Global land displacement: a challenge for conservation biology

Guest post by Dale Nimmo, who is currently visiting Leuphana University Lueneburg

We live in an increasingly connected, globalized world. Our food and clothes come from all corners of the globe, and the food produced in our own country gets sent all around the world too. One consequence of global trade is land displacement; that is, the displacement of land that occurs when the resources consumed by people in one nation or region were produced on land in another.

Recently, I read two fascinating papers on land displacement (Weinzettel et al. 2013 and Yu et al. 2013). Both track resources used across nations, allowing them to quantify land displaced across the globe via trade. While land displacement isn’t a new concept, I think these quantitative analyses help capture it in a captivating way.

The picture that emerges is one of a first-world vacuum, as the land from the poor is sucked into the rich.

Land used for export production (in Mha). The maps highlight total land, cropland, grazing land and forest land displaced through export production. The thickness of the arrows and numbers next to the arrows represent the amount of land used as inputs for the production of imported and exported goods. Map and legend are from Yu et al. 2013. Maps are shown for total land and cropland.

Land used for export production (in Mha). The maps highlight total land, cropland, grazing land and forest land displaced through export production. The thickness of the arrows and numbers next to the arrows represent the amount of land used as inputs for the production of imported and exported goods. Map and legend are from Yu et al. 2013. Maps are shown for total land and cropland.

Here are some key findings of the papers:

• The U.S., E.U., and Japan appropriate (i.e. displace from other nations) 33%, <50% (unspecified), and 92% of their land-use, respectively.
• Land for food production (e.g. cropland) in poorer nations tends to be displaced to other, generally richer, nations (see Figure).
• Massive areas of forestland are displaced globally, with nearly 30% of Russian industrial forests being collectively displaced to the U.S., E.U. and Japan.
• The U.S. displaces around 57 Mha of forestland, an area about the size of Madagascar

As a conservation biologist, I asked myself what all this means for my field? A few incomplete thoughts…

Forcing realism: This view of highly ‘mobile’ land contrasts with how land is usually discussed in the conservation literature. For example, the land sharing/land sparing debate usually sidelines land displacement as potentially important but too hard to measure. The sheer magnitude of land displacement demands that it be considered in work on balancing biodiversity and food production, particularly when different options result in differing local yields.

Predicting/understanding biodiversity change: Thinking about land in a land displacement context invites us to think of novel predictors of biodiversity change: Can a change in agricultural subsidies in the E.U or U.S predict the rate of biodiversity decline in SE Asia? How does the establishment of large nature reserves in China flow-on to effect biodiversity in Argentina? Capturing these complexities in predictive models is a huge, but not insurmountable, challenge. Some great work along these lines has already begun (e.g. Meyfroidt et al. 2010; DeFries et al. 2010; Lenzen et al. 2012).

Biodiversity displacement? Can the concept of land displacement be extended to ‘biodiversity displacement’? As land conversion is the main cause of biodiversity loss globally, could we use this framework to model the loss of biodiversity attributable to consumption in other nations/regions? Such an analysis would shine the spotlight on the actual conservation achievements of nations.

Just a few ideas, I’m certain there are plenty of people who have thought about this longer and harder than me. Interested to hear your thoughts!

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Diamond Dave Abson for putting me onto the Yu et al. paper.

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3 thoughts on “Global land displacement: a challenge for conservation biology

  1. A very interesting post. What strikes me is that this land displacement issue is mostly viewed in terms of the global North being responsible for land-use related problems in the South. While this is a serious problem indeed, the other side of the coin seems to be overlooked or at least downplayed: despite all the merits of globalization, it has made us (both the North and the South, though for different reasons and to a different degree) highly dependent on what is happening elsewhere in the world. I think, this is one of the lessons that may be drawn from Dani Rodrik’s work on globalization, particularly his book The Globalization Paradox. Of course, the “Northern” strategy might be seen as “diversifying” its access to natural resources. But still, it cannot e.g. feed itself anymore. For the South, the picture is even more grim, since it has not the means to seize diversification opportunities–it is just a source of “assets” in the North’s “portfolio”.

  2. Pingback: Shifting lands: how international trade is transforming biodiversity | Dale Nimmo's Research

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