Melting pots of biodiversity

What happens when you combine human labour, introduced plants, and particular societal histories and structures in a certain tropical landscape?  You end up with anthropogenic or cultural landscapes – the “matrix” in current ecological jargon – such as the domesticated forests1 of southeast Asia, the tree gardens of Caribbean or Pacific islands, the shambas of Africa, the rice terraces of Madagascar.  Despite their aesthetic and cultural attractions, these smallholder farming landscapes are directly or implicitly critiqued by many – for not being as productive as modern industrial agriculture, for trapping people in rural poverty, and for taking up space at the expense of natural habitats.  In two recent papers with French collaborators, I argue instead that such landscapes can be sustainable sources of useful products, can facilitate vibrant and resilient rural communities, and can be resilient contributors to the functioning of local and global biophysical systems.

Kull et al 2013 Melting pots first page

Our first article2 uses the lens of introduced plants to approach the subject – for one aspect of the conservationist critique of smallholder farming landscapes is that they dilute native biodiversity and serve as conduits for threatening invasive species.  We argue that the arrival of alien plants in these ever-changing landscapes can contribute to people’s adaptation to social and environmental changes, to a diversification of livelihoods and habitats, to avoided deforestation, to biodiversity conservation, and finally to sustainability.  We do so using a simple analytical framework centered around productivity (are these landscapes sustainable and resilient sources of products useful to subsistence and economic activities, locally and beyond?), community (do they contribute to the vibrancy, social justice, and resilience of culturally rich rural communities?), and environment (are they resilient contributors of ecosystem services, aiding or at least not damaging biodiversity conservation, water resources, and soil fertility?).  These criteria are applied to case studies describing the rubber gardeners of Indonesia, the cacao farmers of Cameroon, and the rice and eucalyptus smallholders of Madagascar.

We suggest that certain smallholding tropical farm landscapes be called “melting pots”, for they mix native and alien species and are jointly built by farmers and by natural processes.  They blur boundaries between human and natural, native and alien, production and conservation.  We chose this term in direct reference to the hotspot approach to conservation, which was not built to cope with a world dominated by anthropogenic spaces where people introduce species and build a different kind of biodiversity.  The melting-pot concept promotes a focus on hybrid biological and social processes, on the novel ecosystems3 that can result, rather than emphasizing distinctions between people and nature, or between aliens and natives.  Hot spots and melting pots are complementary, but not enough recognition, attention, and promotion goes to the latter.  Focusing conservation and development efforts on encouraging and protecting melting pot landscapes is, for us, the missing link in the paradigms of conservation and sustainable development.

In the second article4, we critique the standardization of biodiversity approaches and associated marginalization of agroecosystems as habitat and matrix for biodiversity.  They are marginalized because standardized assessments—by their very design—find more value in “wild” areas, with, for example, larger numbers of endemic species.  Echoing some of the arguments of the other article, we remind readers of the mounting evidence of the importance of such anthropogenic landscapes to broader ‘land-sharing’ conservation approaches.

These collaborations arise out of a small workshop I convened nearly four years ago – with money from the French embassy in Australia – on the theme of introduced Australian trees in highland Madagascar.  What a long way we’ve come!

1  Michon, G (2005) Domesticating Forests:  How Farmers Manage Forest Resources. Bogor Barat: CIFOR, ICRAF, and IRD.

2  Kull, CA, SM Carriere, S Moreau, H Rakoto Ramiarantsoa, C Blanc-Pamard & J Tassin (2013) Melting pots of biodiversity: tropical smallholder farm landscapes as guarantors of sustainability. Environment 55 (2) 6-16.

3  Hobbs, R et al. (2013)  Novel Ecosystems.  Wiley.

4  Carrière, SM, E Rodary, P Méral, G Serpantié, V Boisvert, CA Kull, G Lestrelin, L Lhoutellier, B Moizo, G Smektala & J-C Vandevelde (2013) Rio+20, biodiversity marginalized. Conservation Letters 6 (1):6-11. author version pdf   official link

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