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Student focuses interest in biology, ethics
on island Darwin visited
December 7, 1998

Ever heard of Chiloé Island? Chances are you haven't. But, know this: what happens there could have significant implications for pure and applied sciences, as Ricardo Rozzi, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology, will tell you.

Chiloé, 30 miles off the coast of Chile, is roughly the size of Puerto Rico. It is graced with a climate similar to that of the Pacific Northwest and indeed it was Chiloé's temperate climate, exuberant forests and fisheries that first attracted human inhabitants to the island.

Today Chiloé supports a population of about 100,000. But, in some ways it has changed little since Charles Darwin came ashore 163 years ago. The citizens of Ancud and Castro still practice their faith at churches that had already served several generations by the time of Darwin's visit. Chiloé's northeast coast is dotted with traditional fishing villages. And most rural Chiloeans are farmers, raising cattle, and an astonishing 100 or more varieties of potatoes.

Yet Chiloean agriculture uses only a fraction of the island. The Pacific coast of the island holds rich temperate forests that were not glaciated, in contrast with their Andean counterparts. The conservation of these highly endemic forests depends on a dialogue that is going on in places as far flung as Chile, Scotland, New York and UConn.

Interdisciplinary approach Since 1987, Rozzi has been engaged in biological and cultural conservation on this island. Currently, adopting an interdisciplinary approach to the field of conservation biology, Rozzi is integrating studies in both ecology and evolutionary biology and philosophy at UConn.

Rozzi's interests are broad and multidisciplinary. The Chilean native first distinguished himself as a music student at a conservatory in Valparaso. Later he earned a master's degree in biology from the Universidad Chile.

Now, with advisers John Silander, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Scott Lehmann, associate professor of philosophy, Rozzi is enrolled in a Ph.D. program in ecology with a focus on conservation, and a master's program in philosophy, with a focus on environmental ethics.

His goal is to explore ways to link ecological and cultural components that affect the conservation of southern Chilean forests. With the support of a Fulbright fellowship, he has written educational materials for Chilean schools and the Chilean Ministry of Education, as well as scientific publications in international journals, including one he co-authored that was published last month in the prestigious journal Science.

But he has other achievements that are arguably more telling. After completing his master's degree, in 1989, Rozzi set aside his formal education for five years. Ask him why and he will tell you, "At the conservatory, musicians are taught that we need more practice, not more information." Rozzi has applied that approach to his life and it has become a philosophy that guides him to this day.

When Rozzi talks about his work, it is clear that, for him, science is not merely a tool for improving the world nor an abstract discipline. Instead, he says, it may be "a way to invent our lives."

Philosophy of life In 1989, searching for answers to his questions, Rozzi took a road less traveled. It was the road carved by his grandfather, Silvio Rozzi, 70 years ago, when he helped found a natural medicine clinic in Chile. It was at that clinic that Rozzi began to work with his wife, Francisca Massardo, on native medicinal plants of Chile. Massardo is now a post-doctoral fellow at UConn, working in a lab with Gregory Anderson, professor and department head of ecology and evolutionary biology.

In 1994, Rozzi was invited to present a paper dedicated to his grandfather, which gave him the opportunity to compare naturopathy with "Cartesian" medicine, and to discuss the relationship between human health and nature. Writing the paper afforded him the opportunity not only to synthesize those diverse disciplines, but also to formalize his philosophy of life. Now for his dissertation, he proposes to focus on an ongoing conservation conflict on the island of Chiloé

Creating bridges In 1980, a Japanese wood products company proposed to cut down a large section of the island's rain forest and produce wood chips from the ancient trees. A coalition of indigenous and non-indigenous residents of the island and ecological groups succeeded in blocking the harvest. And their appeal to the government of Chile led to designation of the forest as a national park.

Paradoxically, however, once the park was established, the very same indigenous people partly responsible for the defense of the forest and the consequent creation of the National Park Chiloé were excluded from their ancestral territory.

In the midst of the controversy between local communities and top-down conservation measures, in 1994 a group of international and Chilean ecologists, including Rozzi, created the biological station, Senda Darwin. The Spanish word "Senda" means trail, and the name of the biological station refers to a trail found on the property that naturalist Charles Darwin walked more than 150 years ago.

The collaborative work being done at Senda Darwin is multifaceted. Engaged in the project, for instance, are the Institute of Ecosystem Studies at Millbrook, N.Y., and Royal Botanic Edinburgh, a Scottish institute dedicated to preserving plant species. There are also programs of the Ministries of Health and Education of Chile devoted both to preserving the integrity of the forest ecosystems, and ensuring the health and welfare of the people of Chiloé. Recently representatives of the Chilean Ministry of Education came to UConn to explore forms of collaboration and formalize an agreement between the institutions.

For Rozzi, the project presents exceptional opportunities - to understand a unique biological and cultural place and to create bridges between diverse cultures and respect the diversity of living species and processes. Rozzi shares with the people of Chiloé the philosophy of "live and let live."

In this context, Rozzi says publishing his work is a form of mediated dialogue. It permits and fosters a dialogue at different scales - locally, nationally and internationally - on which the survival of the project (and quite possibly the forest) depends.

The work there will occupy him for the foreseeable future, learning by practicing and continuing to explore, as he says, "the links between the ways we look at the natural world and the ways we want to live in it.

Jim Smith

An article coauthored by Rozzi and published in the November 13 issue of Science, titled Conservation Targets in South American Temperate Forests, can be found on the Web at