Renegade Naturalist Radio Interviews Richard Rice

CAF Co-founder and President Richard Rice was recently interviewed by Daniel Botkin for his Renegade Naturalist Radio series. The two discussed the Conservation Agreement Fund’s unique approach to conservation and land protection, through conservation agreements.

Listen to or Download the podcast (Duration: 17:20 — 12.0MB). Right click the link and select “Save As” to download

View the original post on Daniel Botkin’s blog.

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Q&A with Richard Rice

Property and Environment Research Center Blog

It is officially summer and that means PERC is welcoming dozens of visiting fellows ranging from scholars and students to journalists and entrepreneurs. Last week we welcomed Richard Rice, the co-founder and president of the Conservation Agreement Fund—a nonprofit whose mission is to protect globally significant areas through incentive-based conservation agreements.

Richard has more than 25 years of experience in natural resource and public policy analysis, most recently at Conservation International where he served as chief economist. While at CI, he conducted extensive research on the costs and effectiveness of different approaches to biodiversity conservation in the tropics and supervised projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. He has published widely on the viability of sustainable forest management and has worked on the development and implementation of a unique approach to conservation.

We thank Richard for participating in our new Q&A series for The Percolator.

Q: In 2010, you founded the Save Your World Foundation with Scott Cecil. What is Save Your World and how does it work?

A: We are the only non-profit devoted exclusively to supporting conservation agreements in developing countries. We serve as a kind of “mother ship” for our projects, providing technical assistance as needed and connecting them to funding sources here in the U.S.

One of the things we focus on is hosting project-level endowments. Endowments are a common approach to conservation funding here in the U.S. but are beyond the reach of many projects abroad. They can be an extremely useful tool for project finance. Our projects, for example, have very well-defined recurrent annual costs and matching those costs to an inevitably uneven flow of funding is much easier to accomplish with an endowment.

Q: The Conservation Agreement Fund advocates a unique approach to conservation—one that uses incentive-based agreements. How do these agreements work?

A: Conservation agreements are just that, agreements negotiated with resource owners that define a concrete conservation outcome—usually the protection of a particular habitat or species—in exchange for benefits designed to give resource owners an ongoing incentive to conserve. The type of benefits provided vary but can include technical assistance, support for social services, employment in resource protection, or direct cash payments.

How a particular agreement is structured, of course, depends on the setting. One of our projects compensates Maasai herdsman for livestock lost to predators in exchange for their commitment to not kill lions. In effect, it’s an insurance program for the Maasai and it has been tremendously successful in protecting lions. It now covers more than 1 million acres of communal grazing lands.

Another agreement provides support for traditional landowners in the Solomon Islands, protecting the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific. In that case, our benefits include employment as rangers and a scholarship program for school children.

Q: What role do property rights play in these incentive-based agreements?

A: The property rights involved are absolutely key. It’s really no different abroad than it is here in the U.S. in that respect. It’s all about devising the proper incentives to make conservation happen. The novelty is that until recently these kinds of agreements were not considered possible in developing countries. But in fact, they have proven to be very well suited to that context.

It is a bit of a paradigm shift, though, since past efforts have typically sought to benefit resource owners indirectly through markets for so-called “green” products.

With conservation agreements you’re paying for conservation directly rather than as a by-product of something else—say some activity that uses the resource you’re trying to protect but in a less damaging way. The problem is that markets for the kind of products that do that are pretty small, and pretty uncertain. And at the end of the day, they’re not really necessary.

It is much better to devise agreements to give people things they need in exchange for exactly what you want in return, which in this case is straight-ahead conservation. That way conservation becomes the thing that stimulates local economies by competing with destructive development.

All of this, of course, requires that you think about conservation as something that you pay for, just like everything else. That’s important because people in developing countries support conservation for the same reasons we do, but as a practical matter they can’t afford to forgo development anymore than we can. They are happy, though, to accept compensation in exchange for conservation.

Q: Prior to establishing the Conservation Agreement Fund, you worked for more than 20 years as the chief economist at Conservation International. What did your time at CI teach you about conservation and how have you applied to your new position?

A: Well, one thing I learned is that one person can make a big difference. That goes equally for people negotiating these kinds of agreements, as well as those helping to fund them. One medium-sized foundation or high net-worth individual, for example, could easily “own” saving the African lion in a large part of its remaining range.

These are very affordable agreements and they can be put in place quite rapidly. Someone once called this “warp-speed conservation.” Put another way, the problem is not nearly as daunting as many believe. It is certainly a lot easier to fix than I once thought. That is a very hopeful and important lesson.

Q: While at Conservation International, you helped develop an innovative leasing program to protect South American rainforests from devastation due to logging and mining. How does this leasing arrangement work, and what role does Conservation Agreement Fund now play?

A: That would be the Guyana Conservation Concession, one of the projects in our portfolio. That project was the one that got things started for conservation agreements. In brief, it is a 30-year, renewable agreement with the government of Guyana to lease 200,000 acres of pristine rainforest. Technically, it’s a timber sales agreement of the sort that any logging company would have, and accordingly, we are paying the government exactly what a logger would pay for the rights to harvest timber, which in this case is not very much by our standards, $0.15 per acre per year.

That’s quite a bargain! And it’s some of the most amazing rainforest on the planet. It protects the upper watershed of Guyana’s largest river, a place with more species of freshwater fish than any comparably-sized area in the world. It’s absolutely stunning wilderness.

I must say, that agreement made quite an impression. The place where I was working at the time (Conservation International) had spent years and probably millions of dollars trying to convince the government to establish a national park, and they just weren’t buying it.  But once we offered to pay—even what to us was a very nominal amount—they were all ears.

Parks are great, but they have some definite limitations. One is that there are no set rules on how to create them. You can do detailed biological studies, raise awareness, wine and dine government officials, and maybe you still have nothing to show for it.

The conservation agreement approach changes all that. It makes park creation much more akin to a standard business transaction, and that in turn makes park creation a lot more rapid and efficient.

Q: In your experience, what is effective conservation?

A: Well, not to sound like a broken record, but some of these agreements are pretty effective. My son and his Cub Scout buddies once held a lemonade stand at a Boy Scout soapbox derby. I matched what they raised and in a single Saturday afternoon they sold enough lemonade and cupcakes to lease 11,000 acres of rainforest for one year in our Guyana conservation concession. If we had 50 lemonade stands like that we could lease the whole 200,000 acre project area! That’s pretty effective.

Q: You’re visiting us at PERC in Bozeman, Montana. What project are you working on while you’re here?

A: I’ve been working on a set of introductory lectures on the role of property rights in conservation agreements in developing countries.

There aren’t very many people doing these kinds of projects, and one thing needed to help change that is a basic set of course material for graduate or undergraduate training.

As it turns out, conservation agreements are great platform for class work. They’re a nexus for so many different disciplines: law, economics, biology, sociology, business, development studies, conservation. It’s really very rich. Hopefully my lectures will help get that ball rolling in some small way.

June 21, 2011  .  Bozeman, Montana

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6. Leaving Kolombangara


Photo by Fred Oliver

We left Kolombangara on our first clear morning. By midday, gushing rain transformed the lower-elevation forests into torrents of braided streams that formed and reticulated as we wandered, obliterating all signs of our passage. What little there was of a trail was gone, turned streambed. So we just went down, followed water, became it in the steady downpour.

And then it stopped. Rivulets disappeared like snakes into grass. The tall hill forest,resplendent

in the aftermath of rain, was aglow in emerald light. A mixture of birdsong and the chirp and gurgle of lower-elevation frogs heralded our return to the familiar. The pathway of our descent was absolutely stunning. Yet there was an ache in many of us, like leaving a lover or a child, not knowing when, if ever, you will see them again.

In a way, everything from here is easy, known. Lots of long hours shaking out and drying gear, meeting with partners and government officials, collating notes, packing and organizing specimens and samples. Somewhat exhausting, but all the risk and sketchiness diminished, our lists gently blown away in the soft lagoon breeze.

Once back, we will have the task of curating collections and writing up descriptions of localities and itineraries, reporting initial results and beginning more sophisticated analyses of the data collected. And there is the wonderful prospect of comparing material and notes from this trip with collections at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which houses the most extensive collections of Solomon material in the world.

As a young boy in New York, I dreamed of working at the museum — not knowing what that would mean, just knowing the magnetism the place held for me, the power of illustrating the diversity of life in ways at once titillating, inspiring and accessible to a child walking in off the streets, ready for life to change.

Like a library filled with books whose stories are rewritten and multiplied with every new addition, existing museum collections enable us to place our work in geographic and temporal contexts impossible to attain in the field, even over many years. Each drawer of specimens holds many lifetimes of work, neatly filed and collated by geography, time, family, species, all growing in value with each expedition arriving back to embellish and reweave the stories held within.

That said, the prospect of poring through museum collections is exciting, but it is just work.

Photo by Patrick Pikacha

Not to diminish what is the unglamorous bulk of scientific work, but it will get done and our research will prosper for it.

What is less certain is the fate of these last wild island places and the people who areentangled within them. Despite their famed scientific influence, islands are sadly underrepresented in global conservation priorities. In part, this is due to a tyranny of size — even the largest archipelagos, in their entirety, are a mere fraction of many continental parks or protected areas. Islands have also been misunderstood by science and society, with the pendulum of interest swinging over time between paradise found and backwater. Islands are more than this.

The work we have been doing on this trip is part of a larger body of work carried out by an exceptional community of island biologists. Our sense of the global importance of islands is shifting. Research using molecular biology, and our growing ability to analyze at scale, presents a picture of islands not only as bizarre evolutionary backwaters, but also engines of diversification that affect global patterns of diversity.

In the face of this re-envisioned island biology, there are numerous efforts to partner with island people to both conserve and restore island systems. These island initiatives are a bellwether of global conservation efforts, and this story is largely untold.

On Kolombangara, partnership between indigenous landholders and a sustainable plantation timber company has spawned the seed of a customary biodiversity reserve system for the Solomons. And this inspired our expedition as much as science. Opportunities to support unbroken indigenous interest in a place through biology are vanishingly rare.

The last Kolombangara sunrise of the expedition. Photo by Patrick Pikacha

In places like Kolombangara, science has become a kind of poetry of place — a bridge between we who are discovering a wider world, made but still being made, and those who are rediscovering the lost essence of a birthplace. Natural history provides a mutual language legitimizing an indigenous history and voice that has been muted. Our partnership with customary landholders on Kolombangara is a commitment to leveraging science to improve stewardship of everything that is wild and unique about the island.

October 20, 2010, 4:11 pm  .  Kolombangara, Solomon Islands

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5. Waking in the Clouds to a Chorus of Birds


Kolombangara peregrine country. Photo by Patrick Pikacha

Friday, Oct. 15

Waking at 1,600 meters in the Solomons is like waking in the clouds. Cloud days begin with a vigil of sorts: a slow and deliberate ascent up a ladderlike trail through the tangles to a perch that hangs out into the gloaming heart of morning cloud surrounding the high ridges. At dawn, wind heaves up from the central caldera, shifting the heavy mist. Other than this mountain breath, there is little indication of anything beyond moss, wood and orchids splaying out everywhere along the limb holding me up.

A just-released Meek’s lorikeet. Photo by Patrick Pikacha

From this perch one can read the morning chorus of birdsong. Many bird species roost for the night at perches reflecting their distribution within a forest and then sing in a beautifully clocklike species-specific cadence at dawn. This awakening can disclose the presence and distribution of species that are otherwise seldom detected and, properly interpreted, can provide an incredible amount of information about a forest bird community.

Mornings here I actually hear two choruses — one softly twittering in the mossy heights, and another, almost a din, rising from the crater floor far below. It is remarkable, indescribable really, hearing montane songs in the leafy tufts around my head unique to Kolombangara and reminiscent of Eurasia or North America, and simultaneously the blare of whistlers, monarch flycatchers, coucals, fantails and cuckoo-shrikes rising from tall hill forest nearly 1,100 meters below.

Like late-night lounge acts and Wall Street brokers trading night for day in the early morning city streets, our science is divided between day workers studying birds and plants, and the work of those studying bats and frogs, creatures of the night. There is overlap in our work. The mammalogists are setting traps and looking for signs by day, and I have been rising in the night, while the froggers are still afoot in the bush, to stand at the crater rim listening for the raucous, almost maniacal calls of shearwaters coming in to nest.

An encounter during a night shift. Photo by Patrick Pikacha

Miniature albatrosslike birds, shearwaters are icons of the pelagic realm, commonly seen wheeling among the waves and feeding on shoals of squid and anchovies far out to sea. To nest, some species fly into montane areas on oceanic islands to dig burrows where they lay their eggs and feed chicks that will outweigh them for a time before trimming down to fledgling size, fully feathered to take to the sea.

One species, Heinroth’s shearwater, is an uncommon bird of pelagic waters north of Kolombangara and rarely seen elsewhere. Its nest has never been found, its night calls never heard by scientists. Most suspect it nests in the lush carpet of moss and vines lining the crater wall that falls away from the ridgelines here. Despite listening out into the black air above the crater each night, no signs yet. Mystery persists.

A gecko’s eye. Photo by T. Lavery

On this trip, we are more focused on a general assessment of cloud forest diversity than on specimen collection. Specimens are critical to improving scientific understanding of life, and rapidly advancing specimen-based molecular techniques increasingly provide insight into ecological processes like nutrient cycling and the spread of anthropogenic toxins in wild populations. At the same time, specimen preparation is hugely time-consuming. A small window of relief from this has given me the opportunity to spend far more time than usual just observing, and it is paying off.

The black stripe on this bat’s back was unexpected, as was its presence at 1,700 meters. Photo by Patrick Pikacha

We have heard peregrine falcons on both previous expeditions to the adjacent crater rim, but have never been able to detect whether these are Asian migrants, as ornithological accounts suggest, or resident birds representing a regional endemic form. Two observations from the ridgelines provide nearly certain observational evidence that these are resident birds, nesting along the sheer cliffs rising from the crater and foraging on doves, lorikeets, songbirds and bats.

Back to camp in the dripping black night. I hear a frog, and then another — the first a single croakish chirp, and the other the same tinking double chirp from deep in the moss. I have never heard either anywhere else, and specimen-based work on other species suggests that these frogs will be new to science, with evolutionary histories rooted in the ecological gradients marking the ascent from lowland rain forest up into the clouds.

A likely new frog species. Photo by Patrick Pikacha

The next morning, I see Patrick Pikacha has one of the tiny frogs (single croakish chirp) and is photographing it. These will be the first photographs and specimens ever taken of this frog. Kolombangara clicks forward, ratcheting up the towers of scientific uniqueness. This is the same ancient beating drum of the heart of a place that inspired language, art and culture, simply heard more clearly again.

October 18, 2010, 5:58 pm  .  Kolombangara, Solomon Islands

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4. On the Origins of Island Life


Kolombangara white-eyes. Photo by Andrew Cox

Tuesday, Oct. 12

After 12 hours of walking, climbing and crawling through tangles of huge roots, fern trees and bamboo, our full team has reached and settled into our high camp. We are perched in a small cleft at 1,600 meters elevation on the flanks of Veve, the highest point on Kolombangara. Moving about here is like balancing in the canopy of a huge moss-covered tree, the ground one or two meters beneath a lattice of roots and prostrate trunks of trees that twist up, stunted, into the mist that drips incessantly.

Pitching a tent is almost laughable, and I struggle not to slip down  my damp tent floor as I write. Yet thanks to our Kolombangara guides, we do have fire, hot tea and rice, and bamboo abounds for drinking and cooking water. Once we had warmed and nourished ourselves a bit — though 85 humid degrees in the lowlands, temperatures here now wavered in the mid-50s with wind and spitting mist — we set to work.

Two longtime collaborators of mine are leading much of the research on this expedition: an outstanding botanist, Myknee Sirikolo, and an exceptional herpetologist, Patrick Pikacha (who moonlights as a photographer and author). The research agenda of our trip here is twofold: first, to better document the biology and patterns of endemism in the poorly known cloud forests of the Solomons, and, second, to collect specimen and behavioral data on endemic birds, frogs and mammals for inclusion in our ongoing studies of the origins and evolution of island life.

To achieve our research goals, we are like acrobats — well, our guides are like acrobats — setting mammal traps, stringing “mist” nets along the ridgelines to capture birds and bats from the air like gill-netting fish in the sea, and marking trails through prime frog habitat that can be followed in the black, cloud-enshrouded nights when these amphibians are active. All the while our crack botanist, Myknee, with encyclopedic knowledge of the flora here, is describing plant communities across altitudes we traverse and collecting specimens of species unknown to him.

A rarely captured endemic Meek’s lorikeet. Photo by Patrick Pikacha

Undescribed species abound here. Many of the plants unknown to Myknee will be unknown to science. Little recent work has been done on Solomon frogs, particularly in the uplands, so most or all of the species encountered could be new to science. Even within relatively well-described vertebrates like birds and mammals, we know little of species habits and distributions. Here in the heights of Kolombangara, these gaping holes in the fabric of basic biological knowledge have impeded both understanding of evolutionary origins and work to conserve its processes and products.

But already, even after just one cloud-enshrouded day, our work here is revealing some of Kolombangara’s biological secrets. Ghostly pale mountain-pigeons are abundant along the ridgelines. They are found only in the montane forests of the Solomons, and little is known of their habits. We have found several active nests and documented molt — the annual replacement of worn feathers — in nearly all individuals observed. This coincides with observations of molt in nearly all of the birds we have observed or captured thus far. Molt in the lowlands is asynchronous for most species, as is breeding. These initial results suggest that cloud forest bird communities may have far more seasonal life histories compared with relatively aseasonal annual cycles in lowland birds.

Within the first several hours of netting, we capture a whole flock of endemic Kolombangara white-eyes, one of our target species, which are found only on Kolombangara above 800 meters. Past molecular work by my wife and me has revealed that the low elevation white-eye inhabiting the forests far below us is not the Kolombangara white-eye’s near relative, as once believed. The bird we captured today is a more recent arrival closely related to white-eyes in distant New Guinea. It is our hope that increased genetic sampling (from specimen and blood collection in the field), in combination with our foraging and behavioral observations, will reveal why this endemic montane white-eye was able to speciate in such close geographic proximity to the lowland species.

Through it all, this place feels fresh and unexplored, and there is a wonder to being in this biologist’s daydream. Yet there is another deeper history. On our trek up from Imbu Rano, we passed countless stone artifacts and altars, “tambu,” or sacred places, places of past sacrifice and communion with spirit worlds. And rising out of the trail, there was a massive ancient stone map with a full-relief depiction of montane Kolombangara. Prior to European contact, these were known places to Kolombangara people, complete with sculptured maps of the thoroughfares and hidden places. What is discovery for science is also an exploration of natural rhythms that spawned the first naming of what we now seek to name again — frogs, trees, birds — the sounds in the night as the drip quiets enough for us to hear the faint double chirp of a tiny frog yet to be renamed.

To learn more about Dr. Filardi’s research, take a look at this video produced by the National Science Foundation:

Photo by Chris Filardi

Evolutionary biologist Chris Filardi talks about his research on birds in the Solomon Islands, and his contributions to answering “Darwin’s great unanswered question.” Filardi is director of Pacific programs at the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation.

Credit: Lisa Raffensperger and Jeremy Polk, National Science Foundation

October 15, 2010, 11:22 am  .  Kolombangara, Solomon Islands

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3. Journey to Kolombangara Island


Approaching Kolombangara Island. Photo by Chris Filardi

Sunday, Oct. 10

I awoke in the Solomon Airlines Twin Otter yesterday afternoon and looked groggily out the window. Below sprawled a bewildering array of islands, reefs and tropical ocean blues. On the short one-hour flight between Guadalcanal and my destination in the New Georgia Islands, we traversed the entire geographic ranges of numerous bird species. Laid out almost like a textbook diagram, the geography has helped shape our concept of what a species is.

After landing in Munda on New Georgia Island, we had to lug all 140 pounds of my gear to the wharf, pack and rainproof it in our trusty motor canoe, called Imasa — which in Roviana means “to linger somewhere on the way to someplace else” — and then pick up 200 liters of fuel (about 53 gallons) that had to be pumped from old 200-liter drums and poured into our running and auxiliary tanks in five-liter pitchers.

From where we landed, it was a forty-minute boat trip through the Vonavona Lagoon, part of the largest lagoon systems on earth, to Kolombangara Island. Giant island imperial pigeons, the size of small chickens, commute to fruit trees on the larger “mainland” islands from the dozens of islets we pass where the birds congregate in large communal roosts.

These pigeons are widespread in the southwestern Pacific, showing no variation among populations on different islands in the Solomons.

This is not surprising given their habit of commuting, sometimes long distances, to trees that often fruit asynchronously (like figs) with fruiting individuals separated unpredictably in space and time.

This is a real contrast to the many songbirds that differ among nearly all major islands in the Solomons.

The small fruit- and insect-eating white-eyes are exceptional in this regard. Across the seven major islands of the New Georgia group, some of them only a couple of kilometers apart, there are seven species of white-eyes, including one endemic to an island only about twice the size of Manhattan, and another found only in the cloud forests of Kolombangara and nowhere else on earth. This is one of the birds we will be looking for when we begin our long climb before dawn tomorrow morning.

This is not surprising given their habit of commuting, sometimes long distances, to trees that often fruit asynchronously (like figs) with fruiting individuals separated unpredictably in space and time. This is a real contrast to the many songbirds that differ among nearly all major islands in the Solomons.

The small fruit- and insect-eating white-eyes are exceptional in this regard. Across the seven major islands of the New Georgia group, some of them only a couple of kilometers apart, there are seven species of white-eyes, including one endemic to an island only about twice the size of Manhattan, and another found only in the cloud forests of Kolombangara and nowhere else on earth. This is one of the birds we will be looking for when we begin our long climb before dawn tomorrow morning.

A Kolombangara white-eye.

A Kolombangara white-eye.

I am now writing from the veranda of the Imbu Rano Lodge. Imbu Rano is a research and education center established through a novel partnership between indigenous landholders and a sustainable plantation timber company that operates in the Kolombangara lowlands. The base and launch point for our expedition to the cloud forests, Imbu Rano is spectacularly perched on the edge of the largest terrestrial biodiversity reserve in the Solomons.

After dinner, colleagues from several local conservation organizations, customary land representatives and other partners all gathered to discuss the expedition.

Conversation quickly turned to two essentials: fire and water. In the highest-elevation forests, dry burnable wood can be nearly impossible to find. No fire, no cooking (a person can live on biscuits alone, but not well). There are trees that will burn green, a sort of “kerosene wood,” though most of our guides agreed we would be too high to find this type of tree. More importantly, despite the sodden conditions of the cloud forests, drinking water can be difficult to find and rainwater hard to collect. Unlike the rain forests of the lowlands, a majority of precipitation in cloud forests comes in the form of mist — and when you are camped at 1,700 meters (5,577 feet) on an 1,800-meter mountain, there is not a lot of room for streams or springs to form.

The remedy in both cases will probably be bamboo. Absent from the lowlands, bamboo thickets pick up around 1200 meters  elevation (around 4,000 feet). Standing dry bamboo absorbs little of the misty precipitation and burns well. Green bamboo segments are filled with sweet, grassy-flavored water.

The “sleeping” snake.

Just out around the lodge trying to catch a satellite signal, I disturb a beautiful little carpet boa locally known as a sleeping snake for its tendency to “sleep” for days in a spot after eating — our first taste of what lies ahead. The forest finally begins to reveal itself after the last engine sounds fade with the trucks that dropped us here, electric light, telephones and the soft chatter of houses and shops far, far below. But it is not quiet as evening comes. Hoots and growls, chirps, trills, clucks, squawks, rasping and grunting sounds — all foreshadow the mystery held by the world we are about to enter.

A previous version of this post misspelled Kolombangara.

October 13, 2010, 5:57 pm  .  Kolombangara, Solomon Islands

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2. The Necessity of Conservation, and of Eating Ripe, Green Bananas


The capital city of the Solomon Islands, Honiara, really ticks to

A typical scene in Honiara.

a different clock. For all its hustle and bustle, rattling trucks, scampering feet, laughter and clamor, Honiara is on Solomon time. As hard as you may try to keep a tight schedule, time in the Solomons tends to open up and swallow itself.

Today has been a long day. Nonstop walking, driving, running and sweating, and as on most days here in Honiara, I had a hopeful list of tasks that’s not even half done. And all the while I’m surrounded by people whose lists are not measured in hours or days, but in Solomon time, time that ticks to conversations, chance meetings and the steady beat of bare feet across the many juxtaposed lives and cultures that mingle here.

In Honiara, as in many capital cities in this part of the world, rapid growth, lots of old and ailing vehicles belching out smoke, limited fresh water and poor waste disposal all assault one’s respiratory and digestive systems. So a roiling gut presents another real challenge to my day. A wise old woman has me rubbing pure coconut oil infused with some aromatic herb up my nose to keep the dust and grit from getting too far into my head. The nut grease seems to be working, though it makes the whole world smell like a citrus coconut cream pie.

Days here are also complicated by something of a double life.

The Solomon Islands is one of the birthplaces of bananas.

My long-term research is combined with a growing role in developing and supporting community-driven forest and marine conservation work. The vast untrammeled mosaics of tall forest, shifting garden sites and gin-clear freestone streams I encountered when I first came to the Solomons are gone across huge swaths of the islands. Growing demand for raw tropical hardwood logs in Asia and little regulatory capacity here has placed immense pressures on local subsistence communities that are home to more than 80 percent of Solomon Islanders.

In time, forests will recover to a degree, but human communities housed and nourished within them since beyond living memory are now fighting over firewood and thirsty for clean water. In the face of this trend, from a biologist’s perspective, the choice was to either resign myself to writing epitaphs for a vanishing world or combine research with active conservation practice. The choice was not a hard one to make.

Day to day, combining conservation work here with my research means that in between purchasing bush knives (machetes) and new topographic maps (the originals, made in the 1960s, were 1 degree latitude off, which means a lot when humping around deep bush rippling with cliffs of up to 600 meters), and finding rebar for marking transects and forest plots, I have to meet with government ministers, check in with authorities about shady timber licensing deals, and track down key customary landholders who are scattered about every nook and cranny of this growing island capital.

Land in Solomons is not really owned – “landowner” is a word that doesn’t exist in most of the more than 80 endemic languages spoken here; several as distinct as English and Greek are murmured within my earshot now. Yet every indigenous Solomon Islander has rights and entitlement to land and marine areas passed from generation to generation through word of mouth, illustrated by actions or symbols, for all members of a lineage, tribe or clan. Today, individuals in local communities control nearly 90 percent of land area in Solomons. So everybody you pass on the dusty, bustling streets is a king or queen of sorts, with rights and entitlement to pieces of some of the last great island wilderness left on earth. Recognizing this, cherishing it, lies at the heart of the approach we are taking to improve forest management. The work of a Solomon Islands conservationist is truly in the streets.

So my day is peppered with chance (and not so chance) meetings on buses, along the docks, in shops that have the best bush knives, and often in the Honiara Central Market. All this with my trusty list in hand, rewritten with each twist and turn through the heavy heat of the day.

One thing on my list that never gets scratched (item No. 7 of 27 today) is “eat ripe green bananas,” which I am doing right now. I am also eating little fat pale yellow ones and giant monster sausage-shaped bananas, all with tastes and textures of their own. The Solomon Islands is one of the birthplaces of bananas – plants that grow only by human hands, for they have been bred to lack the ragged, rock-hard seeds of their wild ancestry – and there are more kinds of bananas here than there are types of breakfast cereal in an American supermarket. It is luscious nourishment, settling my belly before the journey west to the many volcanoes of the New Georgia Islands, with Kolombangara, mist-enshrouded, towering above all the rest.

October 12, 2010, 6:09 pm  .  Honiara, Solomon Islands

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1. On Guadalcanal, Studying Evolution


The highest point in the Solomon Islands, more than 8,000 feet above Henderson Field. The uplands of Guadalcanal are a spectacularly mysterious place that few have ever visited. These forests are part of the largest remaining contiguous tract of wet forest left in the insular tropical Pacific. Photo by Chris Filardi

Three short hours from the cosmopolitan city of Brisbane, Australia, and a world away, I have arrived in the Solomon Islands. Stepping from the crisp tubular world of jet travel into the familiar thickness of tropical air, I descend the gangway into a place that once echoed with the thunder and stench of the Battle of Guadalcanal, a place first visited by American Museum of Natural History biologists nearly a century ago during an expedition that really did change the world, and a place still alive in a timeless blend of biological and cultural wonder that inspired my career as a biologist.

I arrived here at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal nearly 15 years ago to study elusive forest birds. That was before I knew the details of the bloody battles that brought tens of thousands of American soldiers through this airstrip between 1942 and 1943, before I knew that my great-uncle preceded me here as a Marine, falling injured in the tawny hills.

For biologists, islands have always been illuminating places. In part, this reflects both the relative simplicity of island ecosystems and also the richly unique, and sometimes bizarre, turns that life takes on islands – think parrots behaving like big rodents, massive dragonlike lizards and miniature hippos, giant flightless dodo birds and tiny ground-foraging bats.

The Galapagos islands inspired Darwin’s brilliant and remarkably enduring explanation for how species change over time through natural selection, and it was islands – the Solomon Islands in particular – that helped to answer the great question his famous book left unanswered: what, really, is the origin of species?

Chris Filardi

A male white-naped monarch, mist-netted on islands east of here, is one of a wonderful variety of monarch flycatchers endemic in single islands in the Solomons, and the group of Solomon birds that shaped Ernst Mayr’s ideas and, in our work, revealed the give and take of island evolution. Photo by Chris Filardi

In the late 1920s, Ernst Mayr, then a young scientist at the American Museum of Natural History, armed with insights from the newly emergent field of genetics, visited the Solomons as part of the epic Whitney South Sea Expedition.

In a flash of inspiration sparked by the high degrees of endemism (forms unique to single regions or islands) among Solomon birds, Mayr theorized that geographic isolation alone could drive one population diverging from another population until they became distinct species.

Geographic isolation as genesis, something islands have in spades: it was this that we first came to explore in the Solomons. Just as Ernst Mayr brought emerging genetic theory to bear on earlier ideas about speciation, we had new theoretical and technological advances at our disposal when we first arrived. Not only could we think about genetics, we could visualize and analyze actual DNA molecules. This enabled a new genetic measure of bird variation across geography, and to some extent over time. To do this, however, we needed to collect DNA, or samples of fresh tissue, from birds across their ranges in the Solomon Islands.

It has taken more than a decade of collaborative field and lab work, an enduring partnership with my fellow graduate student (turned wife and mother to our two children), and an incredible amount of wisdom, grace and partnership from Solomon Island naturalists and community leaders. We now have some emerging results that are again altering our sense of island biology.

For instance, we used to think islands received colonists through a one-way flow of diversity from overflowing continental systems. Molecular analyses are now revealing that island evolution is a two-way street, with colonists arriving on islands, evolving into wonderfully unique forms, and then often backtracking to reinvigorate continental diversity. This means that islands are engines of diversification in their own right and far more important to global patterns of diversity than we once thought.

All pretty cool, but one thing persistently troubles me. The patterns we have been addressing over the years are based primarily upon the birds of the lowlands. High above, there are seldom-visited islands within islands, mossy elfin cloud forests filled with endemic birds often known from only one or two specimens collected a century or more ago. And these are not just little brown birds, but huge forest-dwelling kingfishers, long-legged mouselike songbirds singing unknown songs, and montane-nesting seabirds whose nests have never been found. What will exploration of these poorly known islands within islands reveal?

Chris Filardi

A female white-naped monarch. Photo by Chris Filardi

Over the next several days I will run around the wonderfully real and gritty capital town, Honiara, in preparation to join a team of Solomon Island biologists on an expedition to the highest ridgeline on the island of Kolombangara – a place few people have visited in recent decades and a place unsurveyed by scientists.

It is a hard-won victory by indigenous landowners that these high-elevation forests are now part of a fledgling system of protected areas in the Solomons, and this trip is a long-awaited journey for me. But I first have to track down tarps and search out two prominent leaders from the area (both way easier said than done), follow up on a small mountain of requisite paperwork, and drink a cold Solbrew with a friend who is a master at helping me puzzle all of my gear into shapes that will fit into small planes, motor canoes and dugouts, and then on our backs – the steps between here and there.

October 9, 2010, 10:48 am  .  Honiara, Solomon Islands

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