Conservation priorities do not necessarily conflict with human development, and now there is scientific data to support this long-standing assertion.
Where We Need Conservation, We Can Have It
Efforts to protect the world's landscapes likely will not clash with economic realities, according to a new report by Conservation International (CI) researchers Larry Gorenflo and Katrina Brandon.
The data reveals that unprotected areas identified as conservation priorities often are not at odds with current or projected human use. This effectively disarms certain arguments commonly used against conservation efforts.
“It looks like most of the places where we really desperately need conservation are places where we can actually do conservation,” says Gorenflo, a geographer who studies social and economic conditions for CI's Center for Applied Biodiversity Science (CABS).
The Human Dimension
Using digital maps, Gorenflo and Brandon, a senior technical advisor for CI's Human Dimensions program, created a more complete picture of human relationships to the land by overlaying locations prioritized for conservation with human demographic information, land cover assessments, and agricultural suitability data.
Their conclusions, published in the September issue of BioScience, reveal that more than three-quarters of unprotected areas that are home to important species have within them huge tracts of sparsely settled land. Further, these tracts of land hold little agricultural potential, demonstrating that converting habitats for crop development may not be a serious threat.
Analyzing the Gaps
The report builds on a previous CI study that identified where gaps exist in global conservation and revealed the number of species living beyond the boundaries of existing protected areas, which helps scientists to prioritize conservation efforts.
The new report also is part of a continued effort by CI to determine where and how conservationists can protect threatened species while working to promote human welfare. Many places where species live without formal habitat protection also are home to traditional and indigenous peoples and local communities whose efforts to manage their territories can be supported.
"There is still space in this society to reconcile human communities and conservation," says Keith Alger, vice president of CI's Human Dimensions program. "It's not that we know exactly that it's going to be easy to do conservation, but this gives us good evidence that it's not going to be impossible."
Setting Priorities for Conservation
Results from the new CI report also illustrate where it will be easier to implement conservation efforts. Islands and coastal areas, for example, are likely to pose greater challenges because of a potential combination of factors: there are more people living on smaller tracts of land, there is land that is incompatible with biodiversity, and there is land that is more valuable for crop production.
Conversely, the greatest opportunities for conservation occur in the tropics on larger landmasses, and in mountains away from coasts.
In every case, scientists advise that more studies and local planning are necessary to determine what conservation efforts are appropriate in particular regions around the world. CI's report will be an invaluable tool in that effort.