Monday, 8 March 2010

Cultural landscapes and cultural biases

Picture this image: 'a farmer is preparing for the coming season's labours. New crops have to be planted, and he must secure there will be proper areas for the cattle to graze. He examines the land, and his verdict is clear: it is not suitable as it is, the field is overgrown with vegetation. He knows what must be done. His father taught him this practice. This is how his family survived on this land, generation after generation. He lights a match and sets a bush on fire. The flames grow, the burning wood makes a cracking noise. Soon the fire has spread over the field, and the smoke makes it hard to breath and see. The animals run away. Many of the smaller ones will escape, while most of the larger ones left long ago. These farming practices aren't compatible with large native animals. Predators have been actively persecuted and killed.

This picture agrees with two forms of ancient farming practices taking place in very distant places. However, despite their resemblance, they are presented to the world in very different ways.
On the one hand, slash-and-burn agriculture in the tropical forests is a cause of global concern because of its contribution to climate change, loss of habitat for wildlife, and deforestation (e.g. Miller & Kauffman 1998; Tinkel et al. 1996). This worries have resulted in initiatives aiming to reduce this practice, or secure that it's done as sustainably as possible (e.g. The Alternatives for Slash and Burn Consortium), and they have also inspired films (e.g. The Burning Season). Despite widespread recognition that most of the people holding the match stick only do it because it is their only way of making an income to sustain themselves and their family, and that behind them there is usually a big industry paying them to produce goods that are then exported to developed countries (Koh & Wilcove 2008), some misleading campaigns, such as this video of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, still present a simplistic picture where locals are depicted as reckless and irresponsible murderers of nature. Still, in all circles, the message is clear that this type of agriculture has a negative connotation and, if human lives didn't depend on it, it would be desirable to completely suppress it.

On the other hand, there is the traditional European heathland farmer. Hea
thlands are a particular form of made-made environment resulting from forest clearance and subsequent cattle grazing. The nutrients are removed from the land by grazing animals, whose manure is transported to cultivated fields to serve as fertilizer. Heathlands are also regularly burnt to keep the vegetation in a pioneering stage. This farming practice is as old 4000 years, but technological changes in agriculture practices, and the increasing trade and externalization of food production lead to the abandonment of traditional practices (Webb 1998). In the absence of constant management, heathlands were recolonized by forests. As claimed above, slash-and-burn agriculture and heathland farming share some interesting features. They are both traditional, ancient farming practices (slash-and burn agriculture was practiced by the Mayas in America, Rue 1987) that use fire to stop the process of ecological succession and to return nutrients to nutrient-poor lands. Both practices eliminate habitat for forest wildlife, specially the large species (Van Weren 1995, Naughton-Treves et al. 2003). It is therefore striking how contrastingly these practices are presented to the world. While the former is a cause of global concern, and its practitioners are considered either innocent people in need of rescue or society’s pariah, the latter is presented as an endangered art, and its practitioners are in the cover of brochures, proudly surrounded by a curtain of smoke. Another paradoxical difference in these two practices is that one of them, heathland farming, no longer provides of critical livelihoods to humans. Nonetheless, its conservation and expansion is actively promoted by the EU, and are even referred to as ‘wilderness’. Restoring the habitat of woodland species is not even mentioned. In fact, natural woodland regeneration is listed as one of the threats to heathlands (HEATHCULT Project Booklet). A number of endangered species live in the heathlands (e.g. the dartfor warbler Sylvia undata and the sand lizard Lacerta agilis) and this is a recurrent argument pro the conservation of this habitat. However, it would be interesting to know where these species lived before, as 5,000 thousand years shouldn’t be enough for them to develop such a specialization on a new habitat type.

I don’t deny that the historical knowledge of heathland management has a value that should be recognized, studied and gathered. I also acknowledge that, being from South America, I’m not in the best place to understand such level of attachment to a human landscape. My culture is younger, and has only really shaped an own identity in the last decades.

Conservation is based on values, and values are subjective, from a moral perspective, there is practically room to conserve whatever a human believes worthy of conservation. However, we live in a globalized world, and are very much aware that what we do in our local environment affects the greater global society. I have a serious problem with the encouragement of a practice that implies regular burning of vegetation and release of an unassessed amount of CO2 to the atmosphere in the context of human-made climate change, and both ignores and perpetuates the deforestation and destruction of wildlife habitat that took taken place in Europe. I also have a problem with any kind of conservation that implies constant and costly management and therefore financial resources. In the natural landscapes, I believe they should be managed towards becoming self-sustaining, requiring the least intervention possible, both because of practical and financial constraints. In natural landscapes, I think that maintaining the landscape when the real farmers are long gone does not really conserve the cultural landscape, but more of a museum remembrance. Perhaps a small site should be conserved, for people to remember the past times, but thinking of maintaining thousands of hectares of a non-functional ecosystem in a resource-scarce world seems nonsense. We humans get attached to almost everything, but I think we have to learn to let go of some things, otherwise evolution is not possible.

Finally, I believe that no country has the right to complaint about deforestation loss of wildlife in other countries if it doesn’t at least aim to repair what these same practices caused on its own land.

Claudia Silva


HEATHCULT Project Booklet. Heathlands of Europe. 5,000 thousand years with flames.

Miller PM and Kauffman JB. 1998. Effects of slash and burn agriculture on species abundance and composition of a tropical deciduous forest. Forest Ecology and Management 103, 191–201.

Naughton-Treves L, JL Mena, A Treves, N. Alvarez and V Radeloff. 2003. Wildlife survival beyond park boundaries: The impact of slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting on mammals in Tambopata, Peru. Conservation Biology 17, 1106-1117.

Rue DJ. 1987. Early agriculture and early Postclassic Maya occupation in western Honduras. Nature, 326, 285-286.

Tinker PB, JSI Ingram and S Struwe. 1996. Effects of slash-and-burn agriculture and deforestation on climate change. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 58, 13–22.

Van Weren SE. 1995. The potential role of large herbivores in nature conservation and extensive land use in Europe. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 56(Suppl.), 11-23.

Webb NB. 1998. The traditional management of European heathlands. Journal of Applied Ecology, 35, 987-990.

Friday, 5 March 2010

What Tao Te Ching Says to Conservationists

Tao Te Ching is a classic Chinese text on philosophy written around 6th century BC. I enjoy reading it over and over again and attempting to apply its lines to various aspects of the modern world, such as biodiversity conservation.

[from Chapter 1]
"The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao."
"Tao" means "way," or the process of the universe.
The real way cannot be put into words.
This is like how an ecosystem works. Human has been observing nature for millenia, and we still don't know how an ecosystem operates. So many times has it ended in disaster when technology tries to usurp nature's job. Take out the grazers and then maintain grassland by mowing--you then have the soil nutrient depleted and fossil fuel-driven machines inducing climate change. Introduce an exotic species to control another exotic species, and the new one becomes uncontrollable as well. Every solution with an engineering mindset brings more problems. On contrast, nature functions perfectly and we can't quite put our finger on why it does.

[from Chapter 3]
"Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place."
When conservationists in China argue for the hands-off approach, this is what they often cite. Look at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea and see how 60 years of human absence has healed the land. I feel that Oxford, or the UK in general, is quite pro-extensive management. But even today, in the face of massive land use conversions and climate change, I still hold that nature knows better about maintaining itself than we do. I'm not suggesting abandonning all conservation efforts; instead I call for preparing the condition for healing and letting nature do the rest.

[from Chapter 5]
"The universe does not take sides; everything is as good as a grass or a dog."
Nature does not "value" anything; everything's treated equally. But we apparently can't do it. In Otmoor we want lapwings, not foxes. In Arne we want heathers, not pines.

[from Chapter 23]
"A violent wind does not last all morning; a sudden rain does not last all day. Who does these things? The universe. The universe does not remain the same, much less man."
How long can Otmoor continue with its mowing, draining, water-edge sculpturing, predator control, feeding, and all that? What would happen when they stop? Would its target wading birds be able to take care of themselves after all these years of being babied? Or would they have lost the ability to adjust to a dynamic landscape, to protect themselves against predators, and to look for other habitats when food becomes scarce?

Tao Te Ching is a fertile text that can be interpreted many different ways, definitely worth a read. Here are two different translations (Advice: always read multiple translations at the same time)--

Kai Zhang