A new study finds that trashed agricultural lands could be 'low-hanging fruit' for expanding the world’s conservation areas.
In India, husband and wife Anil and Pamela Malhotra spent 25 years buying up wasteland farmers no longer wanted and letting it return to nature. Now their DIY sanctuary boasts 300 acres of beautiful bio-diverse rainforest that elephants, tigers, leopards, deer, snakes, birds and hundreds of other animals all call home.
In Texas, David Bamberger bought the "worst piece of land I could possibly find" and coaxed the 5,500 acres of barren overgrazed ranchland into a lush, thriving preserve.While these isolated examples took vision, patience, and years to allow nature reclaim her place, researchers from the University of Queensland (UQ) have now proposed a similar scheme, saying that low-productivity agricultural land could be transformed into millions of hectares of conservation reserves across the world.
Dr. Zunyi Xie, from UQ’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, says that "uncontested" lands – those where agricultural productivity is low – could be "low-hanging fruit for expanding the world’s conservation areas." (For the purposes of the research, the definition of uncontested lands did not include Indigenous or subsistence farming lands, even if they displayed low productivity or high degradation.)
“These spaces could offer great opportunities, and it’s time we recognise what that could mean and where it might be,” Xie says.
“Restoring degraded lands that are no longer contested for agricultural use, due to low productivity or inappropriate farming practices, may present a major conservation opportunity if balanced with local community and indigenous groups’ needs.”
And really, why not? There is a lot focus on protecting areas like rainforests and other places rich with biodiversity, which is obviously important, but letting barren farmland just sit their doing nothing seems like a massively missed opportunity.
And UQ’s Associate Professor Eve McDonald-Madden notes that this approach could be cheaper and quicker than others.
“Quite rightly, most conservation endeavours focus on protecting the best places for biodiversity,” she says. “Yet these areas are often in high demand for other uses, such as agricultural production or resource extraction. "The contested nature of these places makes land acquisition for protecting species expensive and a lengthy process"
“While those battles for high-value biodiversity areas continue, as they should, let’s take advantage of the vast areas of underutilised agricultural land across the globe," she continues. “Those areas that don’t play a key role in food security or economic well-being and once revived can bring conservation gains.”
With this in mind, the researchers have been working on mapping and quantifying opportunities for protecting these lands, saying that they could help countries reach their UN Sustainable Development Goals commitments.
“This research will support effective prioritisation of conservation restoration to support biodiversity and in an attempt to tackle climate change,” Xie said. “It also provides a critical evidence base, helping broaden the options available to those making decisions about what land to preserve by highlighting areas that may otherwise be overlooked."
The research was published in Nature Sustainability.