I once stumbled upon a postcard whose image has stuck with me ever since. It was a picture of a landscape: a series of completely deforested hills where only thin lines of scarce shrubs and slightly different shades of green indicated where one parcel began and another one ended. The postcard said: “Greetings from the Gorilla Highlands. Beyond gorilla rainforests, every inch of land is precious”.
There are around 300 highland gorillas in the Bwindi National Park in Uganda and thanks to conservation efforts the population is rising. The park covers a little over 300 km2, that means a density of roughly one gorilla per km2. If the species’ population continues to rise, there simply is not enough space for gorillas in a forest surrounded by agricultural land. Historically, agricultural development and biodiversity conservation have played in two different fields. Ironically, almost always right beside each other. Conservationists all around the world encounter a similar situation, the habitat they seek to protect is enclosed by an expanding sea of agricultural parcels.
The expansion of the agricultural frontier is contributing heavily to the current loss of biodiversity. Agriculture is thought to cause around 70% of the loss of terrestrial biodiversity.
If conservation and agricultural development goals are already side by side in the field, both need to start working as partners. Too often we come upon conflicting policies, where rural inhabitants are paid to conserve standing forests but also encouraged, by other payments, to expand and intensify agriculture.
In broad terms, agricultural policies have focused on two opposing strategies: either on finding environmentally friendly practices to share the land with biodiversity or on sparing land by producing more intensively in a smaller area. Meanwhile, conservation efforts have mainly focused on protecting intact wilderness and controlling activities which threaten wildlife, agricultural activities included amongst these threats. Between these two competing proposals, what do landscapes approaches offer for reconciling nature conservation and livelihood strategies?
Agroforestry systems (AFS) are an option for reconciliation because they maintain tree cover while at the same time producing a crop. Of particular interest are those with a high floristic and structural complexity as they are more successful at mimicking the surrounding natural habitat. By providing a wider range of habitat niches than monocultures, AFS can serve multiple purposes in favour of species and habitat diversity. They can provide landscape connectivity by functioning as biological corridors between forest fragments embedded in an agricultural matrix, serve as buffer zones between primary and secondary forest and other land uses, or directly provide habitat for forest dwelling species.
However, it is not all rosy in this scenario. From the social perspective, AFS demand more complex management both through labour and knowledge, and markets are missing for many potentially interesting forest products. From an ecological perspective, different flora and fauna have different needs and respond differently to altered habitats. In the case of species which can only find their required food and shelter in primary forests, the habitat provided by AFS might just not be compatible with their needs. As well, AFS can contribute to biodiversity loss when they replace the original forest ecosystems without retaining the original ecosystem processes.
Current studies and applications of agroforestry are typically detached from the potential broader ecological implications at a landscape scale. Although biodiversity is often addressed by this research and by sustainable agricultural practices, the focus is mainly on agrobiodiversity. Seldom does it address wild biodiversity, and when it does it is mostly regarding wild species with a direct link to agriculture (e.g. wild pollinators).
Many questions are still left unanswered regarding the use of AFS for nature conservation at a landscape scale: How do AFS better serve wildlife in the regions where they have been established? Can existing forest be managed as AFS? What is the potential of commonly used exotic species to become invasive and under which ecological contexts? What is the potential of native species to have desired characteristics for AFS design? What is the economic efficiency of using AFS for landscape restoration? What are the trade-offs between economic feasibility for local communities and environmental protection? What is the potential role of cultural identity and indigenous local knowledge in the use of forest products in biodiversity hotspots?
And lastly, often overlooked, what are the potential human-wildlife conflicts? Exposing wildlife to more contact with humans can have negative results, through poaching, hunting, potential dangerous encounters, or raiding of crops. More studies between the linkages of agroforestry systems and human-wildlife conflict are necessary to evaluate how to best avoid and manage such conflicts. We need to be able to understand in which contexts productivity and ecological objectives don’t meet and identify unacceptable trade-offs in order to begin to address or accept the incompatibility of AFS with nature conservation. In our efforts to save biodiversity through better agricultural practices that maintain our home we also need to remember that wild species need wild homes. After all, we don’t all want a gorilla in our backyard.
Many disciplines are needed to answer these questions. More than just focusing on the loss of intact forests, conservation scientists and practitioners also need to address and understand the effects of the replacement of traditional agroforestry systems which already serve as an example of balance between providing food for people and food for wildlife.
If the specialist in agriculture only focuses on the farm and the conservationist only focuses on the natural reserve, they will be looking only at islands and most likely miss all the interactions and potential synergies between both systems. We literally need to find ground for action.
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