Spare, Share, Protect


A farmer walks through his coffee plantation, which is integrated into the forest, in Lampung province, Indonesia. ULET IFANSASTI/CIFOR

Our work has required occasional philosophical reflection to get our bearings on the choices we have made on how to approach conservation. Share approaches such as the duck farming mentioned here, or the coffee farming mentioned here are equally as common as the spare approaches in our practice. I had not encountered these two terms until now, so thanks to Fred Pearce for this expansion of my vocabulary:

Sparing vs Sharing: The Great Debate Over How to Protect Nature

What is the best way to save nature – to cordon off areas for parks and open space or to integrate conservation measures on working lands? Recent research makes a case for each of these approaches and has reignited a long-standing debate among scientists and conservationists.


A farming village surrounded by undeveloped forests in the province of Quang Ninh, Vietnam. TERRY SUNDERLAND/CIFOR

It is one of the biggest questions in conservation: Should we be sharing our landscapes with nature by reviving small woodlands and adopting small-scale eco-friendly farming? Or should we instead be sparing large tracts of land for nature’s exclusive use – by creating more national parks and industrializing agriculture on existing farmland?


More than 1.5 million wildebeest migrate annually across Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, which covers 5,700 square miles. DANIEL ROSENGREN / WIKIMEDIA

The argument between “sparing” and “sharing” as a conservation tool has been raging since researchers first coined the terms more than a decade ago. Arguably it began almost half a century before when Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution of high-yielding crop varieties, declared that “by producing more food per unit of cultivated area, more land would be available for other uses, including recreation and wildlife.”



E.O. Wilson’s 2016 book Half-Earth upped the ante by calling for us to extend protected areas from the current 15 percent of the earth’s land surface to 50 percent. Research studies and critiques have flourished on both sides.

So where do things stand today? It begins to look as if the sparers are winning the narrow scientific argument by showing that locally, and in the short term, more species are usually saved by segregating conservation from agriculture and other human land uses. But critics say that begs more questions than it answers, overlooking the issue of the long-term sustainability of such islands of biodiversity and failing to address whether we actually need to grow more food.

Leading the argument for the sparers is Benjamin Phalan, who in 2011 while studying zoology at Cambridge University in the UK, looked at the relationship between crop yields and the number of bird and tree species in the forests of Ghana and the Ganges floodplain in India. In both places, he found that biodiversity did best where intensified cropping left space for unfarmed habitats, and less well where farmland was more wildlife-friendly but more extensive.

Since then, other studies have reached similar conclusions. In a region of southern Uganda where banana and coffee are the main crops, bird biodiversity was richest if the farming was done intensively in smaller areas. The same was true for birds and dung beetles in the Colombian Andes; for birds on the steppes of the former Soviet Union and the pampas grasslands of southern Brazil and Uruguay; and for dung beetles, trees, and birds in the grazing pastures of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

In a review of this research, published in May, Phalan, now at Oregon State University, concluded that “most species will have larger populations if food is produced on as small an area as possible, while sparing as large an area of native vegetation as possible.” The finding was “especially true for species with small global ranges, which are often those of most conservation concern.”

The problem for those advocating “sharing” the land, he said, was that all farming was bad for nature, and adopting more benign methods did not help much. Agroforestry was no substitute for real forests; pampas grasses lost species quickly even at low levels of grazing; and organic farming protected insects no better than conventional farming, while taking more land.

Game over?…

Read the whole article here.


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