Sub-Antarctic Makes Ideal Lab For Study of Ethics and the Web of Life - Biocultural Conservation | Department of Biological Sciences
April 25, 2014

Sub-Antarctic Makes Ideal Lab For Study of Ethics and the Web of Life - Biocultural Conservation

Ricardo Rozzi

Above, Ricardo Rozzi, professor of philosophy and co-director of UNT's Sub-Antarctic Biocultural Conservation Program, teaches "Tracing Darwin's Path" at the Omora Ethnobotanical Park in Chile with co-director James Kennedy, professor of biological sciences (right foreground). At top, one of the many varieties of lichens and mosses that grow in the park.

Photo by: Adam Wilson

The acrimonious relationship between humans and flies has existed for ages. But at the Omora Ethnobotanical Park within Chile's Cape Horn Archipelago, some families of this insect so pesky to humans have developed a special relationship with a peculiar moss, Tayloria mirabilis. While most mosses, or bryophytes, disperse their spores by wind or water, this moss emits an odor attractive to flies and relies on them to carry off its sticky spores so its germination process can continue.

For University of North Texas philosophy professor and ecologist Ricardo Rozzi, this love-hate relationship among humans, plants, tiny insects and the environments in which they co-exist has a deeper, philosophical meaning. A native Chilean, he has spent more than a decade researching environmental ethics and biocultural conservation at the Omora Park, located in the UNESCO Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve at the southern tip of South America. The reserve is one of the world's last pristine wilderness areas.

In January 2015, as a result of Rozzi's collaborative research, the UNT Cape Horn Field Station and the Omora Park will be the site of the International Association of Bryology World Conference, along with a symposium on the art, ethics and ecology of the park's tiny plants and how humans interact with them.

"For so long it has been as if people believe that only economics and science will solve the world's problems," Rozzi says. "If we don't address ethics too, we're not addressing the root of the problem, which has to do with how we live and how we co-inhabit the planet with plants and the many other forms of life."

Cape Horn Collaborations

Rozzi's research and collaborations in the Omora Park and Cape Horn have helped to make UNT a leading institution for environmental ethics and research.

He works with faculty in UNT's Sub-Antarctic Ecosystems and Biocultural Conservation research cluster and Center for Environmental Philosophy, combining cultural and philosophical perspectives with scientific research in areas such as global ecological change, environmental policy and sustainable development.

"Before UNT, no one in the world was incorporating environmental ethics into conservation with a biocultural ethics approach," Rozzi says. "One of our first achievements was establishing a network of researchers specializing in Latin American environmental ethics. Now we have researchers from Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia and Argentina as well as North America engaging in this very important discussion along with UNT."

Rozzi is largely responsible for creating the Omora Ethnobotanical Park as a biocultural research, scientific tourism and education site for studying animal and plant life in the biosphere reserve. As part of a joint publishing venture between the UNT Press and the University of Magallanes Press in Chile, he co-wrote a bilingual guidebook, Miniature Forests of Cape Horn: Ecotourism With a Hand Lens.

The book is designed to help tourists, students and researchers take a closer look at the many species of epiphytic plants, liverworts, mosses and lichens that make up the park's "miniature forests," as well as other tiny organisms that call it home.

"Little plants such as mosses and small organisms like insects are regularly underperceived and under-valued," says Rozzi.

Mosses have their part to play in the ecosystem, for example, helping to soak up run-off water and keeping humidity levels constant. Through cross-cultural education and dialogue, Rozzi says, humans can begin to appreciate the diversity and the beauty in tiny organisms and plant life not typically visible to the naked eye, and the importance of conserving them.

Expanding North

Rozzi also is a leading researcher in UNT's Sub-Antarctic Biocultural Conservation Program,which he codirects with philosophy professor Eugene Hargrove and biology professors James Kennedy and Jaime Jiménez.

As part of the program, Rozzi teaches coursework at the University of Magallanes and co-teaches with Jiménez and Kennedy the UNT "Tracing Darwin's Path" study abroad course offered each year in the biosphere reserve. The course gives students hands-on experiences with topics such as nature writing, ethnoecology, and biocultural and sub-Antarctic watershed conservation.

"A biocultural approach makes sense because it includes the diversity of cultures, the diversity of biological forms of life, and how we coexist," Rozzi says. "For example, when our water systems are clean and healthy, humans are healthier, and the cleaner humans are, the cleaner the waters will be."

In spring 2013, UNT and the University of Alaska Fairbanks signed an agreement to extend UNT's "Introduction to Sub-Antarctic Biocultural Conservation" course to Alaska to allow faculty and students to explore and compare sub-Arctic landscapes, cultures, wildlife and conservation practices with those in the sub-Antarctic ecoregion of Chile.

"Thanks to these past and ongoing initiatives, we have been making an impact through research and education at the local, regional, national and international scales," Rozzi says.

Starting the Dialogue

As an official representative of the International Society of Environmental Ethics and co-director of UNT's Sub-Antarctic Biocultural Conservation Program, Rozzi has brought together leading environmental philosophers to discuss cultural challenges in merging ethics and conservation. These discussions have led to numerous publications and conferences sponsored by UNT and its Center for Environmental Philosophy with Chilean partners at the University of Magallanes and the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity.

In 2012, a special issue of the journal Environmental Ethics focused on South American environmental philosophy. It was a collaboration of Rozzi and the Center for Environmental Philosophy open to researchers and philosophers from five continents -- Africa, Asia, South America, Europe and North America.

"The goal of this issue and others that follow is to promote cross-cultural understanding," says Hargrove, center director and editor of the journal -- the first, and one of the most prestigious, in the field.

The issue's success led UNT and its Chilean partners to host the Fifth Latin American (Inter-American) Environmental Philosophy Conference in 2013, which brought together philosophers and ecologists from South America and North America, along with UNT graduate students and the president of CONICYT in Chile, the equivalent of the National Science Foundation in the U.S.

That conference and others uncovered the need to conduct research and engage in discussions on environmental ethics worldwide, Rozzi says, in areas such as extinction of biological species, loss of native habitats, increasing global temperatures and global poverty.

World Views

Cape Horn

A Travel Learn trip to visit UNT's facilities in Cape Horn will be offered in conjunction with the International Association of Bryology World Conference at the Omora Ethnobotanical Park in 2015. for more information.

Photo by: Rocío Jara

The environmental philosophers and ecologists converging at Omora's Navarino Island for the bryology conference in 2015 will share their perspectives on environmental ethics as it relates to their countries and the world, Rozzi says. UNT is hosting the conference with the Chilean Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity and the University of Magallanes.

The "Tracing Darwin's Path" course and a two-day "Ecotourism With a Hand Lens" workshop will precede the conference, and UNT's Center for Achievement and Lifelong Learning's Travel Learn program will offer a trip to visit UNT's facilities in Cape Horn and see students and researchers in action firsthand.

"It's important to have these experiences and this world dialogue," Rozzi says. "Philosophy in Western civilization has typically had to do with humans and only humans, while philosophies in other ethnic traditions, such as Native American and Asian, incorporate animals and plant life. What we're doing is bringing these differing philosophies together."

Cape Horn represents the ideal site to study and discuss environmental ethics because it represents the border or frontier of global development, Rozzi says. The UNT-Cape Horn Field Station is in Puerto Williams, the capital of the Chilean Antarctic Province and the southernmost town in the world.

At the station, UNT students and faculty have the opportunity to conduct field environmental philosophy and study the effects of issues such as loss of languages and biodiversity, damming of rivers, exotic invasive species and global warming.

The solutions they form can transfer to other areas of the world.

"Our work within the biosphere reserve should teach us something about global society," says Rozzi, who adds that by educating others and continuing the work there, researchers are providing stability in an ecosystem that humans have tended to take for granted.

Rozzi and a group of UNT researchers are working on the new book Earth Stewardship: Linking Ecology and Ethics in Theory and Practice, which will be published this year, to further shed light on the importance of biocultural conservation.

"We want to represent the next generation of philosophers and scientists by relying on teamwork and interdisciplinary work that educates the public and contributes to academics," Rozzi says. "Our research helps explain through real-world applications how humans have a role in the web of life."


Article taken from the 2014 issue of UNT Research Magazine. Written by Adrienne Nettles. Visit for the full edition.