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The boundless José Sarukhán

In his office at Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology, visiting Professor José Sarukhán unfurls a poster-sized map of Mexico. No cities are identified; instead, the country is covered with patches of a dozen colors, each of which represents a different type of vegetation.

"This is what remains of the forests," he says, pointing to a few brightly colored areas of the map. "It's really a tiny proportion of what was once there, particularly for the tropical plants."

The map is one of the products of CONABIO, the Mexican National Commission on Biodiversity. Sarukhán launched this governmental organization of scientists five years ago to gather information about plant and animal populations in Mexico that can be used in governmental decisions about planning and conservation.

CONABIO is but one facet of Sarukhán's influence in Mexico. "He's sort of the founding father of ecological research in Mexico," says Harold Mooney, the Paul S. Achilles Professor of Environmental Biology at Stanford. Mooney, after a long-standing collaboration with Sarukhán, convinced him to spend his sabbatical at Stanford. Sarukhán is a Tinker Visiting Professor in Latin American Studies as well as a visiting professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

Sarukhán in no way fits the stereotype of a white-coated scientist hunched over test tubes. "Sarukhán is a major force in Mexico and he's also very important internationally," Mooney says. "I was in Mexico City with him at a meeting a few weeks ago, and it was just extraordinary because people in the street come up and greet him and hug him. He's such a popular and well-known person."

Now 57, Sarukhán constantly envisions and creates ways to get people involved in ecology. After performing plant research that a colleague calls "pioneering," Sarukhán went on to found an ecological institute, run a major university, create CONABIO and act as a leader in an international biodiversity project. Even as he helps plan the International Biodiversity Observation Year, a worldwide survey of the state of Earth's plants and animals, Sarukhán is spending a year at Stanford teaching and planning a new restoration ecology program in Mexico. According to Mooney, "He has no bounds."

Sarukhán's interest in plant ecology began while he was an undergraduate studying biology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He did research on secondary succession, the process by which plant species replace each other when the natural environment has changed, as when a forest burns or is cut down. Sarukhán continued this research for six years after he received his bachelor's degree. In 1968, he began working toward his doctoral degree at the University College of North Wales with a leading plant population biologist, John Harper. The subject of his research was three species of buttercups.

Sarukhán was studying demography, which he describes as determining how environmental factors affect the probability of a seed growing into a mature plant that produces flowers and fruits. Through studying plant demography, "You can recognize the stages of the life cycle of the plant which are more vulnerable and therefore are the key stages in regulating the populations," Sarukhán says.

When he returned to the National Autonomous University in 1972 as a professor of ecology, Sarukhán continued to work on plant demography, this time on tropical trees and pines native to Mexico.

"Population biology of plants was revolutionized in the '60s and early '70s by Harper, but really no one had tackled tropical plants," says David Ackerly, assistant professor of biological sciences at Stanford. "[Sarukhán] established the first-ever comprehensive study of birth rates, death rates and reproduction in a tropical tree. From that, they could begin to estimate what the effects of disturbance of the forest are on the species. In 1978, no one had data like that. It was really very pioneering work, extraordinary work."

Sarukhán began training younger scientists and building a group of ecologists, but he decided not to take on any doctoral students. "I didn't want to have Xerox copies of myself in the group," he says. "So what I did was to attract students, train them to work with me in the field for two, three, or four years, and then select a topic for them at another university."

After his students received doctorates from such prestigious schools as Oxford, Cambridge, the University of California-Berkeley, Harvard and Stanford, many of them returned to Mexico to work with him. Only then did Sarukhán begin the university's ecology Ph.D. program. "We had enough points of view and projects in ecology that students would be exposed to a much richer academic environment," he says.

By this time, in 1987, the ecology group had grown enough that it became a center for research within the Institute of Biology. The university granted the ecology group a greater degree of independence and clout after nine years as a center, making it the Institute of Ecology.

"Because of Sarukhán, Mexico developed a plant ecology community that is very strong," Ackerly says. "The Institute of Ecology is one of the top five institutes in the Western Hemisphere in terms of the number of Ph.D. students they train in ecology. At any one time, they have about 50 students. It's a remarkable group and reflects the enormous influence of his initial work."

While Sarukhán worked to build the university's ecology group, he also spent eight years as dean of the Institute of Biology. He then continued up the ranks of the National Autonomous University's administration, becoming the vice president for science. Finally, Sarukhán became president of the university in 1989, leading a faculty of 28,000 and a student body of 260,000.

During his two four-year terms as president, Sarukhán launched CONABIO. This organization was made possible, Sarukhán says, "due to a growing sensibility on the part of society to see action on the environment." He says he merely had to show Mexico's president the plans to convince him that CONABIO was worth the small financial investment, around $2.5 million per year.

"CONABIO has online satellite information, so we know exactly what happened last week in certain areas. That gives a very up-to-date, accurate vision of what's going on so that the Ministry of Environment can act on that for conservation or even to punish people who disturb a protected area," he says.

The Ministry of Environment can use the information CONABIO provides to plan reforestation, for instance. "In reforestation programs, many people tend to use non-native species, which can produce a lot of problems," Sarukhán explains. "Some of them become invasive species and displace the local flora. Sometimes the plants also displace animals because they are completely inedible. CONABIO has studied a large number of potential Mexican native plants that can be useful for reforestation programs and it has defined the areas in which they can grow very well."

CONABIO presents much of its gathered information on the web, to be available to all. It also has an outreach program, with a bimonthly bulletin and television programs on the Mexican environment. "He's trying to bring science to the people, trying to make science relevant to the general public," Mooney says.

Now, Sarukhán is using his sabbatical at Stanford to return to teaching and training young ecologists. He has taught three courses jointly through the Center for Latin American Studies and the Department of Biological Sciences. In the fall, Sarukhán taught a course on the ecology and biodiversity of Mexico, and he is working on a book on the same topic. During winter quarter, he taught a course on higher education in Latin America, drawing on his experiences as president of Mexico's National Autonomous University. Several experts gave guest lectures, including the presidents of universities in Brazil and Uruguay.

In the spring Sarukhán taught a course on restoration ecology with Mooney. Sarukhán again sought guest lecturers, this time to discuss their work toward restoring wetlands, forests or other ecosystems that humans have disturbed. He plans to start a similar course at the National Autonomous University in Mexico when he returns. He hopes to attract as students government employees who run conservation and restoration programs. "They might be landscape architects or chemists or biologists or foresters. The idea of this program would be to upgrade them to go and do practical work in the field."

For this program, Sarukhán envisions a broad, integrative approach to ecology, encompassing science and fieldwork as well as sociology, law and economics. "The human dimension of this problem is as important as the biological and geological aspects," he says, since the environmental damage that restoration ecologists try to correct is manmade.

But that is not enough for Sarukhán. He is also leading a group of scientists organizing the International Biodiversity Observation Year. Scheduled for 2001, this worldwide program is designed to assess Earth's biodiversity and to awake public interest in ecology. It will include dozens of projects to observe the workings of ecosystems and human societies' impact on these natural systems.

Sarukhán hopes many countries will participate. "If we want this program to put biodiversity on the forefront of the agenda of governments and international organizations, it needs to have a very wide representation," he says.

He also wants to involve children in the International Biodiversity Observation Year. He envisions having children monitor a native plant or count migratory birds. "We need something to engage society and particularly children because they're going to enjoy or suffer from what we do now. We want to make a generation that, from the beginning, will be responsive to environmental concerns."


By Lila Guterman

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