Feature: US scientist committed to connecting people in cities to forests

15 April 2013

Scientist Ariel Lugo believes that if you cannot bring people to the forests, you must bring the forests to them. This is a key focus as he carries out his work to conserve forests as well as improve communities around the world, and one of the reasons the United Nations honoured him with its Forest Hero Award. 

“We all know that forests and people benefit from each other. Forests are vital for people and people determine the fate of forests. This is why it’s so important to connect forests to people,” Mr. Lugo said as he received the award in Istanbul during the tenth session of the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF10).

Born in Puerto Rico, Mr. Lugo had a fascination with science nearly all his life, leading to a doctorate in plant ecology from the University of North Carolina in 1969. He is currently Director of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, and was one of the scientists that contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

With over half of the world’s population now living in cities, much of Mr. Lugo’s current work focuses on connecting people in urban areas with forests. In the United States, around 85 per cent of the population lives in urban areas, while in Puerto Rico, where he works, that number is 99 per cent.

“When people move to cities, they get disconnected from the forests,” Mr. Lugo pointed out. “The danger that we are facing is that if we don’t re-connect urban people with forests, then the whole conservation movement is in danger because people do not understand why forests are important.”

Mr. Lugo is calling on Member States to focus forestry efforts more on urban areas, and for connecting people and forests in the areas where they actually live. “Cities that have forests in them are more vibrant, the communities are more empowered and the people are happier and healthier,” he stated.

In an interview with the UN News Centre, Mr. Lugo discusses how he began his work with forests, efforts to connect people in cities with this vital ecosystem and a recent project that helps to prevent violence and promote healthy childhoods by encouraging the participation of youth in planting urban gardens.

UN News Centre: How did you begin your work with forests?


Dr. Ariel Lugo. Photo: Ariel Lugo

Ariel Lugo: After deciding not to go to medical school like everyone else in Puerto Rico, I did a masters degree which involved the study of the rainforest in Puerto Rico. There was an experiment being done to test the effects of radiation on rainforests. That’s how I started. I was a technician in that study. The person that was leading that study was a famous ecologist, so I was very lucky. From the beginning, I had a mentor who was a very prominent scientist and he gave me a push in the right direction.

UN News Centre: Did you have an interest in forests having grown up in Puerto Rico?

Ariel Lugo: When I was growing up in Puerto Rico, the island was deforested. There were hardly any forests. I realize that now when I look at the records. At the time when I was young, it was mostly sugar cane. I had no interest in forests, or biology or anything like that. I did have an interest in medical school. Ad so all my life as I grew up I was thinking I was going to be a doctor. In 1963 when I became a technician in the rain forest project, that’s when I made the decision to go into ecology. From then on, I was looking at forests from a very academic view. In fact for my doctoral degree, I did not study forests. I studied herbaceous plants, which shows you that my interest was in the field of ecology and not necessarily in forests.

The commitment to forests really began after I was a professor at the University of Florida. My students pushed me into a controversy dealing with the protection of a swamp forest. I had no interest in getting involved. But you know students are very persuasive. So I joined the group and we protected the forest and then from then on I’ve been in forests.

UN News Centre: What does it mean to be an active scientist?

Ariel Lugo: There are many scientists that are either retired or doing something else. But an active scientist is one that continues to do research. And I have never stopped doing research since 1963. I’m kind of unique among directors because I do have research interest. So I spend part of my time in the field and part of it doing my bureaucracy – which might not be very good for my bosses. One of the things we’re doing now that has me very excited is to look at what we call novel forests. These are forests that developed as a result of human action. I think they are the forests – that in my opinion – hold the secret of the future. Because there are more people on Earth, there are more human effects on the Earth. And the forests are changing. Many people look at the changes and they feel challenged and they want to go back in time. But what our research shows is that nature never goes back, it always goes forward. So if you want to go forward, you need to understand these forests. So that’s where I’m doing a lot of research now… I go to places where nobody wants to go because they don’t think those are worthy of study.

UN News Centre: Where are some of these places?

Ariel Lugo: Like in neighbourhoods, in backyards, in the city, on the outskirts of the city where you have abandoned agricultural lands. Usually conservationists will look at a forest that is coming out after agricultural abandonment and will call it trash – like it’s not worthy conservation. But in fact, what we have found is that if you go back years after the abandonment – I’m talking 30 years and 50 years, which is possible in Puerto Rico – what you find are incredibly beautiful forests and you find endemic species and you find a lot of biodiversity in places that were completely deforested and degraded by human activity. We call it novel forests because they’re new, but not just new because they’re young. That’s not what we mean. They’re new because they’re composed of species that are different combinations than we have historically.

We did a study in Puerto Rico where we analyzed the whole forest area of the island and we classified them as to whether they were the traditional forest with the native species composition or the novel forest with mixed species composition. We found that 75 per cent of all the forests in Puerto Rico are novel forests. So my point is that these are the forests that are going to prevail in the future and these are the ones we need to study and understand if we’re going to maintain a healthy relationship between people and nature.

UN News Centre: Would you consider yourself an ‘activist scientist’?

Ariel Lugo: Some people might say so, but I don’t think so. I consider myself a traditional scientist. It’s just that you have to go where your science takes you, and sometimes your science takes you to places where maybe most of your friends are not at.  And so they may think of you as a radical. I’ll give you an example, which is kind of amusing. There’s a big discussion about the extinction of species. And in ecology, there are many theories that try to explain how many extinctions you would have if you deforest a certain amount of land. When I looked at Puerto Rico – the island that I studied so heavily – it was deforested by 95 per cent. So according to these theories, we should have lost most of our species to extinction, particularly being an island. Well in fact, we hardly lost any, maybe 10 per cent. So I spoke up about this to say that this theory doesn’t seem to explain the facts. And that was considered very radical. So if I was to say that they were exaggerating the rates of extinction of species in the tropics, some people might consider that an activism or radicalism. I just consider it simple science.

The important thing is that you do good science and then you follow what the results tell you, not what you think it should be. That’s a problem that we sometimes have in science. A lot of people have very strong feelings about nature and they would hope that nature would behave in a particular way… But in fact, nature is much smarter than we are and nature is always ahead of us. That’s why I’m talking about how important these novel forests are. Because these forests are already here, they’re already developing and they’re already maturing. And yet many of my colleagues think that they have no value. I think that’s a real problem.

UN News Centre: Can you describe your project to prevent violence and promote early childhood development?

Ariel Lugo: Scientists are traditionally loners. You study on your own, you’re introverted, you mind your own business, you collect your data, write your papers, you publish and that’s the end of it. But the world is changing so much that I think scientists also have to change the way they do science. One of the key changes that are taking place is urbanization, which a lot of people see as bad but which I think is wonderful because cities are places of opportunity.

In Puerto Rico, 99 per cent of the population is in cities. If you think about what we do in science and forestry, you pay attention to the forests that are in the rural areas of the country. You don’t pay attention to the forests that are in the city. We have found out that in Puerto Rico, the area of urban forests is the same as the area of protected forests. So then the question is – what are those urban forests doing for urbanites? And how are urbanites – city people – relating to forests? In fact, people don’t relate to the forests because in the city you’re scared of the forests – it’s dark and it’s isolated – and you want to be where the people are, where the lights are. But that doesn’t mean that forests aren’t helping you – because the forests are supporting wildlife, they’re cleaning the water, they’re cleaning the air, they’re producing a lot of services for people. That forced us to begin to look at the city as a place where you need to do science and where you need to interact with people.

And our whole approach to science has changed and there’s a new field called social ecology, in which you try to understand the city as a whole and you don’t go there alone. You go there with colleagues. So I have many colleagues now in the social sciences, the anthropological sciences, economics, all kinds of scientists and we’re making teams and studying the city as a unified system. And that forces us to go into the neighbourhoods and talk to people. Of all things, scientists talking to people – something I never dreamt that I would do when I was studying the rainforest early in my career.

When you start talking to people, you start to realize that they do understand their surroundings. And many of the social problems you read about in the newspapers, such as crime, school desertion, all these things have an environmental underpinning. So we started working in communities and helping them connect to their green areas, to the vegetation, and that took us into some rough neighbourhoods. In Puerto Rico, we do have a lot of crime. There are some neighbourhoods where, before you go in, you have to speak to the people that control the neighbourhoods – that are not government officials. These are criminals in some people’s minds, but they’re actually very nice people once you get to know them. So they will give us permission to go in and we will then do programmes with the neighbourhoods to begin community gardens and convert abandoned lots to productive gardens that they can farm as a community, sell and make money. You start developing businesses.

Then next thing you know, you’re helping the kids with their homework. And you get involved in all sorts of things that are traditionally called social services but in reality, they’re part of a strategy of re-connecting people to nature. That’s the kind of work that we’re doing. Let me tell you, it’s fascinating, it’s very rewarding. One of the results of all this is that the kids get involved in activities that contribute to their education and also give them different purposes than would other elements in society that are less favourable. So you start to improve the livelihoods of whole communities.

UN News Centre: Why is important to get young people involved in forest conservation?

Ariel Lugo: This is their world… in many countries young people represent the majority of the population. It is clear that you need conservation to maintain the quality of life for people. There is no question that there is a positive interaction between the green areas of a city or country and the welfare of the people because natural systems are constantly producing services that benefit people whether people know it or not.

You need to have this young generation connected to forests, engaged in the conservation movement, because it is in their best interest. It is in the best interest of their children, of their future. We have allowed the urban population to be disconnected. It’s the responsibility of this generation to connect young people to that. It’s always their choice whether they want to conserve or not, but at least they were exposed. At least they were taught about the benefits.

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