Landscapes that work for biodiversity and people

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Science  19 Oct 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6412, eaau6020
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau6020

A nature-friendly matrix

As the human population has grown, we have taken and modified more and more land, leaving less and less for nonhuman species. This is clearly unsustainable, and the amount of land we protect for nature needs to be increased and preserved. However, this still leaves vast regions of the world unprotected and modified. Such landscapes do not have to be a lost cause. Kremen and Merenlender review how biodiversity-based techniques can be used to manage most human-modified lands as “working landscapes.” These can provide for human needs and maintain biodiversity not just for ecosystem services but also for maintenance and persistence of nonhuman species.

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Structured Abstract


Biodiversity is under siege, with greatly enhanced rates of local and global extinction and the decline of once-abundant species. Current rates of human-induced climate change and land use forecast the Anthropocene as one of the most devastating epochs for life on earth. How do we handle the Anthropocene’s triple challenge of preventing biodiversity loss, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and sustainably providing resources for a growing human population? The answer is in how we manage Earth’s “working lands”; that is, farms, forests, and rangelands. These lands must be managed both to complement the biodiversity conservation goals of protected areas and to maintain the diverse communities of organisms, from microbes to mammals, that contribute to producing food, materials, clean water, and healthy soils; sequestering greenhouse gases; and buffering extreme weather events, functions that are essential for all life on Earth.


Protected areas are the cornerstone of biodiversity conservation. Although the total area of protected regions needs to be increased, parks will nonetheless continue to lose species if these areas are isolated from one another by inhospitable land uses and are faced with a rapidly changing climate. Further, many species, such as those that migrate, remain unprotected as they occupy lands outside of parks for all or portions of their life cycles. Lastly, protected-area effectiveness is greatly influenced by surrounding land management. “Working lands conservation” aims to support biodiversity while providing goods and services for humanity over the long term, assuring sustainability and resilience. By managing lands surrounding parks favorably, working lands can buffer protected areas from threats and connect them to one another. This approach complements protected areas by providing accessory habitats and resources for some species while facilitating dispersal and climate change adaptation for others. Further, by maintaining the biodiversity that supplies critical ecosystem services within working lands, these approaches ensure that the production of food, fiber, fuel, and timber can be sustained over the long run and be more resilient to extreme events, such as floods, droughts, hurricanes, and pest and disease outbreaks, which are becoming more frequent with climate change. A variety of biodiversity-based land management techniques can be used in working lands, including agroforestry, silvopasture, diversified farming, and ecosystem-based forest management, to ensure sustainable production of food and fiber.


The underlying principle of biodiversity-based management of working lands has been practiced since ancient times. Today, these systems have largely been replaced by unsustainable resource extraction, rather than serving as models that could be adapted to modern conditions. Although various regulatory, voluntary, and financial tools exist to promote sustainable land management, many barriers prevent individuals, communities, and corporations from adopting biodiversity-based practices, including deeply entrenched policy and market conditions that favor industrialized or extractive models of land use. Thus, uptake of these approaches has been patchy and slow and is not yet sufficient to create change at the temporal and spatial scales needed to face the triple Anthropocene threat.

Biodiversity-based land management practices are knowledge- rather than technology-intensive. They are well adapted to empower local communities to manage their natural resources. One of the most exciting emerging trends is community-driven initiatives to manage working landscapes for conservation and sustainability. By linking up through grassroots organizations, social movements, and public-private partnerships, these initiatives can scale up to create collective impact and can demand changes in government policies to facilitate the conservation of working lands. Scientists and conservation practitioners can support these initiatives by engaging with the public, listening to alternative ways of knowing, and cocreating landscapes that work for biodiversity and people.

Strawberry production in Central Coast, California.

On the left, a homogeneous landscape of strawberry monoculture, including organic fields, supports fewer wild species then a diversified, organic farm (right) in the same region, which includes a small field of strawberry, surrounded by orchards, hedgerows, diverse vegetable crops, and natural habitats. The monoculture landscape creates barriers to wildlife dispersal, whereas the diversified landscape is more permeable.



How can we manage farmlands, forests, and rangelands to respond to the triple challenge of the Anthropocene—biodiversity loss, climate change, and unsustainable land use? When managed by using biodiversity-based techniques such as agroforestry, silvopasture, diversified farming, and ecosystem-based forest management, these socioeconomic systems can help maintain biodiversity and provide habitat connectivity, thereby complementing protected areas and providing greater resilience to climate change. Simultaneously, the use of these management techniques can improve yields and profitability more sustainably, enhancing livelihoods and food security. This approach to “working lands conservation” can create landscapes that work for nature and people. However, many socioeconomic challenges impede the uptake of biodiversity-based land management practices. Although improving voluntary incentives, market instruments, environmental regulations, and governance is essential to support working lands conservation, it is community action, social movements, and broad coalitions among citizens, businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies that have the power to transform how we manage land and protect the environment.

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