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Plant Talk

Field Biologists Have Been in Lockdown, but Deforestation Has Not

Posted in Environment & Conservation on September 24, 2020, by Douglas Daly

Douglas C. Daly, Ph.D., is the B. A. Krukoff Curator of Amazonian Botany and Director of the Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden.


Photo of Douglas Daly and Edilson de Oliveira standing on a vine in the Amazon

Dr. Douglas Daly (left) stands on a thick vine in the Amazon rain forest with master woodsman Edilson de Oliveira (right).

Sometime in June, my alarm went off. After 40 years of botanical field trips at least twice a year to the moist tropics, my internal clock was saying, “IT IS TIME.” It was way past time; after all, I had returned from Brazil back in November, but my rhythm, everyone’s rhythm, had been thrown off by the pandemic.

Around the same time in June, as I noted in a recent opinion article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), there was another alarm. I had seen ominous reports of record deforestation rates. I confess that sometimes I have been hardened to the awful, annual superlatives, but then I read of a new way of measuring the destruction that really drove it home: mph, as in square miles deforested per hour. In Brazil alone, the rate was more than half a square mile per hour. Then I learned that some governments have been using the pandemic as camouflage for defunding and purging environmental agencies.

Where have field-based biologists been all this time? One of the many strange phenomena of the pandemic is that field biologists cannot go to the field; for the most part we have not even had access to our laboratories and natural history collections. But we have been almost frantically busy and productive, crunching backed-up data, taking advantage of online visual and bibliographic resources, and publishing results—some scientific journals have been receiving twice the normal number of manuscripts.

It is not just good basic science going on. We have been stepping up our efforts to train and support colleagues and field personnel overseas and to work with them to inform the choices made by decision-makers whose policies can make or break conservation and sustainable management of biological resources. We have been able to keep up our pace during lockdown, but there is no substitute for face time with the forest. I for one am ready to stop hitting the snooze button on my internal alarm and get back to the Amazon.

For more about scientific research during the pandemic and the ongoing deforestation of the Amazon rain forest, read Dr. Daly’s PNAS commentary here.

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