Conservation in the Human Landscape

Article excerpt


Much of our conservation efforts have focused on preservation of wilderness to the detriment of our ability to see the need for conservation efforts in our more human dominated landscapes, the places we work, farm, and live. Agricultural landscapes comprise nearly 46% of total land area. Isolated islands of conserved ecosystems cannot meet our conservation goals if surrounded by biological deserts of industrial agriculture. There must be a shift in how conservationists and the public view the value of conservation in agricultural and other human influenced landscapes. There is also a need for a shift in the agricultural community among both farmers and researchers from viewing farming as an industrial process to understanding and managing agroecosystems as complex living biotic systems. Collaboration between conservationists, ecologist, agronomists, and farmers is necessary in order to create sustainable agroecosystems that protect biodiversity and provide connectivity to other conserved lands. Our efforts to protect biodiversity and ecosystems cannot succeed without increased conservation efforts in working rural landscapes.


Ninety five percent of the land on this planet is under human management with just under 10% in protected areas (Western and Pearl 1989; Pimentel et. al. 1992; World Conservation Monitoring Centre 2000). Fifty five percent of the world's major protected areas (29% in terms total hectares) occur in landscapes where agriculture is also practiced. Agriculture occupies more than 30% of the land cover in 17% of protected land area (Sebastian 2001). Nearly 46% of total global land area is in some type of agricultural management. This management ranges from intensive grain, livestock and vegetable production (e.g. the central valley of California, Midwest United States, and Europe), to extensive grazing (e.g. Western US, Central Asia, and South America), and traditional polyculture-agroforestry systems (e.g. some traditional systems in Latin America) (Wood, Sebastian, and Scherr 2000; McNeely and Scherr 2003). It is clear that if we wish to conserve biodiversity and ecosystems, we must realize the value and necessity of increasing conservation efforts and sustainable farming practices in agricultural landscapes.

There is a damaging perspective in much of the conservation community that views agricultural and other human dominated landscapes as sacrificial land of no conservation interest. According to this view, one also popular amongst environmentalists, our conservation/preservation efforts should be concentrated on protecting "wild" or "natural" places, "untouched" or "unspoiled" by human influence. Most importantly, this concept of wilderness conservation shapes our interactions with all other landscapes. This conception furthers the false mental construct that humans are separate from the environment and the ecosystem processes that sustain us and all the other inhabitants of this planet. It defines "nature" as without human presence or influence and allows us to conceive of "nature" as separate from ourselves and in turn facilitates our mismanagement and destruction of the ecosystems in which we farm, work, and live. The continued prevalence of this belief will lead to the failure of our isolated conservation efforts and of the ecosystems on which we depend for our survival.

Conservation biology has shown that isolated populations or habitat patches experience increased extinction rates. Isolated areas of wilderness cannot function for conservation when surrounded by biological deserts of industrial agriculture. Likewise, agricultural production cannot be sustained using production techniques that ignore the fact that the agroecosystem is just that, an ecosystem, dependant on complex biological interactions, and not an industrial manufacturing process. More and more ecologists, agronomists, conservationists, and farmers are coming to realize the interdependence of agriculture and conservation. …