Sanchez-Azofeifa is the director of the newly formed TROPI-DRY, a research network on tropical dry forests housed in the Faculty of Science. The Inter American Institute for Global Change Research has just funded the network to the tune of US$2.7 million for the U of A and all the contributing Latin American partners. The U of A will receive $1.1 million of the grant. TROPI-DRY members come from the United States, Cuba, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil, Mexico, and Canada.
"There is this romanticized view of rainforests, yet the tropical dry forest is being forgotten even though the most fertile soils are there," said Sanchez-Azofeifa, who hails from Costa Rica. "It's a mystery to me why, when both ecosystems are in danger one is ignored over the other."
Tropical dry forests once made up 42 per cent of all forests in the tropics yet less than one per cent is protected. The most diverse tropical dry forests exist in southern Mexico and the Bolivian lowlands and the level of endemism--species unique to that area--is higher than in rainforests. Half of Costa Rica's dry forests have already been cut down and others face a similar threat, taking with it such resources as its native mahogany and rosewood trees, which are in danger of going extinct, says Sanchez-Azofeifa.
In Mexico, the main threat is deforestation by local communities but the dry forest is also targeted for its natural beauty. Hotel resorts and golf courses are being built on the once-pristine land.
TROPI-DRY's goal is to try to help translate research into tools countries can use as policies to save the dry forests. The solution lies in private conservation, says Sanchez-Azofeifa. This tactic means convincing governments to realize the value of conserving tropical dry forest land and in turn, paying the land owners environmental services fees in exchange for a promise the land won't be used for commercial development. Costa Rica is a leader in this strategy, having paid more than US$175 million in environmental services fees since the late 1990's.
The network is made up of top scientists in the field from around the globe including Sanchez-Azofeifa, who will co-ordinate their efforts. Even from a research point of view, the group has some catching up to do. Since 1945, the ratio of papers published about rainforests versus dry forests is 300 to 1, says Sanchez-Azofeifa.
Still, the research won't help if policy makers are not taking notice. "You can publish all you want but if it doesn't have any direct impact on what is happening in these countries, it doesn't matter," he says.