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Chapter 3 - Biodiversity conservation and traditional agroecosystems

Jeffrey A. McNeety

Agriculture and the conservation of biodiversity
Threats to traditional agroecosystems
Tenure: The key issue


For rural people, wild plants and animals provide food, medicine, building materials, income, and a source of inspiration. Rivers and lakes give them transportation, water, and fish; and the coastal zone offers them a permanent source of sustenance and building materials. But instead of a sustainable flow of renewable resources, mostly furnished by nature, recent patterns of agricultural development are depleting soils and genetic and species diversity both in the cropped areas and in the surrounding ecosystems.

Agricultural lands, livestock grazing areas, manipulated forests, and other human-managed ecosystems cover at least two-thirds of the terrestrial surface of the planet, whereas protected areas cover only about 8 percent (McNeely et al., 1994). The remaining percentage is wilderness, urban lands, etc. These human-managed ecosystems contain an important segment of global biodiversity, and if they are managed with this in mind--especially if they are managed in conjunction with a system of protected areas--they can significantly contribute to the maintenance of global biodiversity.

Since the beginning of this century alone, about 75 percent of the genetic diversity of the most important crops has disappeared from farmers' fields (Cary and Mooney, 1990). This has increased agricultural vulnerability and reduced the essential variety of the diets of rural people. Other traditional and local species and races of domesticated plants and animals, vital for the nutrition of the poorest people, are underutilized or neglected. In fisheries and aquaculture, the introduction and transfer of exotic organisms has helped local economies but sometimes at the expense of natural systems, cultural stability, and social equity. The symmetry between the development of rural areas and the conservation of many forms of established land use is a critical issue that regional planning needs to address if biodiversity is to be maintained in the long term.

Agriculture and the conservation of biodiversity

Each agricultural village is part of an ecosystem. These agricultural ecosystems vary widely--from broad expanses of river deltas with the possibility of year-round irrigation, to areas of seasonally irrigated fields interspersed among forests, to areas dominated by rain-fed crops. Legumes, cereals, tubers, herbs, fruits, trees, livestock, wild animals, and fish all play important roles in most agricultural villages and must therefore be considered in planning agricultural development projects. Further, the relationships of each agricultural community extend far beyond the village itself, and these must be considered also. For example, in the hills of Nepal, each hectare of farmland needs the support of 3.48 hectares of forest and these forests require expert management if they are to continue to provide benefits in terms of food, fodder, firewood, construction materials, medicines, water, clothing, etc.

Agricultural systems will change dramatically over the coming decades because of climate change, new technologies based on genetic engineering and agroecology, and shifts in international markets. Governments and farmers will need to adapt to these changes through planning. Indicative planning, for example, is a system of dynamic planning informed by, and constantly adjusting to, changes in leading indicators. These indicators could be modified to include those related to agriculture and biodiversity in order to help ensure that agricultural systems will robustly resist mere transitory changes. In conjunction with ongoing efforts to develop environmental accounting systems, research should be initiated to find the most effective indicators and monitoring systems (Ahmad et al., 1989).

Traditional agriculture can contribute to easing the stress of changing conditions in rural areas, help conserve biodiversity, and maintain healthy relationships between rural people and the land. For example, in traditional systems of shifting cultivation, or swidden agriculture, a wide range of crops--often over 100 at one time--can be grown, essentially transforming a natural forest to one that is cultured.

The species and varieties grown in the swiddens are in a state of continuous adaptation, and in many places the crops are enriched by gene exchange with wild or weedy relatives. Altieri and Merrick (1987) contend that "maintenance of traditional agroecosystems is the only sensible strategy to preserve in-situ repositories of crop germplasm."

Traditional agriculture has adapted to a wide variety of local conditions, produced a diverse and reliable food supply, reduced the incidence of disease and insect problems, used labor efficiently, intensified production with limited resources, and earned maximum returns with low levels of technology. It makes use of a wide range of species and land races that vary in their reaction to diseases and insect pests, as well as to different conditions of soil, rainfall, and sunlight. Traditional agriculture provides sustainable yields by drawing on centuries of accumulated experience by farmers who have not depended on scientific information, external inputs, capital, credit, or markets.

But with growing populations, steps need to be taken to enhance the productivity of lands under traditional agriculture. In the forested uplands, modern agricultural development should take existing traditional systems as starting points and use modern agricultural science to improve on their productivity. The essential element is to design self-sustaining agroecosystems that assure the maintenance of the local genetic diversity available to farmers, thereby enabling rural communities to maintain control over their production systems. In addition, the maintenance of a stable, permanent link with forested land, such as that contained in some categories of protected areas, enables farmers to invest time and effort in other assets like fruit trees, fenced gardens, terraces, and irrigation canals. Such mixed systems will often make possible a marriage of modern and traditional agricultural techniques leading to the establishment of more permanent villages (McNeely, 1989).

Agricultural ecologists and modern land-use planners have learned to respect the wisdom inherent in much traditional practice. If it is seen as part of an overall system of conservation-oriented management, traditional farming can continue to be a meaningful part of the total agricultural productivity of a region and to contribute to the conservation of its biodiversity.

Planners should also be aware that strict protection does not always lead to more biodiversity. Nabhan et al. (1982), studying two oases in the Sonoran Desert on either side of the Mexico-United States border, found that the customary land-use practices of Papago farmers on the Mexican side of the border contributed to the biodiversity of the oasis but that the protection of an oasis 54 km to the northwest, within the U.S. Organpipe Cactus National Monument, resulted in a decline in species diversity over a 25-year period.

On the other hand, some conservation measures can help preserve traditional agroecosystems. The 2,000-ha Rock Coral Canyon Reserve, for example, which is owned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is one of just a handful of places in North America where wild varieties of chili peppers grow naturally, is the focus of the first proposed government-sponsored in-situ conservation plan for wild native crops. The project is run by Native Seeds/SEARCH, an NGO that aims to preserve and exploit some of the wild edible species in the region. It is estimated that colonizers since Columbus have wiped out two-thirds of North America's native crop varieties (Chatterjee, 1992). Apart from peppers, the reserve is home to four other important wild varieties of native crops: tepary beans, cotton, squashes, and Agave sp., from which tequila is made. These species have traditionally been gathered by the local Tohono O'Odham people. As recently as 70 years ago, the Tohono O'Odham cultivated 4, 000 ha of farms in Arizona without having to pump ground water--an impossible dream for most farms in the state today. Eating tepary and lima beans, pods from mesquite trees, acorns, and corn, they had an extremely healthful diet.

Threats to traditional agroecosystems

Modern farming technology is now removing innovation from the farm and placing it instead in the laboratory. The uniform varieties produced at the research center, with their dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, are displacing farm-bred varieties. Once these traditional varieties are gone, the knowledge of their cultivation and use is also lost.

But neither is the "museum" approach to conservation sufficient. Fencing off ecosystems valued for their diversity as protected areas, keeping plants in botanic gardens, and storing germ plasm in seed banks is hardly an adaptive long-term solution. It seems apparent that preserving genetic variety is pointless unless the farming system that produced it is also preserved, along with its climate and soil and the accumulated knowledge of its cultivation and use.

But traditional agroecosystems are under threat in virtually all parts of the world. Above all, these threats come from agricultural policies that favor centralized control and the subsidies required to achieve them. While these policies have undoubtedly increased total agricultural productivity, they have also led to considerable economic inefficiencies and vulnerabilities. The solutions are to be found in correcting inappropriate agricultural policies, including those that guide land-use planning.

Despite impressive increases in agricultural productivity in recent decades, many current agricultural policies are economically inefficient and environmentally unsound. They benefit farmers with large landholdings growing few crops and penalize farmers with smaller holdings that often cultivate many crops. Food price controls and subsidies for agricultural inputs help meet short-term consumer demands but remove incentives for increased agricultural production, and they often tend to undermine food security. Such policies have also decreased the diversity of species used by farmers, increased the uniformity of crops and livestock breeds, and made farmers dependent on expensive and often unreliable sources of agricultural inputs. Although many agronomists argue that uniformity in agricultural practices can improve productivity, the Global Biodiversity Strategy (WRI/IUCN/UNEP, 1992) points out five current policies that are likely to be contrary to the interests of long-term agricultural productivity:

(1) Agricultural input subsidies. Reducing the cost of inputs such as water, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers leads to the promotion of "industrial" agriculture based on a small number of highly uniform crops at the expense of farming systems based on a wider variety of crops. Subsidized inputs sometimes also replace natural processes based on biodiversity that are equally effective at lower cost to people and have less impact on the supporting ecosystems. The growing use of pesticides, for example, has displaced natural enemies of agricultural pests such as micro-organisms and invertebrates.

(2) Food price subsidies. Policies to reduce food prices for urban consumers can cut into farm profits. Combined with subsidies for inputs, such price controls can greatly reduce agricultural diversity. The use of modem crop varieties, which require irrigation and heavy inputs of agrochemicals, can enable some farmers to neutralize the impact of food price controls. But farmers using low-input systems and traditional varieties receive no such offsetting benefit, which discourages them from developing new varieties of their own; this leads indirectly to the erosion of knowledge of traditional varieties.

(3) Overvalued exchange rates. Many governments of developing countries have overvalued their currencies as a means of subsidizing imported capital goods for industry, reducing the costs of imported food, and lowering the price of food for export. Basically, such policies "tax" all agriculture, but farmers who use fewer manufactured inputs are taxed relatively more than those who use more of these inputs. Like the combination of subsidies and food price controls discussed above, this combination favors industrial agriculture with its attendant reduction in biodiversity.

(4) Research biased toward high-input agriculture. Much national agricultural research has been directed toward increasing the production of a few major crops through technology change. This research model has been exported from the industrialized to the developing world through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and may have provided much-needed breathing room in the race between production and population. But to meet future production needs, national governments must support agricultural systems that meet food needs while maintaining important components of diversity.

(5) Credit policies that discriminate against "minor" crops and traditional varieties. All too often, governments fail to extend agricultural credit to farmers planting traditional crop varieties or growing crops consumed locally. Particularly in developing countries, where the benefits of "improved" varieties may be negligible in marginal agriculture, reduced productivity and accelerated loss of crop diversity may result.

Traditional agriculture is now also threatened by the new global consumer culture, which is spreading through television, trade, and other means. Management systems that were effective for thousands of years have become obsolete in a few decades, replaced by systems of exploitation that bring short-term profits for a few and long-term costs for many. A few examples will indicate the range of factors driving this process.

Land-use management throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa is evolving from a pre-colonial communal system to systems that are more formal and individualistic. Most traditional communities do not have effective title to or control over their lands, nor do they have an effective way to make their views felt at the national policy level. As a consequence, the colonial period was marked by a taking of many of the most desirable lands from long-term resident communities, and the post-colonial period of nationhood has further served to provide legal vehicles for a taking of land and resources from local communities in the national interest. Added to this are the population pressures on the land that contribute to a breakdown of traditional methods of control. For the Shona of Zimbabwe this scenario of land divestiture has been all too evident. Traditionally, the Shona managed their lands communally on the basis of ancestral relationships. Sacred sites and sites of historical importance were preserved throughout the Shona domain, though outsiders were generally unaware of these areas or of the values attached to them. Consequently, the breakup of Shona lands into small parcels under individual ownership schemes failed to maintain traditional land protection and management systems, and resulted in a loss of cultural heritage and its associated sustainable farming practices (IUCN, 1993).

Robinson (1993) describes how colonists have been moving into the territory of the Yuqui Indians in Peru, primarily for the purpose of producing coca. These colonists tend to remain on their farms only during coca planting and harvesting, and return to their highland settlements at other times of the year. Their activities appear to have had a major impact on the fish and game available to the Yuqui because they use technology (such as fishing with dynamite) that leads to considerable overexploitation of resources. This is just one of many examples that could be provided of how new colonists have moved into traditional lands and disrupted the traditional systems that had worked over a period of many generations. Crosby (1987) describes the impacts Europeans have had on both cultures and ecosystems during the thousand years of their "ecological imperialism."

In the Moluccas of eastern Indonesia, rapidly rising consumer desires, stimulated by television images and the objects of a growing Indonesian middle class, are pushing local governments and officials to shorten the interval between traditionally controlled fish harvests (Zerner, 1993). The rationale is that the increased population densities on isolated islands lead to further needs for alternative sources of income. Despite evidence that shortened intervals result in drastically decreased stocks of marine resources, local government officials claim that the needs of villagers for income--to conduct religious rituals, pay school fees, or acquire consumer goods--are forcing them to extend the period of harvest.

Hunting has long been an important part of the economy on the island of Sumbawa, in the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago. Because most of the villagers are Muslims, pigs are not a particularly desirable game animal, but feral buffalo and cattle, as well as the local species of deer, Cervus timorensis, are commonly hunted. As grazers, these species do far better in grasslands than in the forest--the normal vegetative cover of the island. Today, however, grassland covers 17 percent of Sumbawa's land area. These grasslands are several hundred years old and have always been used for grazing and hunting. The grasslands are maintained by annual fires which, while preventing reforestation, replace older and less palatable grasses with younger and more edible ones, eliminate dead plant material, and actually increase overall herbaceous productivity. The creation of grasslands by these villagers is sensible habitat management that creates conditions favoring the grazing animals at the expense of pigs (which prefer the forest). Furthermore, the replacement of forest by grassland has been of net benefit to the wild herbivores that are hunted, with populations kept at such a high level that they could be harvested virtually at will. The hunters accept communal control that proscribes hunting during the period from November to May when the deer give birth and rear their young. Government conservation programs prohibit both the burning of the savannas and the hunting of the main game animals--excluding wild pigs, the only species the Islamic islanders avoided. Because of this insensitivity to the local reality, a genuine symbiosis that had proved sustainable over long periods of time was broken, the acceptance of the program by peasant hunters was lost, and their traditional conservation measures were undermined (Dove, 1984). The process has led to the loss of both biological and cultural diversity.

Tenure: The key issue

A key concern for planners is the traditional links between indigenous cultures and the natural world; it deals with the responsibility over resources. Tenure systems upon which responsibility is built are based on legitimacy drawn from the community in which they operate rather than from the nation-state in which they are located (Lynche and Alcorn, 1993). Indigenous systems of resource tenure are extremely variable, complex mixtures of individual and community rights, enforced by the local culture. These systems are flexible and constantly evolving, often in response to changing environmental conditions. Such systems invariably are being disrupted by nation-states claiming ownership of the most important areas.

The institutional control of resources by local peoples tends to be strongest when the groups are the most independent. Once they become integrated into larger systems, the social and economic center of gravity shifts away from the community and rural institutions become increasingly marginalized politically (Murphree, 1993).

Local people need the rights to self-determination, and to set their own development agenda. Although this does not guarantee success, it does put responsibility firmly in the hands of those who will earn the benefits and pay the costs. We might reasonably expect that communities will behave in their enlightened self-interest, if empowered to do so.

Security of tenure offers opportunities for communities to gain benefits from their resources, but at least some market forces typically exist exclusively outside local communities. Therefore, resources are perceived differently at national and community levels, and the benefits are derived differently. As a result, governments should consider returning at least some nationalized resource systems, such as forests and wildlife, to community-based tenure systems, which are often more cost-effective. Putting resource management back in the hands of local communities also helps governments divest themselves of responsibility for functions they cannot adequately fulfill. The legitimacy of community-based tenure systems can be recognized through cadastral surveys, assessments of wildlife populations, demarcation, registration, and community infrastructure that can defend against outside pressure.

The full implications of such an "indigenous privatization scheme" need to be considered. Transferring the control of access rights from a national to a local authority puts power into the hands of those making the local decisions. As Murphree (1993) points out, the way that natural resources are used in any particular place and time is the result of conflicting interests between groups of people having different objectives. Seldom does any one group dominate, and resources can be used in a number of different ways at the same time and place. So the variation in resource management is part of an ongoing process in which the different interests and struggles of the various actors are located. Some local actors are likely to benefit more than others, thereby creating new tensions in the community.

It is clear to all farmers living in such systems, says Rappaport (1972), "that their survival is contingent upon the maintenance, rather than the mere exploitation, of the larger community of which they know themselves to be only parts." Regional plans that incorporate means of protecting the larger ecosystem within which agricultural communities survive and flourish are far more likely to succeed than those that are too narrowly based. Such considerations will often involve ensuring that the relevant communities are given management responsibility for the natural areas upon which their continued prosperity depends. Governments should therefore use regional planning as a means to promote closer collaboration between the supporters of agriculture and the supporters of protected areas, building on the common interest in maintaining the diversity and productivity of biotic resources.


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