Evidence of the benefits or otherwise of land sparing – concentrating agriculture in the best and most versatile areas, and thereby leaving other land (and marine) areas aside for other uses – is growing.
Much of the evidence, where researchers use the model framework devised by Green et al. (2005)*, appears to favour land sparing, at least in frontier landscapes, where sensitive species associated with unconverted habitats persist. I’m not sure there’s much evidence either way for long-settled, cultural landscapes such as those across north-west Europe, and people using the Green model in such areas will need to be careful in how they select baseline habitats (I’ll come back to this).
If ecologists convince us that land spring is, indeed, a way forward, two practical questions confront the conservation and land use planning communities: Where to induce land sparing? and How to induce land sparing?
I’ll be discussing both the Where and How questions over the next few months. Here are a couple of delivery mechanisms that I’ll expand upon in future posts:
Spatial planning: this is kind of obvious, really. Take the oil palm industry. Conservationists correctly continue to put a huge amount of effort into the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification principles and standards. But I think we’ve neglected spatial planning, which is the responsibility of governments at various levels, and which could steer oil palm expansion (certified or otherwise) into already-converted lands. It’s no good if RSPO-certified growers only go for concessions in largely converted areas, whilst growers not intending to gain RSPO-certification go for and are issued concessions in unconverted areas. The NGO community could work with government land-use planners to initiate some sort of roundtable on biodiversity (and terrestrial carbon) friendly spatial planning. This ought to focus in the tropics where rapidly expanding tropical commodities are a major driver of biodiversity loss. What role might spatial planning play in, say, the UK, where land sparing is more about expanding habitats, rather than preventing further conversion and habitat loss? Well, in England, District councils prepare proposals maps – a detailed spatial plan of their areas showing where things like new homes will be built. These maps tend to ignore what goes on away from areas subject to built development, but could define habitat creation areas much more clearly. And in a future where production is being withdrawn from marginal farmland, do we really need to maintain such a dense highway network? Maybe we do, but we decommission other sorts of obsolete infrastructure – such as coal-fired power stations and old nuclear – so why continue to maintain a dense web of low-usage lanes? Converting some of these to green lanes with access only for cycling and walking could help to de-fragment landscapes and render recovery of bigger extirpated species more feasible. And spatial planning could work to identify the best parts of the highway network to decommission.
Land trusts: what to do with all this ‘spared’ land? Someone or something will have to be responsible for its upkeep. Conservation and community land trusts are an increasingly important means through which land is ‘spared’ from conversion and managed long term. They range from very local community groups convened to manage a particular site, to country-wide non-governmental organisations, such as the Jocotoco Foundation in Ecuador, created to establish networks of reserves protecting (sparing) habitat critical to the survival of endemic species. Then there are regional organisations set up to support the activities of these local land trusts, such as Nature & Culture International which is focused on the tropical Andes, and international organisations, such as the UK-based World Land Trust and the US-based Rainforest Trust and, of course, The Nature Conservancy, which support projects across the global tropics. Here in the UK, we of course have the National Trust, and reserve-network creating NGOs like the RSPB and county Wildlife Trusts. I suggest we need a big push in the UK to create a more acquisitive land trust culture. We need riverside land trusts that specialise in acquiring entire river corridors (if entire floodplain corridors were in the ownership of community trusts who’s activities weren’t compromised by flooding, we could relax about how the river channels themselves are managed); we need land trusts focused on creating big landscapes subject to full-on trophic rewilding (i.e. where extant and surrogate wild herbivore and carnivore communities are re-established); we need urban-fringe community land trusts focused on creating big natural open spaces for people.
*Green, R.E., Cornell, S.J., Scharlemann, J.P.W. & Balmford, A. 2005. Farming and the fate of wild nature. Science 307: 550–555. [At the time this paper was published, I was delivering advice to farmers on how to make their farms better for wildlife – and I absolutely hated the message being presented by Green et al. Now I see this as probably the most important paper in conservation science and land-use planning to appear in recent decades…… ]