Q1: You were born and brought up in the UK, but you have spent all your adult life in tropical East Asia. When did you start your study in Tropical East Asia? And why did you choose East Asia?
Well, I first came to this region when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge. A friend of mine got some money to do field work in the summer vacation; I think it must be have been in 1974. I came to Malaysia and Thailand and did some fieldwork, and I have always wanted to come back. I did my PhD in Australia with field work in Papua New Guinea. I met my wife in Australia, and she’s from Thailand. She was required to return to Thailand to teach at Chiang Mai University. So I got a job in Chiang Mai University in 1980 and I’ve been in the region ever since.
The Ecology of Tropical East Asia is the first book to describe the terrestrial ecology of the entire East Asian tropics and subtropics, from southern China to western Indonesia.
Q2: Why did you choose to write this book? Is it the conclusion of your scientific work for many years?
A2: It’s the region I know. Because I worked in Hong Kong, I know southern China quite well. I have also worked in Thailand, and I worked in Singapore, and I’ve done field work in western Indonesia. So that’s the region I know well. Because I’ve been teaching in this region for 30 years, I know there is no book. So a student in Thailand doesn’t know what’s happening in Indonesia or China. A student in Vietnam doesn’t know what’s happening in the Philippines. And even a student in one part of Indonesia may not know what’s happening in another part. So it is possible for a student to see the regional picture with this book. Because many things are similar, a student working here could be working on a species of civet, for instance. And maybe there is another student working on the same species in Thailand and another student working on it in Malaysia. And they wouldn’t know each other because there is no contact within the region. So, we need an overview.
Q3: In your book, East Asia is from southern China to western Indonesia. So, why did you choose “East Asia” rather than “Southeast Asia”? Are there some differences between them?
A3: The publisher said the same thing. They said I should choose Southeast Asia because everyone knows it, but the problem is nowadays Southeast Asia has a political definition, as the Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN. Political Southeast Asia does not include tropical China. But also political Southeast Asia includes Eastern Indonesia and Papua, which is a province of Indonesia, is completely different. So yes, logically, this is East Asia, but politically it isn’t. And I thought calling it tropical East Asia would avoid the fact that tropical China is ecologically part of the region, but it is not politically part of the region. But I am not sure whether it is a good decision. Maybe I should call it Southeast Asia!
Q4: Which parts are included in southern China? What is the state of natural ecosystems in southern China? And what about Xishuangbanna?
A4: I’ve lived in Hong Kong for 19 years, so I’ve been in China for a long time. The state of natural ecosystems is pretty bad in southern China. There have been massive human impacts, particularly since 1950, but I think we are probably at a low point now. I think from now on, things are likely to improve, as more attention is given to natural ecosystems. Why is this meeting being held here? It’s discussing the problems. South China has a very high human population density. It’s not the Amazon rainforest; it’s not the Congo rainforest. It is tropical climatically, and ecologically it is a forest region. But from a human population point of view, it is more like Europe and it is not like other tropical forest regions. Europe has hardly any natural forest left; the south of England has no natural forest left. So Guangdong province is like the south of England, and it is not like the Amazon.
Q: So Xishuangbanna also has the same state?
A: What’s interesting about Xishuangbanna is it has happened so rapidly. I first came to Xishuangbanna 20 years ago. When you landed at Jinghong airport, you saw a mosaic of different landscape types. There was forest on the tops of the hills and various crop types on the hillsides, and there was rice in the valleys and little villages. And now when you land in Jinghong, it is entirely rubber plantations around the city. So from an ecological point of view, it has got much worse. But from the point of view of the local people, they may be, I don’t know, tens or hundreds of times richer. So it’s difficult to say how I feel about it. The garden (XTBG) has not changed that much. The garden is still the best I know in the Asian region. But when you look out at the hillside around, it’s all rubber, while 20 years ago when I looked out half of this was forest.
This book, The Ecology of Tropical East Asia, provides the background knowledge of the region’s ecology needed by both specialists and non-specialists to put their own work into a broader context. There are no real biological boundaries between southern China in the north and western Indonesia in the south, or between the Andamans in the west and the Ryukyus, Philippines and Sulawesi in the East.
Q5: As I know, you are a popular Professor in Universities. How do you teach or educate undergraduate or graduate students? In other words, How do you attract students to become interested in Ecology and Conservation Biology?
A5: I think that for undergraduate teaching, you just have to treat it as a professional job. It is a job like if you are teaching in a primary school or secondary school. The only difference is we don’t get any training, while primary school teachers do get training. But you just have to work on learning how to do it. So I used to be a terrible teacher. I’ve got better with practice. Undergraduate teaching is just hard work. You have to practice it.
With graduate students, it’s different because you are dealing with people who have chosen to specialize in your field. While undergraduate students are often doing what they were told, they haven’t yet decided what they are going to do. Half of the students in my undergraduate classes have no interest in ecology. They want to specialize in biotechnology or microbiology. So I think for attracting graduate students, partly you attract them from the pool of undergraduates you teach, partly you attract international students from elsewhere.
Q6: You are an Editor for the international journal, Biological Conservation, which is included by SCI with high impact factor. For most scientists in China, if their paper is accepted by a journal with a higher impact factor, they may feel more successful and then could be often supported by money from foundations. How do you view this phenomenon?
A6: I think it’s a bad thing, but we have never come up with a better alternative. And its impact has been very obvious in Asia. When institutions and universities start to use impact factors to evaluate output, there is a sudden increase in the quality of research. It happened here, in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, but it also happened in China’s top universities. The university staff used to do research which really nobody ever read or was never of any great interest. As soon as stuff gets evaluated on impact factors, the quality of research goes up. The same thing is happening in India, it’s happening in Indonesia, it’s happening in many countries. I think it is a good transition phrase.
But I think there is a point where it has a bad effect, discouraging people from doing anything new because totally new things could be difficult to publish. It also discourages people from taking risks and if you don’t take risks you are not going to do anything new. So the big questions, particularly in ecology, the important questions, may take you five, six, seven years to answer. If you are evaluated every year on how many papers you’ve published with a high impact factor in the last year, then you cannot do that sort of work. You have to do short term projects; you have to do what’s fashionable. And you have to do what the Americans like because American and European journals dominate the business. But it should be possible for a researcher in China to do what China needs. There are a few SCI journals published in China. But in Indonesia there are no SCI journals. So if I am ambitious in Indonesia, I cannot work on an Indonesian problem. That makes no sense. It is a good way to make people think globally. But you have to think globally and then act locally, and I think it counts against that.
Q7: What kind of papers could be accepted by Biological Conservation? Do you have any advice for scientists or graduate students in Ecology and Biology conservation?
A7: Yes. Biological Conservation has had a huge increase in the number of papers we get, with most of this increase from China and India. So currently we reject more than half the papers without even sending them out to review. Every week I get six or seven papers and I reject three or four straight way. In order to get accepted, you have to appeal to an international audience and it has to be more than a case study. So if you have done work of relevance to biological conservation, say in Xishuangbanna, it has to be presented in a way that will be interesting globally and it has to have global implications. So presenting it to the international audience, I think, is the key thing.
Q8: As we know, with economic and technological development, we are losing rainforests throughout the world, and the biodiversity they contain is threatened. On the other hand, “Poverty is never beautiful”. When people are hungry for an uncertain income, they will destroy everything. Therefore, development is seen as the answer to conservation.
What do you see the relationship between development and conservation in tropical region? Could you give us an example?
A8: That’s an interesting question. In some ways the equation has changed in the tropics over the last 20 years. I think that in Xishuangbanna you still have a trade-off between poverty reduction and biodiversity. But increasingly in the tropics, the threats to tropical forest are not poor people, but rich people. So in Indonesia most of the forest is not being destroyed by poor people, but is being is converted to oil palm. And this is not oil palm grown by poor peasants: this is oil palm planted by big companies owned by rich people. So it’s not just a question of poverty and economic development versus biodiversity. But every country in the world has, at some stage in its history, traded natural resources for poverty reduction. The important thing is that it saves enough natural resources through the low point, so that when it becomes possible to give greater attention to biodiversity the species are not already extinct.
So I think the key thing is to preserve examples of all the major ecosystems, to preserve all the species. This means we have to control hunting, and also we need to learn how to restore ecosystems, which we really don’t know in the tropics. There is a little bit of research going on, but we need to do a lot of more on this. Xishuangbanna is a good example over the last 20 years. I see that biodiversity has gone down, but the poverty gone down too, at least in areas where you can grow rubber. So I think for many local people it will be a benefit. But on the other hand, if you look at it from the perspective of the whole of China, probably more than 10% of China’s biodiversity is within Xishuangbanna. Local people cannot be expected to decide for themselves what the balance should be between development and diversity. I think at the state level, the whole of China level, that China could put more effort into biodiversity conservation here. And I think part of the answer is going to be directly paying landowners to conserve the biodiversity on their land. But another part of the answer is simply that we are going to have to learn how to restore ecosystems. We don’t know that we can restore rainforest, but we are going to have to learn how to do it.
Q9: What’s the main obstacle for biodiversity in tropical rainforest? And what role does environmental education play in biodiversity conservation?
A9: The main obstacle is so many people in the region. This is one of the most densely populated regions of the tropics, and also it is the one of the most economically successful. Although we tend to think poor people have more impact, really poor people have a fairly local impact, which increases with increasing wealth and also increasing expectations. Expectations in this region are very high. Everyone watches the same television programs, so they know what the life in the rest of the world is like, and everybody in the region wants a middle-class life style. In the region I called tropical East Asia there are a billion people. So the environment in the region has to survive the impact of a billion people aspiring to a middle class life style. It’s just going to be huge; it’s going to have more environmental impact than the United States and Europe combined. So it’s going to be very, very difficult to protect biodiversity in tropical rainforests.
It is clear that education has played a very important role in Europe, for instance, where young people have strong environmentally awareness and governments in Europe have relatively positive environmental policies. For example, all three major political parties in Britain, where I come from, have strong policies on global climate change and reducing carbon emissions. But environmental education is very slow and environmental change is very rapid. And education of adults is very, very difficult. There is plenty of evidence that you can change the awareness of adults, but it is much more difficult to change their actions. So public education tends to change awareness without changing actions, because actions are controlled by other things. On the other hand, children become aware from their parents, so education is very important. But waiting for the next generation is not a solution. It’s the current generation’s task to solve the problems, otherwise there won’t be anything left. If we don’t act, primary school children now growing up will live in a worse world; a warmer world with less biodiversity, probably with less food. We must solve the problems before this happens.
Q10: More and more scientists think REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, a carbon credit scheme) is a hope that there will be payments for forest restoration and protection, so, do you think REDD is the best way forward for conservation in tropical rainforest?
A10: That’s an excellent question. Whenever conservation biologists get together in the tropics, they argue about this question. I think the problem with REDD is that we don’t just need to put a price on carbon, but on more than carbon. If we had a very efficient global carbon market, then the money is going to go to the cheapest carbon. And that’s not going to be the carbon in rhinoceros or humpback whales or butterflies. It is going to be the carbon in fast-growing trees or technological methods to take carbon out of the atmosphere. So a purely carbon mechanism is not necessarily going to be good for biodiversity.
Now REDD+ and REDD++ and all the variations are trying to create more complex mechanisms, where biodiversity is taken into account, as well as other benefits. But then you lose the clarity of the global carbon market. I suspect that the best approach may be a simple global carbon market which is highly efficient, combined with regional or national biodiversity payments. Take oil palm for example; I don’t know about rubber, but oil palm is such a valuable crop that REDD payments aren’t going to be enough. But if you have a payment for carbon and you have a payment for biodiversity as well, this may push it over to a top and make bio-diverse forest worth retaining.
We will see how it works. The informal carbon market, the voluntary carbon market, is already very large. This has totally changed the way people think because previously people thought of REDD as a theoretical concept. Then a billion dollar turns up and suddenly everybody starts taking it seriously. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but just hoping that carbon markets will protect biodiversity will not work. It needs the combination of the two. In China, I think payments for carbon plus payments for biodiversity are possible.
So I’m not sure whether REDD plus biodiversity payments would be enough for people to convert their rubber back into rainforest. We also don’t know if we can do it. Maybe the soil has deteriorated too much. Maybe the species are extinct. But we need to learn how to do it. Even if payments alone will not be enough, they will certainly make people think about it. And the sort of the discipline required for REDD will have many benefits. If they occur, REDD payments are going to involve transfers of billions of dollars from the developed world to the undeveloped world. But nobody in a developed country is going to give money to an undeveloped country unless they can be absolutely sure that they will get the carbon protection they are paying for. And this is going to involve technical skills, such as remote sensing and accurate field surveys, which will be of tremendous benefit to the countries involved. So one of the best things about REDD is going to be, I think, the discipline which is going to be imposed on developing countries. Basically, if the rich countries can’t believe in the REDD benefits, you are not going to get any REDD money. No banker in Germany gives you money for carbon if you can’t guarantee that carbon will stay in forest for at least fifty or a hundred years. Many countries can’t guarantee that yet.
So I think it’s going to be good. One of the reasons why China gets a lot of voluntary carbon money at present is because other countries trust China. Poorer countries don’t get the carbon money because of poor governance, so they will have to work on this. It can potentially be a huge benefit.
Q11: The last but personal question: If you were not a scientist, which profession do you want to choose? Why?
A11: I would be a historian, I think. Everyone who is an ecologist spends a lot of time on history, because you want to understand how things reached the current state. Ecology, in turn, can contribute a lot to history. I have always found that history is fascinating, so I’d like to be a historian.