Half the World's Nature Reserves Heavily Farmed
By Cat Lazaroff
LONDON, England, May 8, 2001 (ENS) - Two of the world's leading environmental and agriculture groups reported today that almost half of the world's 17,000 major nature reserves, which are intended to protect wildlife from extinction, are being heavily used for agriculture. They also report that extreme malnutrition and hunger are pervasive among people living in at least 16 of the world's 25 key biodiversity hotspots, where wildlife is most at risk.
Given that clearing and using land for agriculture is the chief cause of biodiversity extinction and that widespread hunger is persistent in areas with the world's richest biodiversity, many plants and animals will go extinct unless ecosystems are managed to feed people and protect wild species simultaneously, the report warns.
Biodiversity refers to the entire array of wild plants, animals, insects and microorganisms found in nature, which are important to global ecology and are also valuable to science and industry.
The report outlines a new solution to the biodiversity extinction crisis based on a new understanding of wildlife biology and ecology, on the ground experimentation, and major scientific advances in genetics, remote sensing and other fields.
The approach, called ecoagriculture, seeks to help farmers, most urgently those living in or near biodiversity hotspots, to grow more food while conserving habitats critical to wildlife. The approach dramatically breaks with both traditional conservation policies and common agriculture techniques.
"Many people believe that biodiversity can be preserved simply by fencing it off," said co-author Jeffrey McNeely, chief scientist of IUCN-The World Conservation Union. "Our report shows that agriculture and biodiversity are inextricably linked. In fact, farms and nature reserves are actually sharing common ground in many countries where species are most at risk."
"To avert widespread extinctions and feed the world, we must integrate biodiversity preservation into all landscapes - from grazing lands to coffee plantations to rice paddies," McNeely added. "Our research shows that ecoagriculture is being successfully used on six continents around the globe."
Wild biodiversity in all of its forms has intrinsic value, but it also has practical value, such as maintaining the essential balance of the Earth's atmosphere, protecting watersheds, renewing soil and recycling nutrients - roles essential for farming.
"The ecoagriculture approach recognizes the fact that endangered species and desperately poor humans occupy the same ground," said co-author Sara Scherr, fellow of the nonprofit Forest Trends and adjunct professor in the Agricultural and Resources Economics Department at the University of Maryland. "Ecoagriculture could transform agriculture and environmental protection to save wild biodiversity while also addressing the realities of human hunger and population growth."
According to the report, 45 percent of the world's major protected reserves are themselves heavily used for agriculture. In other reserves, protected areas are interspersed with agricultural land, overlap with agricultural land, or are located adjacent to major agricultural frontiers.
If only the existing protected areas were to continue as wildlife habitat, between 30 and 50 percent of the species in those areas would be lost, because the protected areas do not contain large enough populations to maintain the species.
"Protected areas are fast becoming islands of dying biodiversity because of the agricultural areas that surround them," explained McNeely. "Many animals need the ability to migrate in order to avoid extinction. Limited reserve areas cannot fill this need and the lands that would be needed for the massive expansion of protected areas is already being used to feed local people and fuel local economies."
"Ecoagriculture offers a solution to this dilemma by allowing farmers to produce more food on the same amount of land while greatly reducing harm to wildlife," McNeely said.
In 19 of the world's 25 biodiversity hotspots, population is growing more rapidly than in the world as a whole. The report finds that population in the sparsely populated tropical wilderness areas is growing, on average, at an annual rate of 3.1 percent - more than double the worldwide average.
If forest clearing continues at present rates, the world's forests could lose more than half of their remaining species in the next 50 years, the researchers warn. Today, almost 24 percent of mammals, over 12 percent of birds, and almost 14 percent of plants are threatened with extinction.
The report documents six key ecoagriculture strategies in use around the world. These methods can help farmers in industrialized and developing countries protect wild species and conserve habitat on and near their land while increasing agricultural production and farmer incomes, the report argues.
The strategies include:
The report provides several dozen case studies of successful ecoagriculture systems being undertaken in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
"Farmers and scientists around the world are pioneering a whole new approach to agriculture," said McNeely. "These innovations show that ecoagriculture can be productive and profitable while protecting biodiversity. They are based on the belief - borne out by empirical evidence - that humans and wild species can share common ground and prosper in a common future."
Scherr said that in the past it was not known which species of insects, plants and animals would be harmful to farm production, and all were cleared away. But many such farm practices destroy useful wildlife habitat without contributing to farm productivity.
With a new understanding of wildlife biology, these relationships between wildlife and agriculture are now better understood, Scherr said.
"We are not suggesting that elephants should be allowed to trample farmers' fields," said Scherr. "We are saying that there are strategic solutions for conserving wild biodiversity and producing food on the same land."
The full report is available at: http://www.futureharvest.org/pdf/biodiversity_report.pdf