by Marcio Ayres and Anthony Rylands, butterflies by the indefatigable Keith Brown, ants by Woody Benson, and frogs by Barbara Zimmerman.

Logistically, we were moving ahead at a satisfactory pace. Two reserves (1 and 10 ha) were isolated in 1980 (plate 1) and seventeen reserves were demarcated and awaiting isolation by the latter half of 1981.

The Middle Ages: 1981 to 1986

During the beginning of this period the ranchers' plans seemingly changed every week, frustrating the researchers, graduate students, and field interns who had come to Manaus to participate in the project (plate 10). Because our experimental perturbation (isolation) was based on the ranchers' continued development of their land, the outcome of the project hinged on factors outside of our control-including the Brazilian economy.

When the project's research permit was renewed, at the request of the Brazilian scientists who reviewed the renewal request, its name was officially changed to the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project. This change was indicative of a shift in the philosophy of the project. As we faced the reality that we would not see any 10,000 ha reserves isolated, we felt uncomfortable with the idea of extrapolating our results several orders of magnitude larger than our largest experimental plot.


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