Forest ecologist Robin Chazdon is helping show that secondary tropical forests aren’t wastelands
By Elizabeth Pennisi
When it came to studying forests, ecologist Robin Chazdon took the road less traveled. In the 1990s, when many tropical researchers were scrambling to study tropical forests before they disappeared, she focused on what grew back once the trees were burned or logged. Many colleagues worked in the forest’s shaded understory, an ecosystem celebrated in Hollywood films. She labored in less charismatic deforested plots in the broiling sun, covered head to toe to keep prickly bushes and biting chiggers at bay. For decades, Chazdon worked in relative obscurity on long-term studies of these so-called secondary forests. She took issue with some prevailing views: that tropical forests wouldn’t regenerate, and that second growth was a biological wasteland. Chazdon and like-minded colleagues argued that, while protecting intact forest was essential, second growth couldn’t be ignored in efforts to protect the environment and human livelihoods. Now the rest of the world is beginning to see her point.
Thanks in part to Chazdon’s work, many now see secondary forests as key to restoring biodiversity and performing important ecosystems services, such as providing clean water and sequestering carbon. And last year, nations attending a United Nations climate conference set a goal of reforesting 350 million hectares of degraded land—an area larger than India—by 2030. For Chazdon, the rising interest in secondary forests has catalyzed her own second act. After decades as an academic, she’s shifted her attention from collecting and analyzing data to influencing policy.