Land management | everywhere and everywhere important

Land management is all around us.

Just about every square foot of the planet has been used, impacted upon, appropriated or fought over by a human or three.

Real estate, wheat field or plantation, we manage most of the land area [an average of 33% globally] to provide goods and services that we take to market. The land that supports this production is usually owned or claimed by an individual, clan, tribe, commercial entity, or jurisdiction so that it becomes an asset to be protected or, in western societies, bought and sold.

Land is precious because of the wealth that it provides.

And it is amazing how far this is gone.

In the late 1990s I was working on a biodiversity project in western New South Wales. Walking cross dry, stony gibber plains to sample insects that get caught in pitfall traps. An odd thing to do perhaps, but we were trying to match the way land was described [land system classification] to the organisms that lived in areas that were supposed to differ.

Stony gibber plain in Sturt National Park, NSW, Australia.

We had asked a typically nerdy question…

Do land systems offer a good surrogate for biodiversity?

Trying to find an answer meant driving to the remote parts of the sheep station that had been made into a national park in 1972, then walking far off the farm roads across stony country following the kangaroo trials wherever we could.

At each pre-set location pinged at us by the GPS we would stop to install the first pitfall on a grid of traps that when installed covered more than 500,000 m².

But enough of the science.

What was astonishing to me at the time was everywhere we stopped to install a trap there would be evidence of a human being having been there.

At sometime in the past another person had left behind evidence of their activity. There were fragments of glass bottles and the occasional tin can but often it was evidence of past land management, a discarded coil of barbed wire rusty brown, offence proper, an ancient charred fencepost or similar.

Australia is a huge place and we were at the far corner of NSW two days drive from Sydney and over 100km from the nearest settlement. To find so much human impact from land management so far off the beaten track was a surprise.

Then just a couple of years ago I was working on a carbon project in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. We were deep in the rainforest and a day’s walk from the nearest village. There were no bottles or scraps of rusty metal this time, but the forest paths and been trod by human feet many times. Preferred fruit trees had been planted in clusters and the wiry hunting dogs ran through the forest as though they knew every inch of it.

Magnificent as it was and as wild as it was, this forest had been touched by human ingenuity. Not with a chainsaw [yet] but by thousands of generations of gathering, harvesting and judicious setting of seeds.

People were managing this land too.

This rainforest in the highlands of Papua New Guinea may look pristine but there is evidence everywhere that human activity has altered the species composition of trees and affected the animals that live there.

Land area managed for agriculture

Something similar is evident everywhere across the globe because most land management is for agriculture. The World Bank estimates that the range is from 0.5% [Suriname and Greenland] to 86.4% [Burundi] with a global average just shy of 38%.

Roughly 20% of this land is arable, meaning it is used to grow a crop at least part of the time. Most of the rest is used for livestock either directly for grazing or for hay and silage production as permanent pasture.

Add the area of rangeland [livestock grazing on native vegetation], managed forests, and urban areas to this 38% and there is not much of the Earth’s land left untouched.

There are even queues of people waiting to get to the summit of Everest.

All this we know.

Human beings are everywhere and everywhere they go they either make a mess or at least carve their name into the bark of a tree or tag walls with spray paint.

We have been doing this for so long that surely the planet is used to it by now.

The environmental issue

Land management is a both a major environmental issue and a global environmental issue because it is both an issue everywhere and it has large-scale implications for how the environment will work [even when we get it right].

A casual read of this list puts this into context…

  • Scale | more than 70% of the Earth’s land area is already managed because we most grow food.
  • Food security | food production must double in the next 30 years in order to meet expected demand from a growing and increasingly affluent human population.
  • Process loss | current land management practices do not always preserve the processes that made them useful for that purpose
  • Emissions | land clearing for agriculture has produced more than 17% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global climate change.
  • Local climate change | clearing of native vegetation on a large scale can dry out regional climate — the ancient Greeks figured it out but we still do it, apparently without thought
  • Microclimate | management that simplifies native vegetation structure tends to make local microclimate more extreme usually reducing local moisture retention. This can lead to biodiversity loss because conditions are too challenging for many species. 
  • Patchiness | when native vegetation is cleared remnants become fragmented and isolated for many species was like refuges in a sea of agriculture
  • Inertia | once we decide to use land in a particular way, that way of doing things gains great inertia that resists change 
  • Planning | the people are planned for land use and management not often those that carry it out. 
  • Economics | trades are made, produce bought and sold, money is made, lost and invested in land.
  • Now not later | even the risk and the reality that land is expensive to manage so there is pressure to make money whenever and as soon as possible

Pragmatology of land management

Humans have altered most of the Earth’s land area.

Well over a third is under some form of permanent agriculture and much of the rest is either rangeland or forestry.

And there is a very good reason for this 

we are heavily dependent on it for the food and fibre needed to support 7 billion people.

This is a reality that we cannot escape and it makes any choice we have over land use — such as a decision to convert a parcel of rainforest into a palm oil plantation — a very serious one.

It is no longer wise to assume that “the endless expanses of forest cannot possibly be used up” as seemed to be true 100 years ago thanks to the speed of world population growth.

Equally once we have chosen a land use then the management we apply must be thoughtful too.

We will need to resist the temptation to manage for now rather than the future.

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From the air arable agriculture looks very similar anywhere in the world — the image above is southern Botswana and the image below is NSW, Australia 

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