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Agriculture and tropical conservation: rethinking old ideas

It's a long-held view in conservation circles that rural peasant activities are at odds with efforts to preserve biodiversity in the tropics. In fact, the opposite is often true, argue University of Michigan researchers John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto.

Combining case studies with ecological theory, Vandermeer and Perfecto found that the peasant farming practices encouraged by grassroots movements such as Brazil's Landless Workers Movement, Mexico's Zapatistas or the international Via Campesina actually support conservation, while the practices of extremely wealthy landowners often undermine it. The researchers will present their findings Aug. 8 in two symposia at the Ecological Society of America meeting in Memphis, Tenn.

"When you talk to peasant producers in tropical areas, they're usually surprised when they hear that conservationists think that they're the enemies of conservation," said Vandermeer, who is the Margaret Davis Collegiate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. "They love their farms and all the plants and animals in the area, and they see that it's the big, rich landowners who come in and cut all the trees down and turn the land into cattle pastures. So the standard litany doesn't ring true to them."

Vandermeer and Perfecto reviewed studies of biodiversity in the Atlantic coast rainforest of Brazil, a region that is unusual in having areas of tremendous biological variety adjacent to highly developed, industrialized areas.

"The area has some of the highest biodiversity in the world, but it all occurs in fragments of forest," Vandermeer said. In one study the researchers examined, a Brazilian scientist documented in a single river valley 28,000 separate forest fragments, where vulnerable species such as muriqui monkeys live. Vandermeer and Perfecto combined observations such as these with current ecological theory.

"We know that a lot of organisms typically live in a fragmented state in natur
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Source:University of Michigan


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