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  October 2, 2000

Use Resources or Lose Them, Says Ecologist

Using natural resources may be the best way to conserve them, according to Dan Janzen, one of the world's most respected ecologists.

Janzen - recipient of the MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship and the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences Crafoord Prize, analogous among ecologists to the Nobel Prize - gave the first lecture in this year's Teale environmental series at the Dodd Center on Sept. 22.

His theme, "Biodiversity: Use It or Lose It," was that we need to think and act differently from the single-minded "save it" approach, in order to conserve biodiversity.

In 1985, Janzen began advocating an approach he calls "biodevelopment" - the notion that we "save it" by preserving ecosystems, and we "know it" by scientific study, but that we also "use it" by encouraging multiple uses and users.

He has applied this philosophy in a 323,600-acre conservation area in Costa Rica. Guanacaste Conservation Area, about the size of metropolitan New York City, is home to hundreds of thousands of animals, plants and fungi, more than in the entire continental United States and Canada. Most of these species have economic potential as medicine, fertilizer, or other products.

Biodiversity "prospecting" is the beginning point for finding raw materials for new fertilizers and drugs, he said.

In seeking new ways to develop ecosystem resources, Janzen urged the use of different words to describe conservation, referring to species as "crops" and conservation areas as "farms."

He also encourages nature-based tourism, which brings more dollars into Costa Rica than the sale of coffee, banana, and cattle combined.

A major principle of his approach is collaboration with local people. To accomplish his work, he enlists the participation of local cattle ranchers, government officials and industrialists, who traditionally have been adversaries of conservation.

Among his "users" are thousands of local children and adults trained in biology, many of whom hold jobs.

He invests 19 percent of Guanacaste Conservation Area's budget in in-depth biology education for local children, knowing that in 15 to 40 years they will be voters, CEOs, and government ministers.

"The moment an 11 year old touches a snake, she's learning how to read nature," he said. "When she's 35 or 45, she'll be making decisions about the GCA. Children grow up to run companies and governments."

He also provides training and jobs for local adults, who work as parataxonomists, fire fighters, and administrators, and have such detailed knowledge of the species and operations that they can answer technical questions from renowned scientists or visiting officials from around the world.

This creates what Janzen calls "a bioliterate community" of working families with a stake in the present and future of biodiversity conservation.

"The bioliterate resident supports conservation with votes," he said. "They will ensure the future."

Among the "uses" are exchanges with industrialists that return value on investment. "I took 1,000 truckloads of orange peels a year from a juice factory in exchange for 1,500 hectares of rainforest, valued at $480,000," he said. "We put the peels on exhausted pasture. Eighteen months later, native fly larvae had transformed the peels into six inches of loam that is great for farming.

"Using resources and returning value to local people can be applied worldwide," Janzen added.

"Dan Janzen is a hero to tropical biologists," said Robin Chazdon, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, "a source of amazement and inspiration, a truly global figure."

Carol Davidge