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.


Some of the most biologically diverse areas on earth are also home to the hungriest humans, according to a new report released today (Photo by Jason Wettstein, courtesy Future Harvest)
The findings, documented in an unprecedented joint report by The World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the Washington, DC based agriculture organization Future Harvest, are called "alarming" by the researchers.

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.


The report argues that crops and wildlife habitat can coexist (Photo courtesy International Center for Research in Agroforestry)
The report, "Common Ground, Common Future: How Ecoagriculture Can Help Feed the World and Save Wild Biodiversity," provides for the first time a comprehensive summary of the interactions between wild biodiversity and agriculture around the world. It was commissioned by Future Harvest and developed over a two year period through a systematic review of existing agricultural and ecological literature and local farming practices.

"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."


Wildlife habitat is shrinking as forests are cleared for farmland, often by burning down native vegetation (Photo courtesy Center for International Forestry Research)
Protected areas intended to preserve biodiversity encompass 10 percent of the Earth's land surface. But today's report states emphatically that the world's protected areas are not sufficient to maintain the world's wild biodiversity.

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.


Intercropping in Yunnan, China - spacing rice with other crops - controls rice pests and reduces the need for pesticides (Photo courtesy International Rice Research Institute)
More than 1.1 billion people - 20 percent of the world's population - live within the 25 most threatened, species rich areas of the world, named biodiversity hotspots by Conservation International. The report says the majority of these hotspots are also located in areas with very high malnutrition - home to fully one quarter of all the undernourished people in the developing world.

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.


Unless farmers and the world's poorest peoples can learn to coexist with wildlife, hundreds of species may be lost, the report warns (Photo by Jason Wettstein, courtesy Future Harvest)
"Many of the new approaches in ecoagriculture will require a change in mindset for many farmers," said Scherr. "For centuries, farmers have generally done their best to clear land of natural vegetation and keep wildlife off their farms. This was the sign of a good farmer. Now we're asking farmers to let some of the wild back in."

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