Tropical forests are renowned for their biological diversity, but also harbor variable combinations of soil age, chemistry and susceptibility to erosion or tectonic uplift. Here we contend that the combined effects of this biotic and abiotic diversity promote exceptional biogeochemical heterogeneity at multiple scales. At local levels, high plant diversity creates variation in chemical and structural traits that affect plant production, decomposition and nutrient cycling. At regional levels, myriad combinations of soil age, soil chemistry and landscape dynamics create variation and uncertainty in limiting nutrients that do not exist at higher latitudes. The effects of such heterogeneity are not well captured in large-scale estimates of tropical ecosystem function, but we suggest new developments in remote sensing can help bridge the gap.