Guardian of Earth's treasure trove of trees
For 50 years, Britain's Peter Ashton has been studying – and trying to preserve – a wealth of diversity in Asia's tropical forests.
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But it was the academic, not the physical, challenge that initially bewildered Ashton. "There are around 35 native tree species in Britain, around 350 to 400 in the United States. In Brunei," which is less than half the size of Connecticut, "there are around 3,000. How do you manage 3,000 trees?"Skip to next paragraph
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Ashton aimed to find out. He set up small plots to establish which kinds of trees thrived where. He documented 30,000 trees from almost 1,000 species. He returned to write up his findings, teach at Aberdeen University in Scotland and at Harvard, and ponder how to set up something more ambitious.
What was needed, he resolved, was a broader regional or even global network of rain forest plots to provide truer measurements of how different trees perform. With collaborators like the now-eminent ecologist Stephen Hubbell and impressive funding from public and private sources, Ashton led the establishment of Forest Dynamics Plots, a global network that now includes 18 permanent plots of about 125 acres each, mostly in Asia, that provide data on almost 4 million trees.
It was for this work, launched in 1986 and still growing today, that he received his Japan Prize citation from the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan, which commended his "significant contribution toward solving the conflict between human beings and the tropical forest ecosystem though his long and prominent career." It was presented to him in Tokyo last week.
"[Ashton] was an exceptional man from the time he was an undergraduate," notes Professor Grubb, who has known Ashton since the 1950s. "He has created an engine of research which has already yielded a number of interesting results. He quickly built up a knowledge of the species in Southeast Asia, confronting a very intimidating forest, which was a remarkable thing to do."
Grubb adds that it's unfair to judge Ashton by the poor state of today's rain forest. "Most of us feel we are dealing with corrupt governments and worldly people not remotely interested in the preservation of the future of their country."
Ashton says the problems of the rain forests revolve around money and public relations. While climate change has suddenly attracted huge interest, investment, and international attention because of the telling impact it has made on the public psyche, biodiversity struggles to grab public notice.
We should pay more attention, says Ashton. "Biodiversity gives us the option for our future not just for 20 years, but for 200 and 2,000 years," he says. "Once a species is destroyed, it cannot be recreated, it's gone forever. Can we afford to do that in the long-term interest of humankind?"
"It may sound nebulous if you're starving," he adds, "but most of us in the rich world should think seriously about that. Oil palm has only been known as a crop for 50 years; the rubber plant was only discovered as a commercial crop 130 years ago. Do you mean to tell me that ... this sort of thing is never going to happen again?"
All this bounty, he says, is teeming in the trees of the rain forest, where each organism can have hundreds of other species dependent on it. Of all the life on earth, more than half is in the tropics and three-quarters of that is in the rain forest, Ashton says. "And the rain forest is owned by poor people and poor governments," he says. "Cannot we afford in our wealth to pay a rental to maintain those forests? It is us who are the beneficiaries; it is our industry that will avail of these opportunities."
So trees or people? By now it has become clear that for Ashton it's not either-or.