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The northeast reaches of India are home to wild elephants, who have long followed roaming patterns that cross the borders between the subcontinent, Nepal, and sometimes onward into Bhutan and Bangladesh. But as humans have increasingly developed this region, the elephants’ pathways have become interrupted by the expansion of agriculture and other human interventions in their landscape, and this, coupled with environmental changes, puts the safety of their migrations at risk.
“Human-caused fragmentation of habitats has been exacerbated by climate change,” said Madhav Karki, a Nepalese professor and deputy chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Commission on Ecosystem Management. “But this can be mitigated by human management,” he added, going on to describe a project from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that has worked with local land-users to reconnect the natural corridors that serve as the elephants’ highways while still allowing communities to use the ecosystems to meet their needs.
This cyclical integration of agricultural activities and biodiversity conservation – the re-balancing of human development’s impact on the environment – was the topic of a two-part GLF Live series on 10 and 12 June, “How can managed landscapes contribute to biodiversity goals?” While natural ecosystems are irreplaceable habitats, the two moderated discussions, which brought together scientists and policymakers from four continents, dispelled any notion that human-used landscapes aren’t also critical for biodiversity conservation – so much so that to omit them from conservation efforts would be consequentially remiss.
The UN Convention on Biological Diversity, known colloquially as the CBD, is the most powerful international coalition for supporting the conservation of the variety of life on Earth. Last year, as its 10-year Strategic Plan for Biodiversity came to an end, it conducted a stock-take of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets that served as the plan’s pillars and found that not a single target was fully achieved, and only six were partially met. “The rate of biodiversity loss is unprecedented in human history,” stated the CBD’s executive secretary Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, a phrase that was subsequently blasted through headlines and around the Internet.
Currently, the CBD is in the final stages of negotiating the new strategy, the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), which will be finalized next year after delays due to COVID-19. The Framework includes a number of new additions in order to be more successful than the last one, including specific mechanisms for tracking and monitoring their progress. But it has yet to widen its focus from protecting natural habitat towards landscape approaches that include managed and agricultural landscapes, which some scientists say it must.
Some 50 percent of all habitable land on the planet is managed by humans for food production, and 9 percent of all land is used for agriculture. According to the CBD’s aforementioned report, only 29 percent of farms operate sustainably, which extends the biodiversity crisis beyond just wild species to put 27 percent of domesticated animals at risk of extinction too.
“The first draft [of the GBF] continues the weakness of the Aichi Targets in understating to the point of ignoring the importance of agricultural landscapes in the conservation of biodiversity,” states a White Paper co-authored by the organizers of the GLF Live events, including the research organizations CIFOR-ICRAF, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and German development agency GIZ. “There is a once-in-30 years opportunity to make sure that the world’s apex policy-making body, the CBD, effectively and adequately builds agricultural landscape management into its GBF and sends out necessary policy signals.”
In its most natural state, the Earth is a spinning ball of ecosystems, all linked continuously to one another and animals roaming freely between them depending on food, predators, the weather and other planetary patterns. Now, however, many of these species’ habitats lack adequate protection, meaning they must mix their dwellings with managed and agricultural landscapes too.
Target 1 of the draft GBF seeks to “Ensure that all land and sea areas globally are under integrated biodiversity-inclusive spatial planning, retaining existing intact and wilderness areas,” yet speakers in the first of the two GLF Lives stressed that the target should also seek to increase connectivity between these areas. This can only be achieved by making biodiversity friendly farming practices, such as agroforestry, economical viable for farmers.
Jodi Hilty, president and chief scientist of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, described the two kinds of connectivity: structural and functional. Structurally connected ecosystems flow naturally into one another with no gaps between them, while functionally connected ecosystems are tactically used by flora and fauna to survive, often documented by GPS tagging and satellite mapping.
Currently, according to Hilty, between 7 and 11 percent of protected areas are connected in any way, producing a massive need for increased connectivity, so wildlife can safely move as needed, and especially in the face of increasing climate change.
“In a mosaic landscape system,” said Karki, “if the structure of the ecosystem is suitable for the species to actually move based on their behavior, then we have the connectivity.”
Costa Rica, which aims to protect 30 percent of its land and sea areas each by 2030 – a massive uptick from its former commitment of 2 percent – is one such country that has prioritized ecosystem connectivity while still expanding its agricultural production sector. Whereas development used to be equated with deforestation, said vice minister of environment and energy Franklin Paniagua, it is now being blended with conservation, to boost the country’s economy as well as protect it from extreme weather events.
“We’re at the point where we’re understanding how the productivity of the land is based on the services that are mostly provided by those forest areas, forest masses, that are able to generate the water, in particular, and pollination,” he said. “The investments that we do to protect production are very much in line with our biodiversity goals and our climate agenda.”
This mentality is now extending to Costa Rica’s marine ecosystems as well. “Our transformation and relationship between agriculture and conservation is being led at the marine level, where we’re seeing focused research and innovation of treating our marine landscape as we’ve treated agriculture.”
Target two of the GBF aims to ensure the restoration of 20 percent of degraded freshwater, marine and terrestrial habitats, but speakers also stressed that the crucial focus of this target should be to restore “ecosystem integrity.” In an example given by Hilty, summer seasons in livestock-rearing states of the U.S. such as Idaho and Montana are getting hotter with global warming, which makes the restoration of riparian ecosystems more essential. They slow the flow of water so that the animals can stay hydrated through the increasingly brutal months, and while they are not viewed as “priority” habitats, their integrity is indeed important for the region’s future.
Target 10 of the new GBF does address managed landscapes: “Ensure all areas under agriculture, aquaculture and forestry are managed sustainably, in particular through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, increasing the productivity and resilience of these production systems,” it states.
But what it overlooks in its current penning is that sustainable management is often equated with intensification, which might reduce the size of agricultural landscapes but with harmful effects on biodiversity, because of the use of pesticides or excessive use of water and fertilizers. The White Paper and speakers rather suggest that the focus of this target should be on integrated land-use practices, combining a diversity of crops, animals and trees with different spatial and seasonal arrangement, in turn mimicking natural water and nutrient processes, with less need for artificial inputs.
Integrated landscape approaches stem from integrated leadership and policies, governing land use in ways that balance goals from different sectors. “I believe sustainable agriculture and biodiversity are on the same side of the coin,” said Sol Ortiz, a biologist embedded in Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, in the second GLF Live.
Among her ministerial work, Ortiz coordinates the development and implementation of the National Strategy for the Sustainable Use and Conservation of Pollinators in Mexico, which works at the nexus of the environment, agriculture and public education ministries to inform a range of stakeholders – from businesses down to farmers – on how to ensure the conservation of Mexico’s pollinators, which underpin the country’s staple food crops and export food products. “This is mainstreaming biodiversity into the Mexican agriculture sector,” she said.
For Ortiz, there’s no one who isn’t impacted by the intersection of biodiversity and agriculture. The strategies she listed for improving conservation included education of farmers on the benefits of biodiversity, examining each step in a value chain, bringing back Indigenous and traditional agricultural practices, and raising awareness among consumers to “buy foods that are produced with biodiversity.”
In Rwanda, integrating conservation and agricultural efforts has an unavoidable role to play in achieving the country’s commitment to restoring 2 million hectares of forest. Inevitably, given the country’s total size of 2.6 million hectares, this must include production forests and agroforestry. “Agriculture is one of the key pillars being discussed in conservation,” said Jean Pierre Mugabo, the director general of the Rwanda Forestry Authority.
To overcome historical administrative silos Ministries need to have a common goal to integrate their mandates. For Rwanda this was restoration. A cross-sectoral task force for forest landscape restoration has been created, including international organizations and local NGOs, in order to achieve this restoration effort – and to attract the financing needed to do so. “The task force can produce bankable projects that can convince big financial institutions,” said Mugabo. “If you come as a team, if you have common goal of restoring degraded land, partners can give you budget.”
Making restoration a profitable sector can also help to attract young people and feed sustainable job growth, said Mugabo, which, in the end, speaks to conservation’s purpose to begin with.
“Agricultural sustainability rests in principle that we need to meet the needs of the present without compromising meeting the needs for the future,” said Ortiz. “What we’re doing today cannot prevent future generations from producing food… and this includes biodiversity.”
This story was created with contributions from several projects of the International Climate Initiative. The experts and project leaders involved gratefully acknowledge the leadership and support of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.
The projects include:
To learn more about agricultural landscapes and biodiversity, here are two more events from the GLF Biodiversity event in 2021:
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