Could agroforestry solve the biodiversity crisis and address poverty?, an interview with Shonil BhagwatJeremy Hance
September 24, 2009
Sixth in a series of interviews with participants at the 2009 Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) conference.
Bhagwat first became interested in agroforestry when he studied the biodiversity in forest fragments in India versus biodiversity in surrounding shade-grown coffee plantations.
"The coffee plantations often have native shade trees, meaning that boundaries between fragments are very fuzzy," Bhagwat told Mongabay.com. "For creatures like bats, birds, butterflies this means that forest fragments and coffee plantations are just one continuous landscape."
"Admittedly, we might not be able to grow rice under shade trees, but the principle of agroforestry has several implications for biodiversity management in highly human-dominated landscapes. Studies have suggested that forested landscapes are pretty good at maintaining biodiversity if the tree cover is above 30%. In other words, if rice fields were surrounded by hedgerows, woodlots and forest patches, then there will be much more biodiversity in the landscape," explains Bhagwat.
Furthermore, Bhagwat believes that such a system of agriculture would also help mitigate climate change ("agricultural land partly covered in trees will fix more carbon than land without trees," says Bhagwat), alleviate poverty, and prevent future food shortages.
"First of all, we need to get our priorities right – we have paid too much attention to economic concerns and less so to social and environmental concerns. Secondly, we need to distribute food better to address the huge gulf between the haves and have nots. Thirdly, we need to sort out our food trade and make sure that we give importance to growing food locally rather than transporting it thousands of miles, half way across the globe," Bhagwat says. "Once these changes are in place, growing food locally, using fewer agrochemicals, and caring for the wildlife on farmland will all make sense. If these changes do not happen, and we carry on with the business-as-usual, then we are likely to face severe food shortages in the future, particularly in poorer countries."
Food crises like those in Eastern Africa and Guatemala, affecting millions of people, have been exacerbated by cropland and local resources being used for producing trade crops rather than food to meet local needs.
Coffee agroforestry in India. Photo by: Shonil Bhagwat.
By taking on palm oil, Bhagwat recognizes he may be stepping on a mine field: "Oil palm expansion is portrayed by NGOs as a classic case of environmental destruction. The industry, however, is expanding in such a way that there is no end in sight. This makes the debate about oil palm extremely polarised – with two camps almost reaching each others’ throats."
However, Bhagwat believes that the use of agroforestry practices could make palm oil both economically viable and sustainable . Looking at the natural history of the oil palm, Bhagwat and his team found that oil palm trees first grew in tropical Africa "in mixed open forest stands with other species."
He suggests that there are three ways in which the palm oil industry could move from intensified agriculture to agroforestry: "(1) maintain mature plantations by replacing dying or dead trees with mixed-tree stands to create forest habitat within plantations, (2) establish young plantations mixed with native trees on degraded land, and (3) set aside areas for regeneration of natural forest during future expansion of plantations."
Oil palm plantation in Malaysia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
"We have to remember that we are only one of the millions of species on this planet; and as the most dominant species on earth to date, we have some responsibility towards others," Bhagwat says.
In a September 2009 interview, Mongabay.com spoke with Bhagwat about 'land sparing' versus 'land sharing' in regards to conservation, the importance of agroforestry for biodiversity and humanity, and how agroforestry could transform the palm oil industry.
INTERVIEW WITH SHONIL BHAGWAT
Mongabay: What is your background?
Shonil Bhagwat: I grew up in the vicinity of India’s Western Ghats mountain range. My first degree was in Botany and I got interested in plant ecology during my undergraduate years. While wandering in the forests of Western Ghats as a student, I soon discovered that there are many interesting creatures – not just plants – in forests and started to get involved in the wider arena of biodiversity. It was around the same time that Edward O. Wilson’s book The Diversity of Life was published. This fuelled my interest in biodiversity even further and I was attracted to its conservation. I was fortunate enough to be able to travel for almost one year across India visiting national parks, biosphere reserves and sacred sites – groves, forests, lakes, meadows, mountains and rivers. My journey to the nooks and corners of India – its mountains and coast, vast desserts and tiny islands, forests and fields – affirmed my conviction for a future career in biodiversity conservation.
Subsequently, I won a Rhodes Scholarship in 1997 to study at Oxford. I did a masters degree followed by a doctorate at the University of Oxford and have been in Oxford ever since. It is in Oxford that I became interested in ‘cultural landscapes’ – landscapes that are shaped by human activity for millennia – a phenomenon commonplace across Europe. This interest led me to return to the Western Ghats for my doctorate research and investigate biodiversity found in sacred groves – patches of forest preserved by local people for their cultural, religious and spiritual significance. I was interesting in finding out whether these patches also play a role in biodiversity conservation.
Mongabay: How did you become interested in the tension between biodiversity and agriculture?
Sacred grove in India. Photo by: Shonil Bhagwat.
I started to ask: if coffee plantations are so useful in maintaining biodiversity in the landscape, can we manage other agricultural landscapes in the same fashion? This led me to investigate the potential of agroforestry systems in biodiversity conservation. Admittedly, we might not be able to grow rice under shade trees, but the principle of agroforestry has several implications for biodiversity management in highly human-dominated landscapes. Studies have suggested that forested landscapes are pretty good at maintaining biodiversity if the tree cover is above 30%. In other words, if rice fields were surrounded by hedgerows, woodlots and forest patches, then there will be much more biodiversity in the landscape compared to when rice fields are surrounded by degraded grassland or wasteland. In a nutshell, maintaining that heterogeneity – a mixture of open and closed landscape – is the key to effective biodiversity conservation.
Rice paddies in Laos. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Shonil Bhagwat: The most amazing thing about India’s Western Ghats is its diversity – not just the mountains, valleys and rivers, but the diversity of landscapes, people and culture. The northern Western Ghats have more seasonal climate and have extremely rugged and dry mountains while the southern Western Ghats are lush green with evergreen forests. The mountain chain straddles six Indian states, each with it own culture, customs and cuisine. When you travel in the Western Ghats you meet this shear variety – on top of its biodiversity, which has made it one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
LAND SPARING VS. LAND SHARING
Mongabay: What would your definition be of a 'pristine forest'?
Shifting cultivation of the Trio tribe in the Guyana Triangle in Suriname. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Mongabay: Can you explain the difference between 'land sparing' and 'land sharing'?
Shonil Bhagwat: Land sparing is what we do in over 100,000 protected areas around the world. We allocate this land for conservation in the hope that the spared land will harbour world’s biodiversity. What we also do in the process is that we intensively cultivate the non-spared land in the hope to produce as much food out of it as possible. Land sharing – as in sharing the earth with millions of other species – is a different approach to managing human-dominated landscapes. In Michael Rosenzweig’s words, it is about creating space for biodiversity where "people live, work and play". It is about enhancing the quality of non-spared land so as to maintain biodiversity.
Mongabay: What countries would you point to as being especially effective in land sharing?
Tea plantation in Uganda. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
In addition, we need to grow food in such a way that environmental concerns are also addressed. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has suggested that we have probably exhausted the fertility of land by using agrochemicals and to produce yields similar to those in the 1960s (before the green revolution) we now need twice as much land and in some cases even more. This means intensification hasn’t worked – we have lost productivity of land, but also caused environmental destruction in the process of expanding land required for agriculture. This is a double whammy, and surely we need to find better ways of growing food. Land sharing or wildlife-friendly farming is one way of addressing the environmental concerns. If this is combined with organic agricultural practices free of agrochemicals, then we can also maintain productivity of the soil by, for example, fertilizing it with green manure. There are studies comparing yields of organically grown good vs. food grown in conventional way on intensively managed land. The results suggest that yields per unit area of land, interestingly, are not that different. So why not grow all food organically and still feed the world? Something for agriculturists to think about.
I am not an expert on agriculture, but from the perspective of biodiversity conservation I can say that we need to get our act together on growing food more responsibly – this is where agriculturists and conservationists need to work together.
Mongabay: Are there some species that require 'land sparing' in order to survive? If so, what are some examples?
Soy fields and the Amazon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
There are many species which have large home ranges (examples include charismatic species such as elephant, a large herbivore; tiger, a large carnivore and many more). These species simply cannot survive in agricultural landscapes and require large extent of their suitable habitat under protection. Essentially, their survival is dependent on land sparing. However, there is a large majority of species that can be perfectly content with living in mixed landscapes. Those are the ones that will respond to 'land sharing' practices.
What we need to bear in mind is that there are several constrains on conservation. Understandably, countries have competing economic interests and cannot always go on sparing more land. This is when we need to explore 'land sharing' alternatives. There is no 'silver bullet' for conservation – we have to use as many ways as are needed to get the job done.
Mongabay: Why is 'land sharing' especially important when it comes to climate change?
Shonil Bhagwat: The prospect of climate change has really woken us up. People take things seriously when they can see them happening in their backyards. Climate change is one such thing; biodiversity conservation probably not. Conservationists, therefore, need to align their interests with climate change community. As I have explained above, land sharing is important for biodiversity conservation, but it is also important to mitigate climate change. Take the case of carbon sequestration. Agricultural land partly covered in trees will fix more carbon than land without trees – a good case for keeping trees in the landscape. From conservation perspective, these trees have to be diverse and native (not just one species planted over thousands of hectares). So if we were to align interests of conservation and climate change communities, then the solution is to grow a variety of native trees on agricultural land – a win-win solution to both problems.
Mongabay: What is countryside biogeography (also known as reconciliation ecology or conservation biogeography) and what role could it play in conservation of the 'land sharing' type?
Mix of forests, estuaries, and agriculture. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Mongabay: What is agroforestry? How is it different or similar to land sharing?
Shonil Bhagwat: Agroforestry is intentional management of native trees in agricultural landscapes. It is a practice of 'land sharing' in human-dominated forest landscapes. If we interpret agroforestry more broadly, this management of native trees includes any native tree – whether standing alone in a field, or living with other trees in a woodlot, or present within a forest fragment in agricultural landscape with a whole lot of other creatures. I am in favour of this broad interpretation of agroforestry – simply meaning a sensible combination of agriculture (growing food crops) and forestry (growing native trees).
Mongabay: What are the differences in biodiversity between agroforestry and primary forest? What species fare better in which systems?
Shonil Bhagwat: As a rule of thumb, habitat generalist species fare better in agroforestry systems and habitat specialists not so well. However, surprisingly, if you look at the published literature on agroforestry, many studies report very high similarity (as much as 100% for some taxa in some cases!) between agroforestry and primary forest. This means a large majority of biodiversity we are interested in conserving is present right under our noses – as long as there are conditions suitable for their survival. Our job really is to create those conditions in as many ways as we can.
Mongabay: What are some crops that are currently being grown through agroforestry? Are there other crops that could fit this model that aren't being grown in this way?
Corn grown over rainforest habitat in Belize. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Mongabay: What methods or incentives would you suggest to promote the growth of agroforestry?
Shonil Bhagwat: Well, we need a sea change for this to happen. First of all, we need to get our priorities right – we have paid too much attention to economic concerns and less so to social and environmental concerns. Secondly, we need to distribute food better to address the huge gulf between the haves and have nots. Thirdly, we need to sort out our food trade and make sure that we give importance to growing food locally rather than transporting it thousands of miles, half way across the globe. This is not to say that we don’t need trade – many poor countries do benefit from trading with richer ones – but we need to be sensible about it.
Once these changes are in place, growing food locally, using fewer agrochemicals, and caring for the wildlife on farmland will all make sense. If these changes do not happen, and we carry on with the business-as-usual, then we are likely to face severe food shortages in the future, particularly in poorer countries.
I am not an economist, but there is a widespread feeling that the present economic model is not fair to a large population of the world. To promote the growth of 'land sharing' practices it is the present economic model that needs an overhaul. This one is really for the economists to think about.
Mongabay: What led you to recently begin studying the palm oil boom in Southeast Asia?
The present expansion of oil palm is admittedly on a much grander scale, but can we apply our understanding of the ecology of this species to its present-day management? This is why we suggested agroforestry as a possible solution to management of oil palm landscapes.
Mongabay: How can conservation be practiced around these plantations, which are considered ecological deserts by many biologists?
Shonil Bhagwat: Indeed, biodiversity data from these plantations has shown them to be extremely poor – ecological deserts might not be an exaggeration. But compare this with jungle rubber (also a tree) plantations grown in exactly the same environment in south-east Asia. There is much more biodiversity in jungle rubber than in oil palm, mainly because jungle rubber is grown with other species native to forests of south-east Asia.
Admittedly, oil palm has different ecological requirements to jungle rubber. However, the principle of growing tree crops with native forest species can be applied to oil palm. We see three ways in which agroforestry principles can be applied to oil-palm landscapes: (1) maintain mature plantations by replacing dying or dead trees with mixed-tree stands to create forest habitat within plantations, (2) establish young plantations mixed with native trees on degraded land, and (3) set aside areas for regeneration of natural forest during future expansion of plantations. This diversity of approaches to plantation management will be essential if oil-palm landscapes are to act as buffers and corridors connecting intact forest reserves. This is how oil-palm plantations will need to be managed in a 'land-sharing' approach.
Palm oil is beginning to expand past southeast Asia: aerial view of palm oil plantations in Costa Rica. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Mongabay: Would practicing agroforestry with palm oil provide any unique challenges?
Shonil Bhagwat: The main challenge is reduced yields. In the agroforestry scenario, the yields will no doubt reduce. However, the alternative to agroforestry is not any better when it comes to reduced yields. The reserves created to compensate for expansion of oil palm plantations will naturally take up land where oil palm could have been grown – thereby levying an opportunity cost on plantations. So in either case we cannot overcome the problem of reduced yield whether due to reduced area (allocated to reserves) or reduced sunlight (allocated to shade trees in mixed agroforestry plantations).
There can be three ways in which the loss can be compensated and the problem of reduced yields addressed: (1) higher prices for palm oil, (2) market incentives for biodiversity-friendly palm oil, and (3) improved varieties of oil palm that perform well in mixed plantation matrix. How can we bring about these three? There is food (or oil?!) for thought for agronomists and economists.
Mongabay: What advice would you give conservation organizations in going forward: should they focus on 'land sparing' or 'land sharing' or some combination of the two?
Shonil Bhagwat: In my opinion, a variety of management practices (including a combination of land-sparing and land-sharing) is likely to prove more beneficial for biodiversity in oil-palm landscapes than one approach alone. This brings us back to diversity, this time diversity of management approaches. There is no 'silver bullet' – we have to find ways of managing oil palm landscapes that get the job done.
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