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Cultural Landscapes BlogLand use intensity as a link between culture and biodiversity

Land use intensity as a link between culture and biodiversity

14 Feb 2016 - 23:31/by Thanasis Kizos and Matthias Bürgi/Tags: Land use, culture, biodiversity

In recent years, the term biocultural diversity has been promoted to raise awareness for the interrelationship between culture and biodiversity. This term is on one hand compelling, as it is obvious that culture has been shaped by the natural context, and in turn has left traces in this natural context. However, it is hard to conceptualize and to envision how much this approach may contribute to a deeper understanding of and for the diversity of life on earth.
Land use intensity as a link between culture and biodiversity

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. 

Tell Us What You Think:

R.C. Zimmermann

11 Feb 2016 - 19:05

I, for one, am not surprised you concluded that "not only culture is hard to grasp, but so is biodiversity". Which biodiversity, which spatial resolution is relevant? Beware of too much emphasis on "conceptual frameworks", and of the old temptation to find universal indicators, coefficients, or formulaic solutions for they do tend to lead to muddles or dead ends. When in doubt, it's always better to backtrack to basic definitions and concrete situations and work from there.
Let's stick to biodiversity (I am a plant ecologist). The term itself is fairly neutral, at its simplest it is simply a measure of species numbers per unit area. You can also talk about diversity of life forms per unit area. Then go on to talk about numbers of spp. or life forms and their relationship to productivity at various levels, or to stability in time of spp. numbers, life form distributions, and productivity. And so on and so forth (which is what the pioneering studies of diversity, productivity and stability at the Univ. of Jena are finally beginning to show after many decades of theorizing or, worse, assuming that diversity means stability and productivity). Surely the point is that, in any situation we have to define our goals, and, as a function of these goals, the scale at which we sample. I once showed my students that 1 m2 plot in a vacant lot in the middle of a large city had as much "biodiversity" as a 1 m2 plot in a forest reserve outside the city, but so what? What was the question we wanted to ask? I also showed them that variability in time within small plots is great and largely random (an old and wise forester once said that ecologists spend too much time analyzing statistical noise, because (again within small plots) how do we know that a cow didn't come by and piss on seedlings last year?) On the other hand, plant distributions (i.e., presence or absence) are remarkably stable at landform scale, as many historical studies have shown (eg., over 200 years of logging and clearances in the Eastern North American forest), hence mapping of presence/absence at landform scales is much more productive in terms of assessing regional floristic stability than staying within a few small plots within the same landform. Again, the point is we have to define our goal, and sample accordingly. When it comes to "biodiversity", one main concern is usually extinction, if if it's extinction you wish to assess, then complete inventories of species' occurrences are in order. I am, of course, belabouring the obvious.
It's difficult enough to define why and how we measure "biodiversity" within or between landforms (as strictly and objectively defined as we can, eg. north-facing concave slopes as opposed to south-facing straight slopes, or floodplains vs. sideslopes, etc.) or within and between entire regions, but if we don't do this (i.e., gain perspective on "natural" diversity), what hope do we have of teasing out the impact of human activities on this diversity? I'll leave it social scientists to assess trends in land use and their impact on the landscape.
Basically, what I am saying is do not link "natural biodiversity" and land use too soon, and be modest about the spatial applicability of any linkages you may come up with in a given setting. Above all, let's be clear about our goals, both in terms of biodiversity conservation and landscape management {sql_minus_minus} separately, at first. How do we know that less intensive use of olive groves in Lesvos may be "bad" for the landscape, but maybe "good" for "biodiversity"? If that is so, how do we reconcile the two?

Thanasis Kizos

14 Feb 2016 - 23:31

Thank you very much for the comment!

Indeed, what is biodiversity? And we do we think that more is better? And since 99% of the species that have lived on the planet have already gone extinct, one or two more... who counts?

We had all this in mind, about the social construction of "biodiversity" and its value as a flag you can wave around in various discussions when we were discussing with Matthias the conceptual framework, which for us was just another way of trying to make sense of the other parts of the figure: how to go from the farmer (who makes the decisions for the practices in the end) to the plot and from there to the land management system in the area (the landscape level) and from there to see if we can say something meaningful about the impacts of these systems. Of course there is no absolute value of these systems to be "good" or "bad" or 2.35 worth. It is all relative. Bur, again, in the end we have to be practical: there will be some form of land management system. Can we meaningfully assess, measure, estimate if this will be more or less beneficial than alternative systems? And not ideal alternatives, as there always is a better system somewhere (in our minds for sure), but actual alternatives that are may be practiced right now in another land use system in the area, perhaps with the same land cover. And then again, of course we need a measuring stick. Not something "absolute", but something of value for resources and species. Yes, there is no "natural biodiversity", but if we can say that this system supports more birds and mammals than the other, or if we can say that this system is actually not so bad in keeping a high number of annuals in the understorey of the trees in the field or in the grazing land, always compared to other systems, then we can find ways to support these systems.

Where is culture in this? In land use systems of course. These are not just a collection, a list of practices, it is a way of life, part of your identity and how you view yourself and others. If we fail to understand this, we will fail to "plant" (what a word, eh?) innovation or other practices in general. The tension that you suggest, when a system is good for diversity but bad for the landscape is real in many systems (not in extensive olive plantations, at least for how we value the landscape in the last decades, but this may change). What do we do then? Here is where we suggest that culture again should be utilized. You have to know your system well and the cultural practices of its production and reproduction. Can we find some alternatives that work? and can we integrate them into the land use system? This is a very localized approach, applicable only at a case to case basis. We do not believe in universal systems: the differences we witnessed in the 3 cases we present in the paper were already too much for any universal system with "objective" indicators. But, we also feel that the figure is useful for conceptualizing the different aspects and keeping in mind that the local level is the right level to start.

Unfortunately, the dry language one has to use to publish in scientific journals does not help to pass along messages like these easily. Or it could be that we failed to explain it properly. Anyway, thank you again for reading this, reacting and letting us explain.

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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