In a paper recently published in a special issue on “Landscape and Biocultural Diversity” of the journal Biodiversity and Conservation, Hercules researchers from the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, Birmensdorf and from the University of the Aegean, Mytilene joined forces with a Chinese scholar to think about the links between culture and biodiversity and its relevance for landscape management.
How intensively land is used, is not the least determined by cultural driving forces. Changes in land use intensity (LUI) reflect the local culture and its development over time. At the same time, LUI has direct as well as indirect consequences on biodiversity from the plot to the landscape level. Thus, LUI helps to explore links between cultural diversity and biodiversity at various scales. The specific effects of land use on biodiversity depend on its intensity, which can be parameterized in different ways, not the least depending on the scale of observation. Based on a short review of different approaches on how to assess land use intensity (LUI), we developed a new conceptual framework reflecting the scaled nature of the linkages between land management and biodiversity. From the plot to the landscape level, different aspects of LUI are becoming relevant (see the Figure). Different aspects of the framework proposed are illustrated at examples from three case study areas: the Eastern Tibetan Plateau in China, Lesvos Island in Greece and the alpine landscape of Switzerland – the latter two are HERCULES case study areas (see the Map).
Most changes in LUI do not have consequences for land cover and will therefore not be visible on land cover maps. Even most land use maps are not be specific enough to distinguish between various levels of intensity within the same land use category, and therefore changes in LUI, such as irrigation, drainage, changes in grazing intensity or mowing dates, as described in the Swiss example, have to be assessed and mapped based on a different approach. The Chinese example illustrates how this could be done, as the LUI index proposed for grassland management, could easily be mapped. Yet, causal relations of such an index of LUI to biodiversity are not to be expected, as natural driving forces have an impact on biodiversity as well and have to be considered as such and in their interaction with driving forces shaped by culture.
Minor changes in LUI can have major changes on biodiversity, such as in the example of Lesvos, where olive plantations still dominate large parts of the island, but a slow decline in cultivation leads to changes in biodiversity. The changes in LUI can be assessed on the level of overall input and output analyses as well as on the farm level, on which additionally specific decisions regarding land management and the causal driving forces can be studied.
The case studies presented have shown that not only culture is hard to grasp, but so is biodiversity: Which biodiversity are we talking about? Which spatial resolution – again, from the plot to the landscape level – is considered to be most relevant?
Interesting links to the cultural dimension of LUI appear, if we realize how the loss of local land use traditions might on one hand lead to more similar land management pattern between regions. At the same time, they might also open up new ways of farming – leading to an increase in farming styles within the same community, i.e. contributing to an increase in beta diversity of land management. Land use changes, their consequences and the driving forces behind these changes have to be studied in detail on scales from the plot to the landscape – not the least as a base to inform the public about ongoing processes and the related consequences, e.g. for the future of olive cultivation and the related cultural landscape in Lesvos. Conceptualizing and operationalizing LUI is therefore of vital importance, and various approaches are already available, depending on the specific system under study and the aims.The information and views set out in this Cultural Landscapes Blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the HERCULES project nor the European Commission.
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