By Joern Fischer
Together with Tibor Hartel and Tobias Kuemmerle, I’ve published a new paper in Conservation Letters — on conservation policy in traditional farming landscapes (available here). It struck us that existing conservation approaches can be a bit naive, so we wanted to challenge those approaches, and offer some fresh ideas. (Judge for yourself whether we succeeded …!)
The basic idea is that many existing approaches are essentially based on ‘bribery’: if only we pay people to keep using the methods that they have always used, then they will keep using those methods, and all is well. Implicitly or otherwise, this seems to be the rationale of a lot of agri-environment type approaches. But what do such approaches mean for traditional landscapes such as the ones we’re working in in Romania?
Basically, we have doubts that these approaches will work. If there is a simpler way to do agriculture, people won’t want to keep using the laborious practices that are ‘traditional’. What seems romantic to a Western European researcher or policy maker is very hard work. Getting ‘bribed’ to keep doing this amounts to attempts to somehow preserve the past — when it is clear that people want development, and they want to move on from the past. That’s one problem. Another is that such schemes appeal basically to people’s financial bottom line — but doing this may not be a very sustainable strategy. What if agri-environment payments to keep certain traditional practices in place were to stop? Or what if the financial incentives for intensification are simply more attractive that the agri-environment payments to keep things ‘traditional’? (The latter appears a very likely scenario in the future!) — The short answer is that, basically, people would then move on, and use the land in other ways that are more financially viable …. and who could blame them!
The ‘preservation strategy’, which tries to bribe people to keep using traditional practices, ignores that traditional farming systems have evolved to be tightly connected social-ecological systems. In such systems, people’s land uses shape the land, and then the land gives back a set of ecosystem services to the people. Thus, there is a tight two-way linkage. This two-way link is not acknowledged by agri-environment approaches. These don’t maintain social-ecological systems as a whole, but rather, they attempt to somehow preserve the past by making ‘traditional’ uses financially more attractive.
In our paper we acknowledge that such financial payments have a place, and quite possibly an important place. But we also suggest that there’s more to it. An alternative way to frame conservation policy would be to recognise the value of two-way linkages between nature — we assume that when people are directly connected to the land (rather than being paid to look after the land), they are more likely to use it sustainably. There’s an inherent incentive for sustainability.
For that reason, in our paper we argue that conservation policy should consider a ‘transformation strategy’. In such a strategy, it’s clearly acknowledged that people want development. Preserving the past therefore is not a viable option. What might be viable, however, is to think about development pathways that re-create genuine links between people and the environment. Viable options for southern Transylvania might include increased eco- or cultural tourism; and improved marketing of regional specialty products. The aim thus is not to preserve the past, but to create a vision for the future; for a new social-ecological system where once again, people have real connections to the environment.
Real connections probably can’t be maintained solely through financial payments. We may be wrong: but our sense is that policy would do well to consider more fully the value of encouraging sustainable social-ecological systems as whole units, rather than focusing (more narrowly) on specific land uses practices which characterised the past — not the future.