A Shift in the Paradigm, Bringing a Novel Future to Tropical Forestry

Primary Contact

Marizol Ruiz, Public Affairs Specialist

Marizol.Ruiz@usda.gov

Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, April 1, 2020 - Do we need to intervene in tropical forest restoration? Should we ask ourselves for whom and why should we take these actions? What is really going on?

If direct intervention is crucial to effectively restore tropical forest ecosystems to its healthiest state, then why worry when we can take that path to secure the future of tropical forestry?

During the International Society of Tropical Foresters (ISTF) “2020 Conference” at Yale University; a diverse group of brilliant minds and interdisciplinary professionals gathered from abroad to profoundly question if the scientific traditional practices and innovative approaches to combating climate change we're presently working to conserve the tropical forests of the world.

Together focusing and bringing into dialogue the past and current approaches to tropical forest restoration; it came into view that the traditional ways of managing the tropical land had to change.

Decades of scientific research have proven that shifting the paradigm will be necessary to support the conservation of novel forest ecosystems; the data collected demonstrates how novel tropical forest ecosystems are capable of metamorphosing into grand superior forest at unprecedented rates.

Image CaptionDr. Ariel Lugo, Scientist and Director of the USDA Forest Service International Institute of Tropical Forestry, addresses a diverse group of brilliant minds and interdisciplinary professionals gathered from abroad to exchange dialogue on tropical forest conservation at the International Society of Tropical Foresters (ISTF) “2020 Conference” sponsored at Yale University.

Dr. Ariel Lugo, Scientist and Director of the USDA Forest Service International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Puerto Rico, attests that 40 years of research at the Institute, not only proves that tropical forests respond stronger after hurricanes and deforestation, but do so even in the most vulnerable environments affected by severe weather, thus becoming novel forest ecosystems that are more resilient than historic forests.

Changes in nature occur all the time but are often invisible.

“When you are restoring you may have to restore not to what you would like to, but to what the circumstances allow you to do,” said Lugo. “In the 80s, Sandra Brown and I created a model that evaluated restoration based on the structure and function of the ecosystem. The ‘original ecosystem’ was the objective of our thinking.”

“Parts of our model included neglect, normal ecosystem development, and rehabilitation,” described Lugo. “But I realized that ecosystems do not move in one plane, but many directions – given the circumstances, you may want to go in many new directions.”

Research Ecologist for the Institute Tamara Heartsill Scalley’s work showed that the same species remained in the tropical forest from 1988 to 2018 after hurricane Hugo. The data the Institute collected during those years, evidenced that the hurricanes caused shifts in the proportion of species. It became a fact that novelty was always being generated and humans accelerated that novelty.

Lugo highlighted that novelty involves human interference and self-organization. He assured that novel systems remain natural because they are brought on by humans who are also a piece of nature and they evolve without human help.

For example, today Puerto Rico is 75% novel and has more diversity than it did with historic forest systems.

“We believe novel systems can concentrate nutrients in degraded soils,” said Lugo. “Novel forests are right there with the best carbon and biomass storage as other systems. They are nutrient-enriched, yet though they are growing on degraded lands – they have more phosphorus than plantations, native timbers, and secondary forests.”

The Institute’s data shows that element turnover is faster in novel systems than in secondary and historic systems. The rate of element turnover in novel systems presents the demand to challenge why sectors of society believe these systems have no value.

In many ways, research proves to change the way scientist think today and view the future.

Scientist are looking for innovative ways to change the current paradigm on how to apply restorative measures that will affect the future of tropical forest conservation.

“As Ariel mentioned, we need to be aware that restoration is not a linear process, and it will be affected by climate change,” said Dr. Susan Chomba from the World Agroforestry Center, CIFOR, Project Manager for Regreening Africa. “We must recognize that human beings are living in an interconnected world and we need a paradigm shift to embed research within development projects.”

She emphasized that science must learn from its past successes and failures and highlighted that each country is different in the biophysical contexts as well as societal and governance aspects.

“You can’t have one particular technology that will fit each area. We need to generate hard evidence, not anecdotal evidence that can inform policy and implementation. But work with scientists to develop a model that incorporates research to fit many different needs.”

“We are at a critical moment where we need to restore degraded lands, but we need to learn and get more people joining us with research in this work,” she added.

Society must look to the future, but stay grounded and assured that the planet’s natural ability to fight the forces of a changing climate is far more superior than science can understand at times, yet it proves to be true that the forest comes back stronger.

The year 2020 ticks off the deadline for many international climate change and conservation objectives, yet most goals and promises will remain unrealized.

Therefore, it’s imperative that the current paradigm for all conservation of our planet be updated and designed to enhance and stimulate growth for all forest ecosystems, promising a prosperous green future for our planet.

In 2021 the United Nation’s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration begins and with new goals set by the scientific global community, it is imperative that they re-examine their approach.

“The moment is now to make sure that climate change mitigating restorations are based on a solid scientific foundation,” accentuated Dr. Lugo.

“The Institute will continue to carry out its mission in Research and Development and provide the scientific evidence that underpins the conservation of tropical forests.”

The Institute's mission is to develop and disseminate scientifically-based knowledge that contributes to the conservation of forests, wildlife, and watersheds of the American tropics in the context of environmental change.


The mission of the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains world-renowned forestry research and wildland fire management organizations. National forests and grasslands contribute more than $30 billion to the American economy annually and support nearly 360,000 jobs. These lands also provide 30 percent of the nation's surface drinking water to cities and rural communities; approximately 60 million Americans rely on drinking water that originated from the National Forest System.


USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer. To file a complaint of discrimination, write to USDA, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, 1400 Independence Avenue, S.W., Stop 9410, Washington, DC 20250-9410, or call toll-free at (866) 632-9992 (English) or (800) 877-8339 (TDD) or (866) 377-8642 (English Federal-relay) or (800) 845-6136 (Spanish Federal-relay).


Page last modified: 04/01/2020





https://www.fs.usda.gov/detailfull/iitf/home/?cid=fseprd719198&width=full