Conservation policy in traditional farming landscapes

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.

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6 thoughts on “Conservation policy in traditional farming landscapes

  1. I quite agree (at least, with your summary here, not having read the paper). The other thing we shouldn’t forget is the social-social connection, that is, the importance of social recognition and being part of a societal vision.

    By this I mean that the farmers I’ve worked with have notably mentioned the lack of respect or cultural valuation for farmers in many places. “Traditional” practices have long been hobbled with the notion of being “backwards” practices; even now, people characterize advocacy for agroecologically sound traditional practices as nostalgia for time bereft of the wonders of modern agronomy; as “cool” as the local and organic food movements have become, they are still the niche, and I don’t think most farmers (much less people) perceive them as scientifically cutting edge, despite the fact that many agroecological practices are just that. (Not all of them are as obviously “cool” as push-pull, say, but many are innovative nonetheless.) Chemicals and control is far more attractive to our modernist dreams than rotations and polyculture.

    Beyond that, I think it’s important to remember that traditional practices became traditional through ages of empirical hypothesis testing by farmers (hypothesis: this will yield more/require less work/yield better quality, etc.) In 2001, Lugo et al. wrote “A more accurate characterization of managed ecosystems is as replicated experiments in the manipulating biodiversity to achieve specific functional goals. These real life experiments offer great scientific potential to the ecological community…” Farmers embedded in the social-natural dialectical relationship you support are often innovative and experimental, deriving new ways of doing things that at times may be even more sustainable than older “traditional” ways. The key is to support practices that *seek* to balance production with wise use, and to *discourage* (disincentivize) practices that result in environmental externalities and other problems. My proposal for this, in part, has for a while hinged on the idea that we should “backstop” farmers as a fundamental part of society, and one more intensely subject to supra-market problems than other areas (e.g. the ability of one bad season to devastate even a good farmer due to events beyond their control). Research by my colleagues and I have indicated especial importance for small-scale farmers; the compact should be that any farmer working hard and honestly should have access to extension/education, appropriate credit, and price support for exceptional events/disasters. The compact should be “As long as you work hard, we’ve got your back.”

    I think all efforts will come up short unless some sort of new compact like this is made with the farmers in each society. As you say, many of these systems evolved to be tightly connected. That includes not just farmer to land, but farmer to farmer and farmer to consumer.

  2. As always — thank you for your insightful comment! Indeed, it’s about reorganising (reconnecting) society with nature as a whole, and that will include new connections between people as well. Conceptualising this challenge is a necessary but not sufficient condition for then taking steps to achieve such a reconnection. Is reconnecting people and nature the biggest challenge for our century? I’d argue yes, because many other benefits will flow from this — if we succeed.

  3. Great paper, Joern! Interestingly, I notice that there is also a movement amongst non-traditional farmers to go back to traditional methods. In the west, there is a large push for “organic” and “sustainable” production that rely on more “traditional methods” of farming that don’t use a lot of pesticides, herbicides, monoculture, large-scale production, etc. These new-old farming techniques are very profitable because many people are willing to pay more for ethically grown food. I realize that this is still a minority of total western food production, but it is growing rapidly. Perhaps this market can offer an incentive for people to continue to use their traditional methods. This is a slightly different angle to what you were arguing for in your paper, but it might be worth considering based on recent patterns of agricultural change in the west. Even non-typical agriculturists, such as urban and suburban dwellers are starting to grow more of their own food again. For instance, I have chickens and a garden that provides most of our vegetables now. I’m having to re-learn what my great-grandmother knew after two generations of no direct contact with food production. The “slow food” movement in Canberra is also gaining popularity and publicity. Perhaps I don’t hang out in Tuggeranong enough, but I’m feeling hopeful based on what i’m seeing around me in the inner-north of the city. Glad to see that you are still thinking deeply about sustainability and inspiring others to do the same.

    • Thanks for your comments Kara! Indeed, — interesting points! Germany probably consumes more organic food than most other industrial countries, but still, 90% of agricultural land is conventionally used. In principle, however, I agree with you: Romania, for example, is in a position to “skip” industrial-style agriculture, and move straight from “traditional” to “modern organic”. There probably would still be a loss of biodiversity associated with this, but far less so than if the system went straight to Western-style intensive (chemical-based). Go slow food, inner North!

  4. Pingback: Happy birthday to our blog: One year of “Ideas4Sustainability” | Ideas for Sustainability

  5. I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue and I believe we should also push for solutions that are not necessarily oriented towards the market. Maybe we should reconceptualize subsistence farming itself and the place it might hold within modern livelihoods. How can we sustain that, without always thinking about competitiveness and productivity, but by fostering a way of living that values hard work, agricultural knowledge, and emotional investment in the land while allowing people to be modern?

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