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Where the Wild Things...Must Stay

Biologist Dan Janzen talks about "farming" our wild spaces

Dan Janzen photograph
Janzen quote
Why should you care about the caffeine in coffee beans when you know the way to the nearest Starbucks? "In the last 30 years we have become increasingly estranged from the natural and wild world of our ancestors and, as a result, we are in danger of losing it," Janzen asserts. "What I want is to make people bioliterate the way our ancestors were. People should be able to walk into their back yards and say, 'that's a cicada, that's a tree frog, and that's a bird.' Then, when they hear a bird scream, 'get out of my territory, get out of my territory,' I want them to recognize the cadence and remember that Beethoven put it in a symphony. I want them to see the connections -- to understand why ragweed makes you sneeze and why the groundhog will eat your tomatoes and not your onions. If we understood nature like we understand books and paintings and music, we'd be much more likely to let nature be a part of society. However, if we continue to see it as nothing more than a field in which to plant alfalfa or keep cows or build houses, we'll certainly lose the whole package."
Dan Janzen quotebird drawing
Maybe, but not if Dan Janzen can help it. Working with the Costa Rican Government and the Nature Conservancy International Program since 1985, Janzen and wife, biologist Winnie Hallwachs, helped acquire a 250,000 acre area of low-grade ranch- and farmland along Costa Rica's coast and set about rebuilding the tropical dry forest destroyed centuries ago. With the canny wheeling and dealing worthy of a Wall Street financier, Janzen worked with the Costa Ricans to engineer a swap that traded Costa Rican debt for the farmland. He helped obtain donations from governments and philanthropies to purchase about $25 million of Costa Rican debt. Costa Rica, in response, set aside the land as a national park and set up a $12 million endowment. When all was said and done and the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste (ACG) was designated and funded, Janzen and Hallwachs began the most important part of the job: making a wild area useful.

In the dozen years since this project began, Janzen's work has earned him world-wide recognition as a leader in conservation biology. As much a force of nature as the wildlands he studies, Janzen works tirelessly at everything, whether teaching at Penn or reclaiming the wild in Guanacaste. In response, he has received the Crafoord Prize (a Swedish Prize in biology), a MacArthur "genius" Award, the Ira Abrams Award for Distinguished Teaching and, this year, the Kyoto Prize from the Inamori Foundation of Japan. Janzen will use the 50,000 yen ($430,000) Prize to create a private endowment for the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste.

One of the innovative concepts cited by the Inamori Foundation was Janzen's recipe for using a wild area without taming it. What he did was simply give it a presence. Instead of having the land designated as a national park where people just look at it, Janzen went to work to make this area into what he describes as "a farm." It isn't cultivated and doesn't produce the traditional alfalfa, cows, or rice. But it does produce products: educational programs for students at all levels, ecotourism, pharmacological products for drug companies, and water for the entire region, just for a start.

"Presence is the key," notes Janzen. "The problem with big wilderness areas is that they don't seem to have an owner or presence. People come along and take what they want and do what they like. It's like having a vacant lot next to your house. You'll wash your car there and let the kids run all over it. However, if the lot next door has a house and a family, you'll respect it and keep the kids off the yard. This is what the ACG farm does; it brings people into the equation and gives the wilderness a presence and a purpose. We produce a product; we have a budget and a legitimate reason for being there.

"One of the products our farm now offers is what we call 'ecosystem services.' Let me clarify a bit: biodiversity is the catchall word we use for all the living stuff: plants, animals, microbes, etc. An ecosystem includes that biodiversity plus the water, air, dirt, and rocks that surround it. One ecosystem service we're looking at now is called carbon fixation. This is a global concept that is designed to help companies reduce their carbon emissions and, ultimately, reduce global warming and the greenhouse effect. We are quickly coming to a time when a U.S. company that is found to be putting too much carbon into the air will be required by our law to reduce its output of this harmful substance. That company will have two alternatives: the first is to have engineers develop equipment that removes the carbon before it reaches the atmosphere. This is a costly prospect for which we developed an alternative. Our farm has room for lots and lots of trees. And trees, being 50 percent carbon, need lots and lots of carbon as they grow. We go to the company with a proposition: 'pay us some of the money you would have spent on developing a carbon elimination device and we'll use it to plant and care for trees that will, as they grow, suck the carbon out of the air.' The government credits the company as working to clean up the environment. Ultimately, the company stays in business, the wildlands are supported, and the environment improves. We call this process 'joint implementation' and we think it should work well."

For most of the year, Janzen and his wife live on the ACG. In the fall, Janzen comes back to campus to teach his undergraduate classes. His lectures tell the story of his life and work at Guanacaste with titles such as "Tropical forest regeneration, climate change, and the carbon crop" and "Biodiversity management in complex wildlands: Biodiversity inventory." After the semester he heads back to Costa Rica and "the farm." Once there, he does research, teaches, and develops products for Guanacaste. His students on the ACG are almost all Costa Rican workers who are paid by Janzen's grant money. If Penn students wish to do research at Guanacaste, Janzen makes them raise the funds to support their own work. He believes that this is one of the challenges facing the researcher of the future and that the student who can't raise money for research won't succeed. In addition, by training the Costa Ricans to take care of Guanacaste, Janzen avoids what he calls the "Peace Corps problem," where young people are sent to underdeveloped countries to work for a few years only to leave those countries without help when they go home. "If we don't build in-country human resources," Janzen explains, "we're always going to be the foreigners visiting an underdeveloped country instead of two equals working side-by-side toward a similar goal."

After the funds are raised, students taught, and deals made, Janzen goes back to what started it all: caterpillars. They are his specialty and he works to determine which is which, what they turn into, what they eat, and what eats them. Costa Rica is a good site because only about ten percent of their caterpillars have been inventoried. Eventually, he hopes to make an inventory of all the biodiversity of Guanacaste and issue what he refers to as a "Yellow Pages" of biodiversity, where things are listed according to their uses as well as their names and traits. So, if you want a grass that will grow alongside a highway that is salted every winter, you would look in his Yellow Pages under grasses that thrive in salty soil and full sun.

How will Janzen and other conservationists convince a populace increasingly focused on genetic engineering that the wilds should be left undisturbed? The answer lies in the interconnectedness of all things, a point Janzen makes over and over. He likens the wild to a giant toolbox where one can find the exact tool needed to fix something, if one knows what to look for and where to look. Resources like Guanacaste are already being used by pharmaceutical companies, who used to have to prospect for themselves. Once Janzen has made his inventory, researchers from all areas can come to Guanacaste to find the bug, plant, or whatever has the characteristics that they need for their new product.
Dan Janzen quote
Which brings us back to our beginning questions. The caffeine in a coffee bean is a chemical body armor that protects it from seed predators and is very toxic. Oregano is avoided by the creatures of the wild for the same reason -- humans are the only ones who eat it for the taste of the toxic chemicals in its makeup. And the lettuce? Well, it has no taste because we've bred all the defensive chemicals out of it. We did this, strangely enough, so that lettuce could be the vehicle for other tastes such as salad dressings. And, what are those dressings made of? Why the chemicals that other plants use to defend themselves. It's that interconnectedness again. And although Janzen is concerned about our lack of touch with the natural world, he takes solace from the fact that our genes have not forgotten and our sensors remain at the ready. It's an interconnection as old as life itself and, once the wilds are reestablished and we need it, the connection will still be there.

Daniel H. Janzen
Daniel H. Janzen, Ph.D., is a professor of biology and holds the Thomas E. and Louise G. DiMaura Term Chair in Conservation Biology. Receiving his Ph.D. in entomology and botany from the University of California-Berkeley, Janzen joined the biology department in 1976 and focuses his research on the conservation of tropical biodiversity. He is a Technical Advisor to the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste, a 250,000 acre wilderness area designated a national park by the government of Costa Rica. He has published over 340 scientific articles and books on tropical biology, animal-plant interactions, restoration ecology, and biodiversity management. Dr. Janzen has received international recognition for his research, including the 1984 Crafoord Prize, a 1989 MacArthur Fellowship, membership in the National Academy of Sciences, and the 1997 Kyoto Prize in Basic Science.

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