Half world's nature reserves heavily farmed

Posted: 13 July 2001

Two of the world's leading environmental and agriculture groups have reported that almost half of the world's 17,000 major nature reserves, which are intended to protect wildlife from extinction, are being heavily used for agriculture. They also report that extreme malnutrition and hunger are pervasive among people living in at least 16 of the world's 25 key biodiversity hotspots, where wildlife is most at risk.

The findings, documented in an unprecedented joint report by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the Washington-based agriculture organization Future Harvest, are called "alarming" by the researchers.

Given that clearing and using land for agriculture is the chief cause of biodiversity extinction and that widespread hunger is persistent in areas with the world's richest biodiversity, many plants and animals will go extinct unless ecosystems are managed to feed people and protect wild species simultaneously, the report warns.

The report outlines a new solution to the biodiversity extinction crisis based on a new understanding of wildlife biology and ecology. The approach, called eco-agriculture, seeks to help farmers, most urgently those living in or near biodiversity hotspots, to grow more food while conserving habitats critical to wildlife. The approach dramatically breaks with both traditional conservation policies and common agriculture techniques.

"Many people believe that biodiversity can be preserved simply by fencing it off," said co-author Jeffrey McNeely, chief scientist of IUCN. "Our report shows that agriculture and biodiversity are inextricably linked. In fact, farms and nature reserves are actually sharing common ground in many countries where species are most at risk.

"To avert widespread extinctions and feed the world, we must integrate biodiversity preservation into all landscapes - from grazing lands to coffee plantations to rice paddies," McNeely added. "Our research shows that eco-agriculture is being successfully used on six continents around the globe."

Avoiding extinction

According to the report, 45 per cent of the world's major protected reserves are themselves heavily used for agriculture. In other reserves, protected areas are interspersed with agricultural land, overlap with agricultural land, or are located adjacent to major agricultural frontiers.

If the existing protected areas were to continue as isolated wildlife habitat, between 30 and 50 per cent of the species in those areas would be lost, because the protected areas do not contain large enough populations to maintain the species.

"Protected areas are fast becoming islands of dying biodiversity because of the agricultural areas that surround them," explained McNeely. "Many animals need the ability to migrate in order to avoid extinction. Limited reserve areas cannot fill this need and the lands that would be needed for the massive expansion of protected areas is already being used to feed local people and fuel local economies."

"Eco-agriculture offers a solution to this dilemma by allowing farmers to produce more food on the same amount of land while greatly reducing harm to wildlife," McNeely said.

More than 1.1 billion people - 20 per cent of the world's population - live within the 25 most threatened, species-rich areas of the world, named biodiversity hotspots by Conservation International. The report says the majority of these hotspots are also located in areas with very high malnutrition - home to fully one quarter of all the undernourished people in the developing world.

Growing population

In 19 of the world's 25 biodiversity hotspots, population is growing more rapidly than in the world as a whole. The report finds that population in the sparsely populated tropical wilderness areas is growing, on average, at an annual rate of 3.1 per cent - more than double the worldwide average.

The report provides several dozen case studies of successful eco-agriculture systems being undertaken in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

"Farmers and scientists around the world are pioneering a whole new approach to agriculture," said McNeely. "These innovations show that eco-agriculture can be productive and profitable while protecting biodiversity. They are based on the belief - borne out by empirical evidence - that humans and wild species can share common ground and prosper in a common future."

The complete report: Common Ground, Common Future: How Eco-agriculture Can Help Feed the World and Save Wild Biodiversity can be downloaded from Future Harvest.

Link: IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.