A Positive Utopia - Interview with Jörg Ganzhorn

Feb 22, 2023 | written by:

A Positive Utopia
What could our future look like if we take action now?

The climate crisis is a real threat and we can see its impact almost every day in our lives. So, is it already too late to do something about it? At Treedom we don’t think so! Supported by scientific data and input from international scientists in different fields, we show how our planet could change positively in 5, 10 or 50 years. Provided, of course, that we take action now. In a time of energy crisis, biodiversity loss and war; we give a positive outlook, spreading hope and inspiring people to take action for their own future by making their small contribution to a greener and better planet. 

In the fourth interview of our “positive utopia” series, we are talking to Jörg Ganzhorn.  Jörg studied zoology, plant physiology, microbiology and geography at the University of Tübingen, Duke University and Michigan State University from 1976 to 1985. He then completed his doctorate and became a postdoc in Tübingen in the Department of Behavioural Physiology. In 1993 he was appointed Head of the Ethology and Ecology Department at the German Primate Center in Göttingen and Maître de Conférence at the Université d'Antananarivo, Madagascar. After a substitute professorship in ecology at the University of Marburg, he was announced Head of the Department of Animal Ecology and Conservation at the Institute of Zoology at the University of Hamburg in 1997 and recently retired.

Ganzhorn"At the end of the day, what you simply have to prevent is the degradation of the land."

Treedom: Until recently, you were Head of the Department of Animal Economics and Conservation at the University of Hamburg. Can you briefly summarise how that came about?

Prof. Dr Ganzhorn: I always wanted to become a biologist or zoologist. I was interested in how biodiversity can be used for humans. This would add values to biodiversity that can be perceived and measured by people directly, rather than having to be confronted with abstract terms such as “ecosystem services”. My motivation is and was that humans need certain things to live. However, the resource management is completely off at the moment. And that's where you need new solutions.

I went to Duke University in America for my PhD. Duke University has a primate centre that specialises in prosimians, the precursors of apes as we know them today. When you study animals in captivity for your doctoral thesis, you naturally want to experience them in the wild. There are many prosimians (lemurs) in Madagascar. At that time, Madagascar was very closed off to people from abroad. At the beginning of the 1980s, the country opened its borders again and I was lucky enough to be one of the first to be able to visit and work in the country. On the ground, you realise very quickly that basic scientific research is important, but that the big goal is above all to find ways to protect plants and animals. These solutions have to be developed and implemented together with the local people, taking their ideas and needs into account. This is how my career has evolved in the direction of nature conservation and ecology, but also towards supporting communities. 

Treedom: What difficulties have you encountered in this field of research?

Prof. Dr Ganzhorn: The weather is probably the biggest challenge in my research. In Madagascar in particular, a cyclone can sometimes wash away entire roads and a plan that has been made can no longer be implemented. Furthermore, the success of the research work also depends on the local people. My experience has been very good: when people work together to develop new solutions that can bring economic and ecological benefits, the implementation also works out very well. What has fortunately affected my work little, but hinders many of the people in my field in their daily work, is the general government work. It is crucial that the interest in nature conservation is genuinely part of the government agenda. There is often a need to catch up here, also in Madagascar.

Treedom: What effects of climate change have you been able to observe in Madagascar?

Prof. Dr. Ganzhorn: It was often difficult for us to attribute changes causally to climate change. For example, we know from pollen analyses that some areas of Madagascar have been drying out for about 3000 years, well before industrialisation began. But we now have a lot of evidence that climate change is intensifying this process. On the other hand, deforestation in Madagascar is happening too fast, so climate change doesn't really have a chance to "have an effect" because the forests are gone before it can take hold. Variable weather has always been characteristic of Madagascar, droughts alternating with floods are common. But the variability, duration and unpredictability of these weather patterns are the big problem. In fact, it is almost impossible to plan, as this unpredictability of weather has definitely increased, driven by climate change. This has drastic effects on agriculture and thus also on food security in the country.

Treedom: Your explanations paint a bleak picture. What can we do to not lose hope for a better future and to stop climate change? 

Prof. Dr. Ganzhorn: We will have to deal with climate change for the next 20, 30 years; it is too late to reverse it. This poses major problems for many countries, not only Madagascar. The decisive factor will be that the degradation of land increases. Deforestation, soil erosion and over-construction are the most problematic factors. I have experienced that the local people themselves realise that they are triggering negative microclimatic effects by clearing forests and building over a wide area. Our approach at the moment is to green the land again. And to do so in a sustainable and sensible way - in other words, in a way that is different from what is currently happening so often around the world. Biodiversity is the keyword here! Simply planting for the sake of planting helps no one, neither the local people nor the climate worldwide. Monocultures are and remain a sheer environmental disaster, they do more harm than good. 

Our method is strongly geared towards animals, because of our zoological background. The existing remnant forests are too small and too fragmented to maintain populations of both plants and animals that are viable in the long term. For this reason, we try to connect individual patches with corridors. Of course, the corridors have to be designed in such a way that the animals can really live there while at the same time creating a natural forest from which people can also benefit. 

Treedom: What exactly does that look like in practice? 

Prof. Dr. Ganzhorn: In recent years we have tried to find out which native tree or plant species can be most useful for humans and animals. A whimsical example for this: people in Madagascar urgently need wood for coffins. Only certain wood may be used for burials, for cultural reasons. We never expected that we would have to include a factor like this in the planning process. So our concept is to create an agroforestry ecosystem in which fruit-bearing plants, plants that provide a habitat for animals, but also trees for coffin wood, for example, are combined. 

Treedom: How does the local population react to this approach? 

Prof. Dr. Ganzhorn: We spend a lot of time in schools and talk to the local people. Education and creating a common knowledge base are the be-all and end-all. Working with children is a lot of fun and has a lot of potential. Together with NGOs, we also implement practical projects and show even the youngest children how diverse nature can be - and that this is exactly what needs to be protected. 

In our cooperation, I have also noticed that it is essential to have the right motivation. Imposed instruction doesn't help at all. Instead, approaching the whole thing in a relaxed, even fun way together with the people is much more sustainable and more joyful for us, but also for the people in the field. I also believe that the most important thing is that the trees are their trees, not ours. That doesn't mean that people can do whatever they want with the trees. But they planted them with their own hands. This gives you a completely different relationship with the plant right from the start. 

Treedom: The profound insights into your daily work are encouraging! Let's look together into a positive future: we assume your project continues to run successfully and you implement further small and large agroforestry projects - how do you then imagine our planet in 2050?

Prof. Dr. Ganzhorn: An exciting question! We have just carried out an analysis of forest development together with the World Resources Institute, with 2050 being our target date. We examined how the forest will develop in the protected areas in Madagascar by 2050. The results are encouraging: the areas provide so much protection that a large part of the forest will still be there then. And at a size that almost certainly guarantees the survival of animals and plants. But the areas that lie between the protected areas and are still forested at the moment will hardly survive. That is why we must now do everything we can to reduce the destruction of forests between the protected areas and thus counteract the deforestation trend. 

Change takes two to three human generations to actually take effect. By 2050, we would be at the end of the third generation that has grown up with conservation from the beginning. In Madagascar, young people in particular are committed to the issue. The problem remains that funding is always an uncertain factor, so motivation naturally suffers. But I have hope that with further support from outside, forests can be created that will also cover the economic viability as a component in 30 years - and thus the intrinsic motivation for change will be much more rooted than it is now. I am confident that the people of Madagascar can do this. They are smart, committed and brilliant organisers. 

Treedom: Your hopeful attitude is a great motivation for us to keep working on conservation. What can each and every one of us do, even here in Europe, to make a small contribution?

Prof. Dr. Ganzhorn: Our society has a tremendous sense of entitlement when it comes to consumption. This is a factor that we can influence. Medicines and food are available in abundance, even in global crises we can still draw on huge resources. It is not a question of restricting ourselves, but of behaving more consciously and thinking about the consequences of our daily actions. 

That's why I think Treedom and its novel approach is so brilliant. If Treedom actually manages to get more trees planted in agroforestry systems, then a lot has already been gained. Because these are things that individual people can simply implement and generate direct added value. There are many ideas to make a difference on a small scale. I believe that it is precisely such measures that ultimately add up and generate a lot of impact. From my personal point of view, it would be an incredible success if people everywhere had enough to drink and eat - and if they could plan and rely on it.

Treedom: When it comes to the topic of climate change, the discussion is often interminable, and even sometimes goes round in circles. What are aspects that, for you, come up short? 

Prof. Dr. Ganzhorn: I often have the impression that many politicians have not yet understood what is actually at stake. For example, the extraction of fossil fuels is fostered but is interfering with highly sensitive ecosystems - and this is happening in Europe in 2022? Not understandable. Instead, they point the finger at small farmers. This contrast is absurd to me. I find it hard to understand such a huge deficit in the understanding of what is actually important. In particular I find it irritating that decision makers do not seem to have understood that a world with finite resources cannot be managed with processes based on continuous growth. The fact that we can't just carry on as before - more, bigger, higher - has not yet arrived. And that worries me. 

Treedom: In our everyday life, we observe the trend that the young generation in particular, Generation Z, brings with it a completely different attitude and is more intensely concerned with the topic. How do you perceive this?

Prof. Dr. Ganzhorn: The will to change something has been around for a long time. But right now I have the feeling that it is really taking hold. It took us one or two generations before the issue really was put on the plate. This is where Treedom comes into play again: good ideas are really turned into practice. You no longer have to watch impatiently to see if something will change, but you can actually do something. In the process, people also build a bond with trees in general, so also with the issue of nature conservation - and that's great. I see Treedom as an opportunity to really make a lot of positive changes.


Plant now For businesses