The Anthropocene period has created an alarming triple challenge: preventing the loss of biodiversity, adapting to climate change, and sustainably supporting a growing population. How will we overcome these issues? A new publication in Science defines these challenges, and addresses what it will take to create an Earth that supports both biodiversity and people.
Humans cohabited earth with its incredible biodiversity for millenia, using biodiversity-based production systems for goods and services. However, a majority these systems have been replaced with exploitative production methods, relegating species to isolated protected areas.
Within the next century, it is expected that less than a tenth of protected lands will remain in their current climate. This means that species ranges will need to shift in order to stay within a tolerable environment. All the while, there are threats of invasive species, pollution, and a growing human population.
To overcome these threats, protected areas need to be connected by incorporating habitat in production landscapes. The creation of resilient landscapes that both support biodiversity and yield goods and services is called working lands conservation.
Working lands conservation involves creating large mosaics of diversified landscape patches. These patches depend on biodiversity for production and form the necessary connectivity to facilitate movement of species among protected areas.
Landscapes that are currently monoculture cropping systems can be broken up into an array of sustainably farmed crops. Rangelands can be converted into silvopasture systems incorporating trees with livestock. Natural areas can remain as habitat stepping stones. When these patches are adjacent to one another, they form large expanses of habitat for species to move through. This approach maximizes ecosystem services and minimizes the trade-offs between conservation and socioeconomic goals.
It is often mistakenly believed that diversified landscapes are less productive than intensive systems, that they require more land to produce the same yield, or that it is more sustainable to separate ecological systems from social systems. But these perceptions are not true.
Conventional production systems aim to produce a single good. Working lands conservation promotes diversified landscapes that provide services ranging from water purification, to healthier soils, to carbon sequestration, in addition to producing goods. This multitude of goods and services increases resilience as climates shift and extreme weather events become more common, making working lands conservation the superior option for ensuring healthy landscapes into the future.
This work does not come without challenges. Current policies and economies are built upon input-intensive methods of production. This is unlikely to change soon, as proposed climate agreements and species protection policies continually undershoot or outright dismiss crucial conservation goals.
The fate of biodiversity cannot wait for adequate policy to be passed. Working lands conservation requires community driven initiatives partnered with agencies, scientists, and conservationists. A co-production of efforts can utilize existing social movements, establish new partnerships, and provide the resources required to scale these efforts to the necessary extent.
An impressive example of working lands conservation is the community driven Landcare movement in Australia. Public institutions, private landowners, conservation groups, and researchers partner to combat climate change and conserve biodiversity. Members of the movement located within the Great Eastern Ranges Corridor on the east coast of Australia restore and connect habitat as a part of the initiative. Working across groups and within the existing framework makes it possible for this movement to be successful at the continental scale.
Balancing conservation with social and economic systems is the challenge of our time. Leaving this up to policy makers will lead to failure for communities and the environment. This work requires community action to create the landscapes we need to prosper. Doing so will lead to a world that works for both biodiversity and people.
Kremen C and Merenlender AM. 2018. Landscapes that work for biodiversity and people. Science 362 (6412): eaau6020.