Skip navigational links  ABOUT US CONTACT US FAQ'S NEWSROOM

[Header]: USDA Forest Service[Header]: USDA Forest ServiceUSDA logo which links to the department's national site.Forest Service logo which links to the agency's national site.

 Forest Service Home
 Fire & Aviation
 Just for Kids
 Maps & Brochures
 Passes & Permits
 Photo & Video Gallery
 Projects & Policies
 Recreational Activities
 Research & Development
 State & Private Forestry
 Federal Commitment
 Forest Service Policy
 Criteria and Indicators
 FS Action Items
 Articles, Speeches, & Letters
 Links (Non-FS)
 SDIT Contact List

Evaluate Our Service
We welcome your comments on our service and your suggestions for improvement.

USDA Forest Service
Sustainable Resource Management
P.O. Box 96090
Washington, D.C. 20090-6090

(202) 205-1373

  Questions or comments regarding our website:
FirstGov: the official portal web site of the U.S. government.
 USDA logo which links to the department's national site.Forest Service logo which links to the agency's national site.

Sustainable Development e-News

Special Feature

In His Own Words
A Conversation With Ariel E. Lugo
Director, International Institute of Tropical Forestry
USDA Forest Service

Using Research for Sustainability in the Neotropics

Ariel Lugo

ADJUNTAS, Puerto RicoThe mission of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry is to generate and disseminate scientific information in support of the sustainable use of tropical forests. Accordingly, the institute works with nongovernmental organizations, universities, and the government of Puerto Rico in making scientific research useful to land-management decisionmaking.  Dr. Ariel Lugo, director of the institute, explains the importance of fulfilling that enduring responsibility and of maintaining rigorous standards in scientific inquiry, even as the institute’s scientific ranks are largely understaffed, and its budget is limited.

Q:   How much interaction occurs between the International Institute of Tropical Forestry and private landowners?

As you very well know, traditionally, people in research have little to do with private landowners.  Although research is oriented to solving problems, there’s really a gap between the private landowner and the scientist.

The interesting thing about IITF is that we have both the State and Private Forestry (S&PF) program and the research program and we’re able to establish a rapport and an interaction between the scientist working on research problems and the S&PF staff dealing directly with private landowners.  So S&PF is a conduit for the scientist to interact with private landowners, making the research we do practical and relevant to advancing the stewardship of public and private lands and waters.  And we have the additional satisfaction of doing science and of publishing articles for other scientists to read.

What challenges do you have in such interactions? 

The challenge is the tri-culture of the landowner, that of the scientist who is oriented toward specific things, and that of the S&PF itself.  I think that the S&PF culture is a hybrid culture because it communicates well with the scientists and with the landowner; therefore, they are a facilitator, bridging the gap between the scientist and the landowner.

Another challenge is timing.  Research usually deals with scales of time and space that are usually not consistent with the time and space of the landowner, who needs results now for his farm or for his property today.  The scientist might be working on some global issue on some long-term basis. 

One thing I always say is that for the benefit of interaction, you have the libraries—the sum of the knowledge that has been acquired by science and so you usually can bridge the time and space gap by good synthesis.  You synthesize the knowledge and in so doing you can bring it down today to the particular property in which you are interested.  So we at the institute do a lot of synthesis, allowing you to bridge the second challenge of time and space.

Are you using the word synthesis as a synonym for translation?

Yes and no.  By synthesis, I mean a high-level activity by which we extract from a body of knowledge, say, 10 articles, emerging principles, emerging lessons, if you will, and then when you have the lessons from the principles, you translate them to the private landowner.

What has IITF done to help private landowners manage their property in a sustainable manner?

I find it fascinating that in the IITF we’ve been doing watershed research—the oldest such research in the neotropics.  Many might think that that research is esoteric.  But in doing it, we’re doing precisely what your question addresses because when you talk about the sustainability of land management, we’re learning that while you’re getting services and products out of the land, you have to leave the land in not just as good a condition as possible but to leave it in a better condition than when you acquired it. 

What we’ve been doing in IITF for 65 years now is trying to understand the products of a complicated rainforest biodiversity, the water that goes into cities, the storage of carbon by the soil.  We’ve been getting the background information to do sustainable land management so we can approach it with more effectiveness.

Talking about synthesis, are you sharing this knowledge with the landowners?

Yes, our scientists write a lot of articles and do a lot of useful, relevant research.  But none of the articles on their own are helpful for understanding the totality, so we are constantly mining articles for a new angle, for a piece of information that may have been missed.  So, conducting the synthesis is an effort than never stops if we are to be useful to society.

Please describe the significance of IITF’s partnerships, e.g., those with the state Department of Natural Resources.

We have more than 100 partnerships.  We are a small institute with 70 to 80 employees, of whom seven are scientists.


The key is to have partners with whom you share a vision, with whom you share a goal, with whom you share a product. When you pool your resources you get synergy and from synergy you get success.


An institute for tropical forestry with only seven scientists?

Yes, my budget is small, but we have an enormous reputation.  And every year I report a long list of accomplishments to the chief. 

How do we do that?  It’s through partnerships.  Partnership is the secret of success for our agency; it’s the secret of success for our institute.  When you have a partner—a real partner—then you have the resources of the two organizations working together on something in which both have an interest.  When that happens you have synergy, which is more than the sum of the parts.  Synergy means that you multiply your input.  That’s how we approach partnerships, and that’s why we treasure them, we value them, and they make our success possible.

And you ask, What kinds of partners do we have?  We have about 50 U.S. and Puerto Rican universities that we work with, then we have an equal number of NGOs like Casa Pueblo, the Citizens for the Karst, Puerto Rico Conservation Foundation, Puerto Rico Conservation Trust.  There are many groups like that with which we interact.  The key is to have partners with whom you share a vision, with whom you share a goal, with whom you share a product.  When you pool your resources you get synergy and from synergy you get success.

IITF is one of the sponsors of this (Casa Pueblo) symposium.  What lessons do you anticipate emerging from it that can translate into land-care efforts?

Let me give you a little story about the importance of this symposium to us.  I know you’ve spoken with Pablo Cruz, who is also working closely with the National Forest System. And I know he must have told you about the problems he is having with urbanization around the National Forest.  The El Yunque National Forest was the first place in Puerto Rico to have special zoning and that was because of Forest Service research.  That was done in the early ’80s and the research was done in the ’50s and ’60s.  But that turned out to be a big failure because, in spite of the special zoning of El Yunque, there was still urbanization around the forest.  But you’d ask, Why did that happen?  It happened because our agency worked with the Government of Puerto Rico to develop protection scheme for the zoning but they did not tell anybody about it.  There was no participation from citizens.  It was top-down. And now 20 to 30 years later we found that it failed. 

What have you been seeing here in this symposium?

This is bottom-up.  This symposium is celebrating a special zoning for the tops of the mountain in Puerto Rico.  I am so enthusiastic and I have high expectations that this time it will work better because from the beginning we have the landowners, the partners, involved and they know what’s going on and they know what the regulations are and we have the government officials coming down here answering questions from the public.  That never happened around the national forest.  Around the national forest the government would tell them what to do, but now they are asking this morning, “Hey, how come you are using machines?  Your machines are hurting nature.  We don’t like that practice.”  So, it’s a completely different approach, a different model, a different way of thinking.  And we are so excited about it.

What’s the institute’s role in Criteria and Indicators?

There are two things you should know about this.  Number 1 is that we are one of two tropical jurisdictions in the United States doing Criteria and Indicators (C&I).  Of course, Hawaii is another one.

What makes us different from the rest of the nation is the high diversity and the high population pressures.  This is a unique situation between humans and nature.  One of our roles in the national effort is to bring the perspective of high-density population areas in relation to high biodiversity, because our biodiversity is 10 times higher than the biodiversity in mainland United States.  So that’s a contribution that we have.

The other one is that C&I that were developed were global.  What we are doing is adapting them to islands and we’re asking the question, How is the application of Criteria and Indicators unique to the islands?  And so that’s another contribution that we are bringing to the table—the evaluation of the methodology when it is applied to island conditions. 

So those two things, I think, are two national contributions that Puerto Rico and Hawaii are making to Criteria and Indicators.

I see a lot of passion here—passion for the land, passion for the environment, passion for water.  Why is that so? 

It’s because we see the relationship.  On the mainland you have a lot of land and you get lost.  And so people might not see immediately how important nature is to the economy and to survival.  On these islands, as you know, we are surrounded by the ocean and we are very crowded as you’ve also have found out.  If you bulldoze the land, immediately my yard gets sediments or my water becomes dirty.  People see it; they see the relationship almost immediately.  So we have more passion because we realize how important it is.

Ariel E. Lugo has, since 1996, been Director of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry (IITF), Río Piedras, Puerto Rico.  Prior to assuming his current responsibilities, he served in a variety of leadership positions, including those of Acting Deputy Chief of International Forestry, in 1995; of Acting Director of IITF (1986-1992); of Project Leader (1979-1992); of Division Head (1980-1988); of Assistant Secretary for Science and Technology in the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources (1974-1975); and of Assistant Secretary for Planning and Resource Analysis (1973-1974).

Lugo serves on the editorial boards of scholarly journals such as the
Journal of the Litoral, Journal of Sustainable Forestry, Forest Ecology and Management, Conservation Ecology, and Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change.  He is the editor of Acta Científica, a journal of the Puerto Rico Science Teachers Association.  He has also mentored scores of graduate students and research scientists.

Lugo has published more than 400 refereed journal articles and has won research grants from organizations such as the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Florida Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Department of Interior,  the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Lugo holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology, both from the University of Puerto Rico, and a doctorate in ecology from the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill

Conversation with Pablo Cruz
Conversation with Edgardo González
Return to SDe-News Summer 2006

Disclaimers | FOIA | Privacy Notice | Quality of Information | Print

    Last Modified: Wednesday, July 19, 2006