Ecological ultras

Published: Sunday 31 December 1995

Ecological ultras

Ecologist N V C Polunin argues that protected areas are an extreme form of conservation, and that other forms of regulated area management may be more appropriate for the management needs of local development. In fact, future conservation could be based predominantly on those categories of proteced areas which accept human use. Examples include the international Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) tegory viii (multiple-use management area), world heritage, cultural landscapes and UNESCO biosphere reserves.

@ Sustainable agriculture may represent the most viable &-use option for many forest areas at present under strict owtection. Agriculture in its many forms is by far the most yredominant form of land-use in tropical regions. ;kVicultural management may also benefit conservation.

What is needed is to move away from an obsession with 5eserves as isolated entities and move towards an integration of human land-use and nature conservation. The struggle to %taintain biodiversity is going to be won or lost in agricultural systems. Management of agricultural landscapes will be the litnus test of our ability to conserve species. Most terrestrial biota will eventually have to coexist with human agriculture. Ontegrating human exploitation with conservation through the diversification oftypes and intensity of land-use is a realistic way of minimising extinctions.

A thorough understanding of traditional agriculture is a pwerequisite for any form of tropical forest conservation. To conserve biodiversity, any future conservation of tropical for must include two key features: a disturbance regime of dynamic management associated with human access to and Wrifisation of the ecosystem; and the strict avoidance of large C;@es, along with a new emphasis on patch or mosaic man- PFT ent of small areas.

Growing empirical evidence suggests that moderate frencies or intensities of disturbance foster maximum species C'ness. A directive of the European Community on the conation ofnatural habitats and ofwild fauna and flora recognisation that "the maintenance of such biodiversity may in certain cases require the maintenance, or indeed the encourage trit, ofhuman activities".

The UNESCO "Man and the Biosphere" programme Lems to have come very close to a rational concept of the dynamic management of ecosystems: "One of the most Wuable features of biosphere reserves (is) that they offer excellent way of integrated conservation with development ry building on the knowledge of indigenous people about e sustainable management of their ecosystems and about te properties and values of the plants and animals therein. When this is appropriately supplemented by modern science Ind technology, such knowledge should enable as to made evenjPetter use of those ecosystems while preserving ?heir essenlial character - and to do this in ways that benefit local people and are acceptable to them".

This programme has been less effective because of the past political opposition to UNESCO's policies by some major donor countries. They are now actively supporting a far larger but inferior conservation programme that is funded through the Global Environmental Facility of the World Bank. The nurturing and transfer of traditional forest management through agriculture, based on studies of past land management systems, will be a job for development professionals rather than conservationists. A key feature of future tropical forest management will be the acceptance of shifting cultivation, a system generally condemned by conservationists, but which is a traditional and pan-tropical response to the periodic need to regenerate both forests and fields. As still practised in the Mayan area of Mexico, traditional systems of shifting cultivation can feed more than what is assumed, while conserving biological diversity for future use.

Green mosaic
There are several alternatives to large, strictly protected areas. Madhav Gadgil has suggested that reserves in India should take the form of "a highly dispersed network of tiny protected areas, 'ranging in size from individual Ficus trees to groves of a few hundred square meters to a few hectares in size". This may be more appropriate,for tropical developing countries than the North American in of national parks.

There is a need for a replacement of major parts of t tropica*rotected area system by 'mosaic management" t allow multiple use and to reflect the multifaceted abilities an needs of local communities. An emerging tenet of landscape ecology is that the patchy structure of landscape is import to ecological functioning at a variety of levels of biological organisation, and that this itself was worthy of conservation and management attention.

A mix of ecosystems is required to secure the welfare tropical peoples, involving a balance between the preservation of mature forests and the complete conversion to intensive systems, with an enhanced role for the management of sec ondary forests. There is need for a wide range of land management options, to develop an integrated mix of national par national forests, biosphere reserves, extractive reserves, Community forestry and peasant reserves in a variety of differece ecosystems.

I Tfie current and widespread strategy of tropical protecte area conservation - with the exclusion of human populations - depends on theories and perceptions on the desi and management of biological reserves that are now proving irrelevant and inadequate for the needs tropical countries. Tropical forest conservation is based on misconceptions of past and present tropic land use and of the economic ecology of rural communities. These misconceptions about tropical Ian use in the designation of reserves could translate into serious errors when it comes to reserve management Protected area management, which assumes it is ma aging previously uninhabited land, is management that will fail.

The disturbance regime associated with the past prO4 ductive use of tropical forest areas is a key to tht future productive management of biodiversill Conservationists must accept that nearly all tropical land is or has been productively used intensively 11 agriculture and extensively to complement agriculturt by gathering wild plants and by hunting.

Any misguided attempt to reduce, change or pre! vent disturbance by the establishment of strictly protect areas will have unpredictable but probably damaging consic quences for the survival of tropical forests in their prese form. Strict preservation could destroy biodiversity and aj the indigenous knowledge needed for ecosystem manag ment. Management policies excluding rural communitim from reserves are not only socially provocative, but count productive technically.

It is suggested that multipurpose management and c t, ued human use of tropical forests is a more effective conserv tion policy for tropical developing countries than the stn) protection of large forest reserves. The present , strictly protected areas should be replaced with a system in harmony with the traditional resource management n and abilities of rural communities. Rural communities should be actively involved in the future productive management A tropical forests, rather than being induced or pressurised into abandoning their forest heritage.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.