Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Nature's matrix: Linking agriculture, conservation and food sovereignty

An important book argues that conservationists who focus on creating nature preserves are undermining their own cause.

To truly protect biodiversity, environmentalists must support the global struggle of peasant farmers for human rights, land, and sustainable agriculture.

Linking Agriculture, Conservation and Food Sovereignty by Ivette Perfecto, John Vandermeer and Angus Wright

In any discussion of biodiversity and species extinction, someone insists that overpopulation is the problem. More people equals more farms equals less wilderness equals more extinctions. Life is a zero-sum game: you can have people and farming OR wildlife and biodiversity, but not both.

For a convincing antidote to such views, I highly recommend Nature’s Matrix, an important book by ecologists Ivette Perfecto, John Vandermeer and Angus Wright. Drawing on their extensive practical experience with conservation and agriculture in Central America and the Amazon, combined with recent research in ecology and agronomy, they propose a radical “new paradigm” for conservation, a strategy based on powerful evidence that preserving biodiversity is inseparable from the growing struggle of peasant farmers for human rights, land, and sustainable agriculture.

The issue is not how many people there are, but what the people do: some forms of agriculture destroy life, others preserve and expand it. Only by strengthening the social forces that support biodiversity-friendly farming can we hope to slow or reverse what’s being called the Sixth Extinction, a global species annihilation comparable to the death of the dinosaurs.

A doomed strategy

The orthodox approach to protecting biodiversity was expressed recently by David Attenborough, the well-known broadcaster and naturalist who is also a patron of the UK-based World Land Trust. In a letterto WLT supporters, Attenborough wrote:

“On the reserves purchased through donations to the Trust, which are expertly managed by its overseas partners, permanent protection is in place. Buying land for conservation is the most direct and certain road to conservation and in doing so WLT is ensuring that at least some of our wilderness, and its biodiversity, survives.”

Most conservation groups follow that approach: they try to protect biodiversity and limit species extinctions by creating wilderness reserves where human activity is limited or banned. Often they literally erect fences and pay armed guards to prevent intrusions, even by people whose ancestors lived on the land for millennia. What happens outside the reserves is only relevant if it threatens to impinge on the pristine environment where nature is protected from people.

Nature’s Matrix argues convincingly that such a focus on creating protected areas is a doomed strategythat actually harms biodiversity, increasing the likelihood of extinctions.

This is so for three reasons.

First, most tropical landscapes are not exclusively untouched or exclusively farmed. The most common pattern is a complex matrix with fragments of forest separated by a variety of farms, as this aerial photograph illustrates. More