Q&A with author Tim Killeen

Q&A with author Tim Killeen

  • Tim Killeen is an ecologist and conservation biologist with a background in disciplines including genetics, botany and taxonomy, who has recently completed the second edition of his book, A Perfect Storm in the Amazon.
  • He offers a wide-ranging view of the forests of the Pan-Amazon region, weaving a single narrative that takes in the region’s biodiversity, climate, and geography, as well as the economic activities and environmental crimes that threaten it.
  • The 13 chapters of the new edition of his book will be published in 2023 by Mongabay in three languages: English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

While his early days as a Boy Scout brought him closer to nature and introduced him to a number of outdoor activities during his childhood in the U.S., it was Timothy J. Killeen’s one special backpacking trip that he recalls most fondly. Over the course of 18 months, he traveled the whole of the Americas, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, taking in the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, Chilean Patagonia, and the Callejón de Huaylas in the Peruvian Andes along the way. “The wildlife was really impressive. So much so that upon returning to the United States I pursued a career change,” he said.

Since then, Killeen’s curiosity has led him to work his way through a number of disciplines: botany, taxonomy, dendrology (the scientific study and taxonomic identification of trees, shrubs, and lianas), and, finally, ecology. All of these fields, each in their own way, have allowed Killeen to develop an understanding of just how delicately and fascinatingly interwoven our ecosystems are.

In total, Killeen has spent over 30 years in South America, where his academic work has paved the way for pioneering initiatives to curb deforestation and climate change, such as the creation of protected natural areas and advising on Bolivia’s very first environmental impact studies. This was followed by his work as an advisor on the sustainability in agricultural supply chains and in assessing the viability of new bio-commerce business models in Brazil.

Mongabay spoke to Tim Killeen shortly before the virtual launch – in three languages – of the second edition of his book, A Perfect Storm in the Amazon Wilderness, in which he tackles, in an accessible manner, how the Amazon can survive the different economic, social, and political processes that are currently impacting it.

Mongabay: How were topics such as conservation and sustainable development addressed in your time at university?

Tim Killeen: I went to university in the 1970s, and back then the main movement was about the protection of endangered species. Deforestation wasn’t yet a burning issue, but it was a cause for concern for biologists. During my backpacking trip, I really came to appreciate the natural world and left my studies of plant genetics behind. I dedicated myself to botany and, thanks to some grants I received from the OAS, I was able to spend three years carrying out fieldwork in Bolivia from 1984 on. The town where I lived was called Concepción, and was located in the southeast of the Amazon region, in a forested area that connected the Amazon with the savannah of the Cerrado biome in Brazil. It was a formative period for me and one which allowed me to start working, after returning to finish my doctorate at Iowa State University.

Mongabay: How did you keep connected to what was going on in the southern part of the continent?

Tim Killeen: It was thanks to a job as the Missouri Botanical Garden’s representative in Bolivia until the early 1990s, which was the decade in which the issue of biodiversity really came to the fore, although the concept had been around for a while.

Tim Killeen (left) in the field in 1998. Image courtesy of Tim Killeen.

Mongabay: You have been part of key moments in which environmental concepts have been reconfigured, or have started to take on greater importance. Was this also the case with climate change?

Tim Killeen: Yes, in the 1970s, climate change was something that was only discussed among scientists. I had friends who were fervently against the use of nuclear power, but I used to tell them that climate change was going to take place, eventually, because of fossil fuels. But it was from spending time in Bolivia in the 1980s that I came to realize just how bad the issue of deforestation was. I can remember clearly how there were evenings in which the sky would take on a red color, due to the quantity of smoke that had been released into the atmosphere because the whole of the south of the department of Santa Cruz was burning. In fact, I remember a trip I did to the Noel Kempff Museum of Natural History, where I traveled by road for a day and a half and everything on either side of the road was black. All as a result of the forest fires.

Mongabay: What was the scientific community in Bolivia like at the time?

Tim Killeen: It was small, there were only a couple of people with PhDs, two young men with masters degrees and a bunch of students. Which is why my first work involved the building up of the institutions, that is, signing working agreements with museums such as the National Museum of Natural History of Bolivia, in La Paz, and the Noel Kempff Museum of Natural History, in Santa Cruz. This is how we spent the 1990s, working to train people to carry out fieldwork. It was also in this decade that protected natural areas started to be created and I participated in the conservation systems.

Mongabay: Was everyone you worked with a university student?

Tim Killeen: No, there were a lot of different kinds of people. Autodidacts, or others who were particularly interested in orchids or birds. I learned a lot from them because they were better botanists than me! [Laughter]. All of these spaces were always led by Bolivians themselves, and it gave me a lot of pleasure to channel my efforts through the museums, because it brought us closer to the students, who I could then advise on their theses and projects, despite not giving any classes myself.

Recently cleared forest in the Bolivian Chaco for soy plantations. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
Recently cleared forest in the Bolivian Chaco for soy plantations. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Mongabay: How did these experiences translate into your academic work?

Tim Killeen: I think that my career evolved [as a result]: I was a botanist and a plant collector; I was a taxonomist and I have recorded seven species from the Gramineae (grasses) family that have been described and published as new species; and I also organized a project to edit, with a team of young botanists, the Bolivian Tree Guide. Later, by applying methodologies in the study of plant communities, we started to develop projects with students for monitoring plots (in the 1990s). That allowed us to generate a network with identification and quantitative forest data.

Mongabay: Both the inventories as well as the monitoring plots are two practices that are particularly noteworthy because they take place over the long term. Did this, perhaps, allow you to notice and analyze the changes that were happening to the levels of biodiversity?

Tim Killeen: Of course, at first we started on a local level and in a single park, before later widening [our focus] to a river basin. Around the same time, people in other countries started to take the same approach: in Brazil, Peru, and Colombia they started to do the same as us. At the end of the 1990s the Amazon Forest Inventory Network (RAINFOR) was founded, which was a study that started with 80 monitoring plots and is now made up of a global network of over 10,000 monitoring plots. Every two years, [the scientists] return to the plots and recount the tree numbers, take measurements, analyze growth rates, etc. Once you put this information into a continent-wide database, you can start to pose questions about biodiversity, such as why there are more or fewer species in some areas compared to others.

Mongabay: During this period you also worked with NASA. Could you tell us about the work you did with them?

Tim Killeen: At the time I was working with a team of young scientists at the Noel Kempff Museum of Natural History and a lot of institutions from abroad would come to Santa Cruz as part of their projects. So they would come find me at the museum, [and] I’d help them in signing their agreement. It was like that with NASA, who knew about me beforehand. I even lent them my Jeep so that they could tour the areas of deforestation. At the time, they were carrying out their first continent-wide studies on deforestation (led by Jim Tucker) and they chose Bolivia as their first country of analysis because of the lack of cloud cover. As you know, in Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador there is a lot of cloud cover over the rainforests and at the time this was a problem. In the beginning, I helped to verify data and coordinates, and bit by bit they would send us satellite images, they started to train us to use the software, they helped us to buy the right computers, to build a database, and that’s how we created the museum’s geography laboratory.

Mongabay: How did you use this insider information from NASA?

Tim Killeen: We would cross it with the data we were getting from the forest inventory plots, that is, looking around at the natural world, seeing how it linked to the images we were getting on a landscape-wide level, creating maps of plant communities. Then we could also carry out studies on how much carbon the trees were absorbing. Until 2015 it was clear that the forests were capturing more carbon than they were emitting. Today they’re both at zero, each at the same level, and the worry is that, with the current rates of deforestation, the forests are stopping being carbon sinks. That’s a really big problem.

Some wilderness areas, such as those surrounding Madidi National Park in the Bolivian Amazon, play an extraordinary role in their respective regional contexts, where their loss would drastically reduce biodiversity. Image by Rob Wallace/WCS.

Mongabay: So is this how you ended up working on the issue of climate change and started to develop your book, A Perfect Storm in the Amazon Wilderness?

Tim Killeen: The thing is that development, deforestation, and climate changes are all very interlinked. I saw this up close in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where development took place very quickly, and with it increasing deforestation, the advance of the agricultural frontier, and of the oil, mining and gas sectors. People got in touch with me, asking me to participate in projects for which they needed Environmental Impact Assessments to be carried out. For example, I worked on the development of a paved road between Bolivia and Brazil, which until 2000 did not exist. So I was able to observe a lot of changes taking place and I met a lot of people from different sectors, from community leaders and engineers to the bankers who financed the project. The same thing happened with the gas pipelines, copper mines, soybean plantations and cattle ranching.

Mongabay: And what did you learn from all these groups?

Tim Killeen: I began to understand how their systems of production work, that is, how it is that they make money. For example, the cattle ranchers always used to complain about the jaguars and they used to hunt them up until the 1980s in order to sell their skins on the market, legally. But with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), this changed, and that’s why my book is about successes and failures. Back in the 1980s the struggle was against the wildlife trade and [the sale of] caiman hides, etc. It was a real thing. You also have to understand that there is a system that reproduces itself generation after generation, and that not everyone involved are criminals. The struggles change, some achievements are made, and then new problems appear.

Mongabay: All of these experiences took place in the region between Bolivia and Brazil. How did you come to widening your field of study to the whole Amazon region, which takes in nine countries?

Tim Killeen: While a lot of how I see things comes from my contact with the rural people of Bolivia, [through my work] with Conservation International I started to travel and to understand other parts of the Amazon. That’s how I came to publish the first edition of A Perfect Storm in the Amazon Wilderness in 2007, which was a smaller study that made me look at everything in a geographic, sectorial and cross-sectional way: the climate, production, the rainforest and geography together in a single narrative. You see, I used specialists in each subject area as sources because it would have been impossible for me to be a specialist in every single one.

Mongabay: What are you looking to achieve with this new and extended edition of the book, which brings us up to 2023?

Tim Killeen: I try to explain the Amazon by responding to questions such as: Where are we? How did we end up here? Who are the people that live in [the Amazon]? Why do they act and move as they do? Although I’m an academic, I offer less of an academic view [of the situation] and one that relates more closely to those that live and work in the Amazon. They aren’t all criminals, they’re not all plundering state land, they aren’t all carrying out deforestation. Because, although these people do exist, they’re not the only ones. Given my experience and proximity, my perspective is based on the processes that have brought us to where we are.

Oil palm plantations - aerial image.
Oil palm plantations in Tome-Açu municipality, northeastern Pará, 2009. Image by Eric Stoner/USAID Biodiversity & Forestry via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Mongabay: How do you approach these processes in the context of the environmental emergency that we are facing in 2023?

Tim Killeen: The numbers are not encouraging. In 2022, the amount of gold that was extracted from the Amazon by the informal mining sector alone was equivalent to $8.5 billion. Meanwhile, on the conservation side of things, the Amazon Fund – led by Brazil with the support of Norway, Germany and other countries – did not manage to even raise $1 billion to protect the Amazon over a 10-year period. The numbers don’t add up and the narratives that talk about plans and programs [to protect the Amazon] are not very realistic.

Mongabay: How can you talk about the validity of the findings presented in your book if every year the figures are more and more alarming?

Tim Killeen: It’s an endless system because things keep on changing and chapter by chapter I go on updating it. In five years, my book will still be necessary and [its findings] will still be relevant. Because every two years a new infrastructure project is proposed and the environmental struggles are rekindled, people show that it’s not necessary, that it’s not economically viable, that it is dangerous. It’s something that never ends, unless the road [or other infrastructure project] gets built. And if they don’t manage to do that, they then come back and try again.

Mongabay: Finally, what do you expect from the publication of your book in three languages on Mongabay?

Tim Killeen: It’s a godsend. Because we are going to serialize the book and publish it in small installments and excerpts, so that it is more accessible for people. Nobody has time to sit down and read a 1,300 page book. On top of this, our partnership with Mongabay allows us to reach hundreds of thousands of readers, which is preferable to 400 free downloads per chapter. We know that our message has the best chance of reaching a wide audience.

Mongabay: Are you not worried that your message is read as an alarmist, or at least pessimistic, take on the future?

Tim Killeen: You have to look at it differently. To give you another example: the dams that alter the flow and nature of the rivers of the Amazon region are a concern, and over the course of the last decade we have lost big battles in Brazil, with the construction of the San Antonio and Jirau hydroelectric dams, whose impacts are incredibly damaging to the ecosystem. But what we forget is that there were five other similar projects in Brazil and another six in Peru, with dams that were going to be built across the Inambari, Marañón and Ene rivers, among others. And what happened to them? Environmental organizations and civil society groups have stopped [these projects] from going ahead, it was proven that they weren’t economically viable and we now know that they were part of the Lava Jato [Operation Car Wash] corruption scandal.

Let me repeat myself: there are successes, they are documented, and you have to remind people of them. In fact, [former Brazilian president, Jair] Bolsonaro wanted to resurrect several of these projects and had a few more new ones. This is a fight that never ends because the political winds change and we end up back where we were. That’s what happened with Evo Morales too, who everyone thought would be supportive of conservation, but it wasn’t like that.

For a broad overview of Killeen’s book, see here:

Book: A perfect storm in the Amazon

Article published by Mayra


This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment

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