Collapse of Venezuelan science threatens the world's most sustained monitoring of tropical forests
A complex socio-economic crisis jeopardizes a unique long-term effort to study the dynamics and ecology of tropical forests in South America putting more than five decades of ecological research at risk.
A commentary by Emilio Vilanova1,2, Gregory J. Ettl2, Hirma Ramírez-Angulo1, Armando Torres-Lezama1, Gerardo Aymard3, Luis Gámez1, Néstor Gutiérrez1, Cristabel Durán4, Lionel Hernández5, Rafael Herrera6,7, Geertje van der Heijden8, Oliver L. Phillips9.
** A list of affiliations is shown at the end of the note.
Venezuela is one of the most biologically rich countries in the world, with especially high levels of species diversity within and among the numerous forest-types that largely dominate the country’s landscapes. These range from the lowland evergreen forests occupying vast areas to the south of the Orinoco river, to the complex cloud forests in the Andes, coastal mountains, and endemic-rich high elevation areas in the Guiana Shield, as well as swamp forests in the Orinoco Delta, mangroves, and riparian and semideciduous forests across much of the plains ("Llanos"). Close to half of Venezuela’s total land area is still covered by forests1. To better understand how these forests function, a systematic effort to monitor more than 50 permanent forest plots, beginning in the 1950s and up to 2016 provides more than half a century of continuous information, making some of these the longest multi-site records of tropical forests worldwide2,3 (Fig. 1). The information collected has been fundamental in advancing our knowledge of tropical forest ecology. This spans early studies on nutrients conducted in the Rio Negro region showing how tropical forests’ exuberance belies their typically poor soils4, to recent collaborations with hundreds of people and institutions across the tropics. These includes landmark studies into the complex array of Amazonia’s tree species diversity5, the persistent multi-decadal carbon sink into Amazon forests6, and its recent decline in the face of climate change7.
Worldwide, permanent plots represent unique windows into the past, present and future of forests. When sufficiently replicated and sustained over time, long-term observations have provided profound insight into climate and internal forest dynamic controls on ecosystem carbon balance8 and underpin species inventory in rich and under-collected ecosystems, which can help assessing the effects of climate change on tropical biodiversity9,10. Also, when combined with remote sensing data, they provide the means to accurately scale-up and track the role of tropical forests in the global carbon cycle11. Yet, all this relies on the skills and great persistence of tropical people themselves. Sustaining remote fieldwork involves multiple practical challenges, including managing multi-institutional collaborations, complex intellectual property interests and permit processes, as well as implementing scientific training, health and safety protocols, all across multiple sites while complying with local and national regulations11. In Venezuela, these challenges have become essentially insurmountable since 2016 because of the political and economic upheaval that has made scientific research at all levels practically impossible12–14. A worsening human resource crisis matters: more than 4 million people have left the county since 201415, and by 2016 about 15% of Venezuela's scientists, who account for close to 33% of its research publications, also appeared to have migrated outside Venezuela16, and lack of funding prevents recruitment of new talent. Moreover, the rising social desperation is frequently accompanied by widespread diseases17, crime and violence18.
At risk now are decades of research in tropical forest ecology. Not only is researcher’s access to many of these sites often impossible, but the plots themselves are threatened as deforestation and degradation surges (Fig. 2). With the grim and highly uncertain future ahead of us, we are deeply worried about the possibility of discontinuing our work and about the fact that sites monitored for more than five decades in the Western Plains and the Guiana Shield could disappear completely19. Furthermore, the much-needed expansion of the plot-network to cover other less studied areas seems impossible.
In response, while we have prioritized the securing of Venezuela’s forest records via the ForestPlots.net facility20 this does nothing to address the fact that the world’s longest-sustained tropical forest network now faces collapse. We are therefore compelled to call for wider attention to the risks of losing such critical scientific infrastructure which transcends even the systematic risks now posed to tropical fieldwork everywhere by the current COVID-19 pandemic. The Venezuelan plot network is not just part of the scientific heritage of the country, but if saved and strategically expanded can form the basis of a high-quality monitoring system capable of tracking the diversity, carbon, and climate sensitivity of its remaining forests throughout the 21st Century.
** Author's affiliations:
1. Instituto de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo Forestal (INDEFOR), Universidad de Los Andes, Mérida, Venezuela.
2. School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), University of Washington, Seattle, USA.
3. Universidad Experimental de los Llanos Ezequiel Zamora (UNELLEZ), Portuguesa, Venezuela.
4. Institute of Forest Sciences. Faculty of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany.
5. Universidad Nacional Experimental de Guayana (UNEG), Bolívar, Venezuela.
6. Centro de Ecología, Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas, Caracas, Venezuela.
7. IIAMA, Universitat Politècnica de València, València, Spain.
8. School of Geography, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK.
9. School of Geography, University of Leeds, UK.
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20. Lopez-Gonzalez, G., Lewis, S. L., Burkitt, M. & Phillips, O. L. ForestPlots.net: A web application and research tool to manage and analyse tropical forest plot data. J. Veg. Sci. 22, 610–613 (2011).
We thank Jean Pierre Veillon, a true pioneer in the study of Venezuelan forests whose vision and energy led to the establishment and monitoring of the plot network nationwide. Similarly, many others at ULA, IVIC, UNEG and the invaluable contribution of local helpers who made possible to collect data and maintain the functioning in some of these research areas. All authors acknowledge funding from the Amazon Forest Inventory Network (RAINFOR) project for fieldwork and data collection between 2004 and 2016. The RAINFOR forest monitoring network in Venezuela has been supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (http://www.nerc.ac.uk/) (grants NE/D005590/1 and NE/I028122/1) and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (https://www.moore.org/). OLP is supported by an ERC Advanced Grant (291585) and is a Royal Society-Wolfson Research Merit Award holder. GvdH is supported by an Anne McLaren fellowship from the University of Nottingham, UK. EV received funding support for his PhD from the Corkery Family Fund and the Center for Sustainable Forestry at Pack Forest (http://www.packforest.org/), both from University of Washington (http://www.washington.edu/).