Should We Share or Split Land with Nature?

The human population is ever increasing, and so are our demands. Food production is the main cause of habitat loss worldwide1, which in turn is the biggest cause of biodiversity loss globally to date, as three-quarters of the planet’s land habitats have already been significantly altered (and degraded) by human action2.

“What does the United Kingdom really look like? To get a better sense of proportion, let’s go on a one hundred second walk across our nation. Each second of the walk reveals 1% of our lands and how they look from above. Are you ready for the UK in 100Seconds?”

Nonetheless, we are trying to conserve biodiversity – or at least that’s what international targets such as the Aichi targets3 and the UN sustainable development goals4 say, and what national and international laws require. However, we can’t have our cake and eat it too. Not at least if we don’t compromise. Land is finite and scarce, and both food production and biodiversity conservation take up a lot of land. So, what to do then, give up land and conserve biodiversity, or give up biodiversity and have more land for us? This dilemma is what has been fuelling heated scientific debate for many years. Generally, the debate is known as “land-sharing vs. land-sparing”.

Land-sparing approaches generally involve setting aside land for wildlife conservation (e.g., through establishing protected areas), while the rest of the land is used intensively to produce agricultural commodities. In contrast, land-sharing approaches envisage setting aside less specific land for conservation, and rather work on improving connectivity between agricultural and highly developed landscapes and promote coexistence between people and nature on the same landscape5. Nonetheless, these approaches are non-mutually exclusive, and managers may be able to implement a combination of the two.

Contrasting views on these approaches also emerge from the idea that we may be no longer able to conserve pristine landscapes, since these no longer exist – i.e., our influence on the planet has been pervasive. To bring up this argument are usually scientists in the emerging field of New Conservation, which also argue that we should conserve nature purely on the bases of its value to people, and leave moral arguments aside6.

Nonetheless, there may be downsides to both land-sharing and land-sparing approaches. For instance, while it may be hard to preserve viable populations of large-bodied and wide-ranging animals in land-sharing scenario, confining nature in isolated protected areas may also be ineffective – that is unless connectivity between such areas is ensured. Moreover, in some parts of the world (e.g., Europe) it may be already too late, and thus hardly feasible, to implement land-sparing approaches, since the landscapes are already densely populated by people.

Nevertheless, the recovery of large carnivore populations in Europe, including wolves, bears, lynx and wolverines, brings hope and positivity into the debate that where there’s a will there’s a way, and thus that effective biodiversity conservation may be possible even in highly anthropogenic landscapes7. However, conflict and poaching levels in Europe remain high and are expected to rise as the carnivores return in areas where they had been absent for many decades.

Ultimately, one’s preferences for land-sharing or land-sparing approaches remain largely subjective, and will be influenced by the context in which one’s been raised and socialised, the land use histories of the systems that one finds most interesting, and one’s views on whether there is or isn’t any “pristine” nature left to conserve.

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  5. Green, R.E., Cornell, S.J., Scharlemann, J.P. and Balmford, A., 2005. Farming and the fate of wild nature. science, 307(5709), pp.550-555.
  6. Kareiva, P. and Marvier, M., 2012. What is conservation science?BioScience, 62(11), pp.962-969
  7. Chapron, G., et al., 2014. Recovery of large carnivores in Europe’s modern human-dominated landscapes. science, 346(6216), pp.1517-1519

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