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World Nature Reserves Being Heavily Farmed

by Ellen Wilson

on threats to biodiversity
Thinning forest
Protected areas are fast becoming islands of dying biodiversity because of the surrounding farming
Two leading environmental and agriculture groups report 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.

The findings, documented in a joint report by The World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the Washington, D.C.-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, according to the report.

The report outlines a new solution 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, "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 A. McNeely, chief scientist of IUCN. "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."

"The ecoagriculture approach recognizes the fact that endangered species and desperately poor humans occupy the same ground," said co-author Sara J. Scherr, fellow of the nonprofit Forest Trends. "Ecoagriculture could transform agriculture and environmental protection to save wild biodiversity while also addressing the realities of human hunger and population growth."

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.

But the report states 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. The reason is that 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," said 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."

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. According to the report, 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.

a PDF copy of the report
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, nearly 24 percent of mammals, over 12 percent of birds, and almost 14 percent of plants are threatened with extinction. According to the report, biodiversity is more threatened now than at any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Today's mass extinction is affecting species of all evolutionary forms and sizes, in every region of the world, and in every kind of habitat.

"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."

According to Scherr, 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 may inadvertently destroy useful wildlife habitat without actually contributing to farm productivity. Now with a new understanding of wildlife biology, these relationships between wildlife and agriculture are better understood. "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."

International attention has recently been drawn to a range of situations that dramatize the need for ecoagriculture:

  • In China's Wolong Nature Reserve, established to protect the endangered giant panda bear, more panda habitat has been destroyed inside than outside the protected area as a rapidly expanding human population has turned forests into farms.

  • In Central Africa, habitat destruction and poaching has reduced the population of endangered mountain gorillas down to about 600. They live on islands of mountaintop habitat, surrounded by seas of terraced farm fields.

  • In the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, of which only 7 percent is still remaining, the habitat of the rare lion tamarin monkey is threatened by agricultural land use, including dairy farming, coffee plantations, and pasture burning, inside the Forest.

"For too long, agriculturalists and environmentalists have worked at cross purposes," said Barbara Rose, executive director of Future Harvest. "We must start working together if we are going to feed the world and protect wildlife. This report signals the beginning of an international effort to raise awareness about farming approaches that are not only highly productive, but also preserve the environment upon which all life on Earth depends. Much more research is needed for poor farmers to benefit from, rather than pay the cost of, conserving biodiversity, while also growing the food they need for their families and livelihoods."

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Albion Monitor September 3, 2001 (

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