Keep farming or leave it back to nature?
The controversial outcomes of farmland abandonment
- First ever PhD from the Stockholm Resilience Centre looks at impacts of various management options in landscapes undergoing farmland abandonment
- Farmland abandonment impacts are found to be contrasting across world regions
- When considering policy implications, the best option is to consider the local context
Farmland abandonment is happening in several parts of the world and is particularly widespread in European mountain areas.
In her PhD dissertation in sustainability science, the first of its kind at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Cibele Queiroz has looked at the impacts of different management options in landscapes undergoing farmland abandonment.
"This work is a contribution to the ongoing discussion on the consequences of farmland abandonment to biodiversity, still a controversial issue among scientists," she says.
Regional conservation views play a role
By combining insights from a local case study in Northern Portugal with a global overview on how impacts of abandonment on biodiversity are reported across scientific studies, Queiroz found that abandonment impacts were reported in contrasting ways across world regions.
European and Asian studies report mainly negative impacts while in many North and South American studies, abandonment trends are described as positive.
These differences can be explained by the existence of regional views on nature conservation, Queiroz explains.
"Basically, the type of ecosystems that are considered to have higher conservation value can vary across regions. This will influence whether we consider farmland abandonment as the loss of high diverse agricultural habitats or an opportunity for regenerating other sorts of habitats that have been degraded by past land use."
To be aware of these regional views is important, as they can sometimes make us blind to alternative management strategies. In Europe, for example, a significant share of the total EU budget is targeted to support small-scale farming in less favored areas and prevent abandonment trends.
However, in many cases, the native habitats that can potentially regenerate in former agricultural land are as valuable as these non-intensively managed farmland habitats, and in some cases it might make sense to promote their regrowth. Similarly, in some South American countries, most conservation efforts are focused on regenerate tropical forest, sometimes neglecting potential of biodiversity rich low-intensity farming areas.
Consider the local context
So what to do? Keep the agricultural practices? Or promote forest regeneration after abandonment?
According to Queiroz there is no black and white answer. In some areas maintaining a moderate level of agricultural disturbance can maximize species richness with benefits for biodiversity. But in other cases, when the social structure of farming communities has been eroded and low-intensity farming is no longer socially or economically viable, abandonment followed by re-wilding can be the best option.
But both strategies cannot be successfully implemented without intervention.
"Re-vitalizing the countryside and preserving traditional agricultural practices requires a strategy of rural development that goes beyond the current agricultural subsidies. In the same way, the regrowth of natural habitats will only be beneficial when secondary succession evolves to a desired state, which in many cases might not be achieved if the right management is not implemented" Queiroz says.
Queiroz, C. 2013 Managing for biodiversity and ecosystem services in a context of farmland abandonment. Doctoral Thesis in Sustainability Science, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden. ISBN 978-91-7447-700-9
Cibele Queiroz focuses on agricultural abandonment in Europe and its effects on biodiversity, ecosystem services and ecosystem resilience. She investigates if agricultural landscapes are resilient enough to allow the regeneration of abandoned lands into habitats that enhance biodiversity and ecosystem services.
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