‘Edible forests’ can fight land clearing and world hunger at the same time



A Nepalese woman collects mushroom in a forest.
Jagannath Adhikari, Author provided

Jagannath Adhikari, UNSW

Reducing emissions from deforestation and farming is an urgent global priority if we want to control climate change. However, like many climate change problems, the solution is complicated. Cutting down forests to plant edible crops feeds some of the world’s hungriest people.




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UN climate change report: land clearing and farming contribute a third of the world’s greenhouse gases


More than 820 million people suffer from hunger, and about 2 billion people face moderate food insecurity – meaning they do not always know when their next meal will come.

After a decade of slow decline, climate change is driving this number up again, particularly in Africa and Asia, where competition over land for both farming and forest conservation is acute.

But villagers in the Himalayas are turning to a traditional practice that can slow land clearing and feed people: growing and collecting food from the forests.

Mushrooms, as well as honey, roots and other edible plants are harvested by locals as an important food source.
Jagannath Adhikari, Author provided

Food in the forest

My research in the Himalayan region, where high population density means farmland is very scarce, investigated how people used their forests as a food source.

An “edible forest” is one in which people have planted trees and crops that can produce food in the forest, as well as harvesting what naturally grows. In fact, this is a traditional practice in the Himalayan region. A farmer I interviewed in Siding village, at the base of Mardi Himal – one of the peaks in Annapurna Himalayan range – told me:

I go to [the] forest when food is scarce at home. I collect vegetables, fruits, nuts, medicinal herbs, spices, roots and tubers. Sometimes I also collect wild honey, bamboo shoots and mushroom, which is consumed at home and also sold in the market. Occasionally, we also get wild meat.

Traditionally, these villagers see forest and farms as an extension of each other rather than distinct categories, and manage them so they support each other.

Generally, people plant trees useful for households – for their wood, for example, or fruit – in the forest close to the villages, and preserve those grown naturally.

The community itself protects the forest, in the past even pooling grains and cash to hire a guard if needed.

This forest food is supplementary, becoming more important in scarce times and as a buffer during famine. Taking wood for fuel or timber is strictly regulated, but there are no restrictions on gathering food, to the great benefit of the poorest.

Collecting food is mainly the work of women, who gather a few things whenever they go into the forest for firewood or animal fodder. They have a great deal of knowledge about edible plants. Men take part by hunting for honey and wild animals. Children, too, go to the forest in their free time to gather berries and tubers.

Sometimes villagers collect these foods to sell in nearby markets as a seasonal source of cash.

A woman sells bamboo shoot in Pokhara, Nepal. These bamboo shoots are collected in forests at high altitude, 2,200-2,600 meters above sea level.
Jagannath Adhikari

Modern bureaucracy

The centralised forest management and curtailment of traditional rights of the communities that came with modern forest bureaucracy in the Himalayan region distanced people from the forest. This also led to rapid deforestation between the mid-1960s to 1980s.

This trend was reversed in the early 1990s, when community rights came to the forefront and communally managed forestry gained a strong foothold. This helped reduce poverty. Yet it is still hard for locals to grow food in the forests as they once did. One farmer told me,

We do not destroy forest when collecting these things, but conservation regulation is making this collection difficult.

We need power to move from centralised governments to local stewardship and local knowledge. Government oversight would still be required to protect the local interests, but any new mechanism needs to be developed in consultation with local communities. Research institutions could play a role in finding better ways to meet the interest of local communities when they manage their forest.

A new category of land use

Edible forests are a departure from standard schemes to reduce emissions from deforestation and land degradation, in which developed countries pay less developed countries to preserve or replant their forests.




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If people are actively planting and harvesting in a forest, it may not qualify as protected or conserved land. Conversely, if a local community depends on their forest for food, they may hesitate to register for a formal scheme, for fear they will lose a valuable resource.

If reforestation schemes can be expanded to take into account planting that doesn’t compromise tree coverage, we can encourage rapid growth of edible forests and speed up our response to climate change. It will help meet goals like food security, mitigation and adaptation to climate change, and reducing desertification and land degradation that the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recommended for sustainable land management in the light of climate change.

Climate migration

Climate change and food insecurity are the main drivers of migration away from rural areas in developing countries, which brings its own challenges for sustainable land management.

Wages sent home by those who move away is a huge part of food security and reducing poverty for many people. In 2018 about US$530 billion was transferred to low- and middle-income countries between family members, compared with US$162 billion in development aid.




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This flow of money means families with marginal land – like farmland on hill slopes in Nepal’s case – can afford to slowly convert it to plantations or forests. Migration and remittances – which contribute some 28% of Nepal’s gross domestic product – helps increase forest coverage, especially in marginal lands vulnerable to erosion and landslides.

There is an opportunity to increase planting in these lands, which have been abandoned for farming. If official reforestation policies can acknowledge and support edible forests, we could see the Himalayan region lead the pack on a new way of thinking about forests and food.The Conversation

Jagannath Adhikari, Sessional Lecturer, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Environment laws have failed to tackle the extinction emergency. Here’s the proof



Koalas are among the threatened native species worst affected by habitat loss.
Taronga Zoo

Michelle Ward, The University of Queensland; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Simmonds, The University of Queensland; Jonathan Rhodes, The University of Queensland, and Martin Taylor, The University of Queensland

Threatened species habitat larger than the size of Tasmania has been destroyed since Australia’s environment laws were enacted, and 93% of this habitat loss was not referred to the federal government for scrutiny, our new research shows.

The research, published today in Conservation Science and Practice, shows that 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat has been destroyed in the 20 years since the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 came into force.

The Southern black throated finch, one of the threatened native animals worst affected by habitat loss.
Eric Vanderduys/BirdLife Australia



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Some 85% of land-based threatened species experienced habitat loss. The iconic koala was among the worst affected. More than 90% of habitat loss was not referred or submitted for assessment, despite a requirement to do so under Commonwealth environment laws.

Our research indicates the legislation has comprehensively failed to safeguard Australia’s globally significant natural values, and must urgently be reformed and enforced.

What are the laws supposed to do?

The EPBC Act was enacted in 1999 to protect the diversity of Australia’s unique, and increasingly threatened, flora and fauna. It was considered a giant step forward for biodiversity conservation and was expected to become an important legacy of the Howard Coalition government.

A dead koala outside Ipswich, Queensland. Environmentalists attributed the death to land clearing.
Jim Dodrill/The Wilderness Society



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The law aims to conserve so-called “protected matters” such as threatened species, migratory species, and threatened ecosystems.

Clearing and land use change is regarded by ecologists as the primary threat to Australia’s biodiversity. In Queensland, land clearing to create pasture is the greatest pressure on threatened flora and fauna.

Any action which could have a significant impact on protected matters, including habitat destruction through land clearing, must be referred to the federal government for assessment.

Loss of potential habitat for threatened species and migratory species, and threatened ecological communities. Dark blue represents habitat loss that has been assessed (or loss that occurred with a referral under the EPBC Act) and dark red represents habitat loss that has not been assessed (or loss that occurred without a referral under The Act). Three panels highlight the southern Western Australia coast (left), Tasmania (middle), and northern Queensland coast (right).
Adapted from Ward et al. 2019

The law is not being followed

We examined federal government forest and woodland maps derived from satellite imagery. The analysis showed that 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat has been cleared or destroyed since the legislation was enacted.

Of this area, 93% was not referred to the federal government and so was neither assessed nor approved.

Bulldozer clearing trees at Queensland’s Olive Vale Station in 2015.
ABC News, 2017

It is unclear why people or companies are not referring habitat destruction on such a large scale. People may be self-assessing their activities and concluding they will not have a significant impact.

Others may be seeking to avoid the expense of a referral, which costs A$6,577 for people or companies with a turnover of more than A$10 million a year.

The failure to refer may also indicate a lack of awareness of, or disregard for, the EPBC Act.

The biggest losers

Our research found that 1,390 (85%) of terrestrial threatened species experienced habitat loss within their range since the EPBC Act was introduced.

Among the top ten species to lose the most area were the red goshawk, the ghost bat, and the koala, losing 3 million, 2.9 million, and 1 million hectares, respectively.

In less than two decades, many other imperilled species have lost large chunks of their potential habitat. They include the Mount Cooper striped skink (25%), the Keighery’s macarthuria (23%) and the Southern black-throated finch (10%).

(a) The top 10 most severely impacted threatened species include those that have lost the highest proportion of their total habitat, and (b) species who have lost the most habitat, as mapped by the Federal Government.
Adapted from Ward et al. 2019

What’s working, what’s not

We found that almost all referrals to the federal government for habitat loss were made by urban developers, mining companies and commercial developers. A tiny 1.3% of referrals were made by agricultural developers – despite clear evidence that land clearing for pasture development is the primary driver of habitat destruction.

Alarmingly, even when companies or people did refer proposed actions, 99% were allowed to proceed (sometimes with conditions).

The high approval rates may be derived, in part, from inconsistent application of the “significance” test under the federal laws.

Hundreds of protesters gather in Sydney in 2016 to demand that New South Wales retain strong land clearing laws.
Dean Lewins/AAP

For example, in a successful prosecution in 2015, Powercor Australia and Vemco] were fined A$200,000 for failing to refer clearing of a tiny 0.5 hectares of a critically endangered ecosystem. In contrast, much larger tracts of habitat have been destroyed without referral or approval, and without any such enforcement action being taken.

Clearer criteria for determining whether an impact is significant would reduce inconsistency in decisions, and provide more certainty for stakeholders.

The laws must be enforced and reformed

If the habitat loss trend continues, two things are certain: more species will become threatened with extinction, and more species will become extinct.

The Act must, as a matter of urgency, be properly enforced to curtail the mass non-referral of actions that our analysis has revealed.

The left pie chart illustrates the breakdown of industries referring their actions by number of referrals; the right pie chart illustrates the breakdown of industries referring their actions by area (hectares). Both charts highlight the agricultural sector as a low-referring industry.
Adapted from Ward et al. 2019

If nothing else, this will help Australia meet its commitment under the Convention on Biological Diversity to prevent extinction of known threatened species and improve their conservation status by 2020.




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Why aren’t Australia’s environment laws preventing widespread land clearing?


Mapping the critical habitat essential to the survival of every threatened species is also an important step. The Act should also be reformed to ensure critical habitat is identified and protected, as happens in the United States.

Australia is already a world leader in modern-day extinctions. Without a fundamental change in how environmental law is written, used, and enforced, the crisis will only get worse.The Conversation

Michelle Ward, PhD Student, The University of Queensland; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Jeremy Simmonds, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Jonathan Rhodes, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland, and Martin Taylor, Adjunct senior lecturer, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

UN climate change report: land clearing and farming contribute a third of the world’s greenhouse gases



Farming emits greenhouse gases, but the land can also store them.
Johny Goerend/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Mark Howden, Australian National University

We can’t achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement without managing emissions from land use, according to a special report released today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Emissions from land use, largely agriculture, forestry and land clearing, make up some 22% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Counting the entire food chain (including fertiliser, transport, processing, and sale) takes this contribution up to 29%.




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The report, which synthesises information from some 7,000 scientific papers, found there is no way to keep global warming under 2℃ without significant reductions in land sector emissions.

Land puts out emissions – and absorbs them

The land plays a vital role in the carbon cycle, both by absorbing greenhouse gases and by releasing them into the atmosphere. This means our land resources are both part of the climate change problem and potentially part of the solution.

Improving how we manage the land could reduce climate change at the same time as it improves agricultural sustainability, supports biodiversity, and increases food security.

While the food system emits nearly a third of the world’s greenhouse gases – a situation also reflected in Australia – land-based ecosystems absorb the equivalent of about 22% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This happens through natural processes that store carbon in soil and plants, in both farmed lands and managed forests as well as in natural “carbon sinks” such as forests, seagrass and wetlands.




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There are opportunities to reduce the emissions related to land use, especially food production, while at the same time protecting and expanding these greenhouse gas sinks.

But it is also immediately obvious that the land sector cannot achieve these goals by itself. It will require substantial reductions in fossil fuel emissions from our energy, transport, industrial, and infrastructure sectors.

Overburdened land

So, what is the current state of our land resources? Not that great.

The report shows there are unprecedented rates of global land and freshwater used to provide food and other products for the record global population levels and consumption rates.

For example, consumption of food calories per person worldwide has increased by about one-third since 1961, and the average person’s consumption of meat and vegetable oils has more than doubled.

The pressure to increase agricultural production has helped push about a quarter of the Earth’s ice-free land area into various states of degradation via loss of soil, nutrients and vegetation.

Simultaneously, biodiversity has declined globally, largely because of deforestation, cropland expansion and unsustainable land-use intensification. Australia has experienced much the same trends.




Read more:
To reduce fire risk and meet climate targets, over 300 scientists call for stronger land clearing laws


Climate change exacerbates land degradation

Climate change is already having a major impact on the land. Temperatures over land are rising at almost twice the rate of global average temperatures.

Linked to this, the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as heatwaves and flooding rainfall has increased. The global area of drylands in drought has increased by over 40% since 1961.

These and other changes have reduced agricultural productivity in many regions – including Australia. Further climate changes will likely spur soil degradation, loss of vegetation, biodiversity and permafrost, and increases in fire damage and coastal degradation.




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Water will become more scarce, and our food supply will become less stable. Exactly how these risks will evolve will depend on population growth, consumption patterns and also how the global community responds.

Overall, proactive and informed management of our land (for food, water and biodiversity) will become increasingly important.

Stopping land degradation helps everyone

Tackling the interlinked problems of land degradation, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and food security can deliver win-wins for farmers, communities, governments, and ecosystems.

The report provides many examples of on-ground and policy options that could improve the management of agriculture and forests, to enhance production, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and make these areas more robust to climate change. Leading Australian farmers are already heading down these paths, and we have a lot to teach the world about how to do this.

We may also need to reassess what we demand from the land. Farmed animals are a major contributor to these emissions, so plant-based diets are increasingly being adopted.

Similarly, the report found about 25-30% of food globally is lost or wasted. Reducing this can significantly lower emissions, and ease pressure on agricultural systems.

How do we make this happen?

Many people around the world are doing impressive work in addressing some of these problems. But the solutions they generate are not necessarily widely used or applied comprehensively.

To be successful, coordinated policy packages and land management approaches are pivotal. Inevitably, all solutions are highly location-specific and contextual, and it is vital to bring together local communities and industry, as well as governments at all levels.




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Given the mounting impacts of climate change on food security and land condition, there is no time to lose.


The author acknowledges the contributions to authorship of this article by Clare de Castella, Communications Manager, ANU Climate Change Institute.The Conversation

Mark Howden, Director, Climate Change Institute, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Logged native forests mostly end up in landfill, not in buildings and furniture



File 20190409 2905 7sdxsi.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Almost all native forest logging in Victoria is for woodchips, pulp and pallets, which have short lifespans before going to landfill.
Janelle Lugge/Shutterstock

Chris Taylor, Australian National University and David Lindenmayer, Australian National University

Victoria has some of the most carbon-dense native forests in the world. Advocates for logging these forests often argue that wood products in buildings and furniture become long-term storage for carbon.

However, these claims are misleading. Most native trees cut down in Victoria become woodchips, pulp and pallets, which have short lifespans before going to landfill. In landfill, the wood breaks down and releases carbon back into the atmosphere.

On the other hand, our evolving carbon market means Australia’s native forests are extremely valuable as long-term carbon stores. It’s time to recognise logging for short-lived wood products is a poor use of native forests.




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The problem with logging native forests

Victoria has about 7.6 million hectares of native forests. The most carbon-dense areas are in ash forests, consisting of mountain ash, alpine ash and shining gum trees.

These forests can store up to 1,140 tonnes of carbon per hectare for centuries.

Only 14% of logs cut from Victorian native forests end up as timber products used in buildings and furniture.
Shutterstock

But around 1.82 million hectares of Victorian native forests are allocated to the government’s logging business, VicForests.

VicForests claims logging is the only market for the large area of native forest allocated to it. In other words, its forests are exclusively valued as timber asset, in the same way a wheat crop would be exclusively valued for wheat grain production.

In Victorian native forests, industrial scale clearfell logging removes around 40% of the forest biomass for logs fit for sale.

The remaining 60% is debris, which is either burned off or decomposes – becoming a major source of greenhouse gas emission.




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Myth one: storing carbon in wood products

The first myth we want to address is logging native forests is beneficial because the carbon is stored in wood products. This argument depends on the proportion of forest biomass ending up in wood products, and how long they last before ending up in landfill.

On average, logs suitable to be sawn into timber make up only an average 35% of total logs cut from Victorian native forests.

Of this 35%, sawmills convert less than 40% into sawn timber for building and furniture. Offcuts are woodchipped and pulped for paper manufacturing, along with sawdust sold to chicken broiler sheds for bedding.

Sawn timber equates to 14% of log volume cut from the forest. The remaining 84% of logs cut are used in short-lived and often disposable products like copy paper and pallets.




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The lifespan of paper products is assumed to be three years. Although around 75% of paper and cardboard is recovered, recycling is growing more uncertain with recovered paper being sent to landfill.

The maximum lifespan of a timber pallet is seven years. At the end of their service, timber pallets are sent to landfill, chipped for particleboard, reused for landscape mulch or burnt for energy generation.

Longer-lived wood products, such as the small proportion of native timber used in building and furniture, have a lifespan of around 90 years. These wood products are used to justify logging native forests.

But at the end of their service life, the majority of these wood products also end up in landfill.

In fact, for the 500,000 tonnes of wood waste generated annually from building, demolition and other related commercial processes in Victoria, over two thirds end up in landfill, according to a Sustainability Victoria report.

Myth two: the need to log South East Asian rainforests

A second myth is using logs from Victorian native forests will prevent logging and degradation of rainforests across South East Asia, particularly for paper production.

This is patently absurd. The wood from the Victorian plantation sector – essentially timber farms, rather than trees growing “wild” in native forests – could replace native forest logs used for paper manufacturing in Victoria several times over.

In fact, in 2016-17 89% of logs used to make wood pulp (pulplogs) for paper production in Victoria came from plantation trees, with the majority of hardwood logs exported.

And Australia is a net exporter by volume of lower-value unprocessed logs and woodchips.




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Native forests can help hit emissions targets – if we leave them alone


Processing pulplogs from well managed plantations in Victoria instead of exporting them would give a much needed jobs boost for local economies.

With most of these plantations established on previously cleared farmland, they offer one of the most robust ways for the land use sector to off-set greenhouse gas emissions.

Next steps

The time is right for Australian governments to develop a long-term carbon storage plan that includes intact native forests.

Logging results in at least 94% of a forest’s stored carbon ending up in the atmosphere. A maximum of 6% of its carbon remains in sawn timber, for up to 90 years (but typically much shorter). This is patently counterproductive from a carbon-storage point of view.




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State-owned forest management companies, such as VicForests, can transition away from the timber business and begin managing forests for carbon storage. Such a concept is not new – the federal government has already approved a way to value the carbon storage of plantations.

The same must now be developed to better protect native forests and the large amounts of carbon they can store.The Conversation

Chris Taylor, Research Fellow, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guns, snares and bulldozers: new map reveals hotspots for harm to wildlife


File 20190312 86699 k7wj98.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Human activity threatens many species across Africa’s savannahs.
Paul Mulondo/WCS, Author provided

James Allan, The University of Queensland; Christopher O’Bryan, The University of Queensland, and James Watson, The University of Queensland

The biggest killers of wildlife globally are unsustainable hunting and harvesting, and the conversion of huge swathes of natural habitat into farms, housing estates, roads and other industrial activities. There is little doubt that these threats are driving the current mass extinction crisis.

Yet our understanding of where these threats overlap with the locations of sensitive species has been poor. This limits our ability to target conservation efforts to the most important places.




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In our new study, published today in Plos Biology, we mapped 15 of the most harmful human threats – including hunting and land clearing – within the locations of 5,457 threatened mammals, birds and amphibians globally.

We found that 1,237 species – a quarter of those assessed – are impacted by threats that cover more than 90% of their distributions. These species include many large, charismatic mammals such as lions and elephants. Most concerningly of all, we identified 395 species that are impacted by threats across 100% of their range.

Mapping the risks

We only mapped threats within a species location if those threats are known to specifically endanger that species. For example, the African lion is threatened by urbanisation, hunting and trapping, so we only quantified the overlap of those specific hazards for this species.

This allowed us to determine the parts of a species’ home range that are impacted by threats and, conversely, the parts that are free of threats and therefore serve as refuges.

We could then identify global hotspots of human impacts on threatened species, as well as “coolspots” where species are largely threat-free.

The fact that so many species face threats across almost all of their range has grave consequences. These species are likely to continue to decline and possibly die out in the impacted parts of their ranges. Completely impacted species certainly face extinction without targeted conservation action.

Conversely, we found more than 1,000 species that were not impacted by human threats at all. Although this is positive news, it is important to note that we have not mapped every possible threat, so our results likely underestimate the true impact. For example, we didn’t account for diseases, which are a major threat to amphibians, or climate change, which is a major threat to virtually all species.

Hotspots and coolspots

We produced the first global map of human impacts on threatened species by combining the parts of each species range that are exposed to threats.
The overwhelmingly dominant global hotspot for human impacts on threatened species is Southeast Asia.

This region contains the top five countries with the most threats to species.
These include Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia and Myanmar.

The most impacted ecosystems include mangroves and tropical forests, which concerningly are home to the greatest diversity of life on Earth.

Hotspots of threats and threatened species richness.
Allan et al. Plos Biol., Author provided

We also created a global map of coolspots by combining the parts of species ranges that are free from human threats. This map identifies the last vestiges of wild places where threatened species have shelter from the ravages of guns, snares and bulldozers. As such, these are crucial conservation strongholds.

Coolspots include parts of the Amazon rainforest, the Andes, the eastern Himalayas, and the forests of Liberia in West Africa.

In many places, coolspots are located near hotspots. This makes sense because in species-rich areas it is likely that many animals are impacted whereas many others are not, due to their varying sensitivity to different threats.

Coolspots of unimpacted species richness.
Allan et al. Plos Biol., Author provided

What next?

There is room for optimism because all the threats we map can be stopped by conservation action. But we need to make sure this action is directed to priority areas, and that it has enough financial and political support.

An obvious first step is to secure threat-free refuges for particular species, via actions such as protected areas, which are paramount for their survival.




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To ensure the survival of highly impacted species with little or no access to refuges, “active threat management” is needed to open enough viable habitat for them to survive. For example, tiger numbers in Nepal have doubled since 2009, mainly as a result of targeted anti-poaching efforts.

Tackling threats and protecting refuges are complementary approaches that will be most effective if carried out simultaneously. Our study provides information that can help guide these efforts and help to make national and global conservation plans as successful as possible.


The authors acknowledge the contributions of Hugh Possingham, Oscar Venter, Moreno Di Marco and Scott Consaul Atkinson to the research on which this article is based.The Conversation

James Allan, Postdoctoral research fellow, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland; Christopher O’Bryan, PhD Candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, and James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

To reduce fire risk and meet climate targets, over 300 scientists call for stronger land clearing laws



File 20190308 150700 3qu1wc.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Without significant tree cover, dry and dusty landscapes can result.
Don Driscoll, Author provided

Martine Maron, The University of Queensland; Andrea Griffin, University of Newcastle; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, James Cook University; Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Deakin University, and Steve Turton, CQUniversity Australia

Australia’s high rates of forest loss and weakening land clearing laws are increasing bushfire risk, and undermining our ability to meet national targets aimed at curbing climate change.

This dire situation is why we are among the more than 300 scientists and practitioners who have signed a declaration calling for governments to restore, or better strengthen regulations to protect native vegetation.




Read more:
Land clearing on the rise as legal ‘thinning’ proves far from clear-cut


Land clearing laws have been contentious in several states for years. New South Wales relaxed its land clearing controls in 2017, triggering concerns over irreversible environmental damage. Although it is too early to know the impact of those changes, a recent analysis found that land clearing has increased sharply in some areas since the laws changed.

The Queensland Labor government’s 2018 strengthening of land clearing laws came after years of systematic weakening of these protections. Yet the issue has remained politically divisive. While discussing a federal inquiry into the impact of these policies on farmers, federal agriculture minister David Littleproud suggested that the strenthening of regulations may have worsened Queensland’s December bushfires.

We argue such an assertion is at odds with scientific evidence. And, while the conservation issues associated with widespread land clearing are generally well understood by the public, the consequences for farmers and fire risks are much less so.

Tree loss can increase fire risk

During December’s heatwave in northern Queensland, some regions were at “catastrophic” bushfire risk for the first time since ratings began. Even normally wet rainforests, such as at Eungella National Park inland from Mackay, sustained burns in some areas during “unprecedented” fire conditions.

There is no evidence to support the suggestion that 2018’s land clearing law changes contributed to the fires. No changes were made to how vegetation can be managed to reduce fire risk. This is governed under separate laws, which remained unaltered.

In fact, shortly after the fires, Queensland’s land clearing figures were released. They showed that in the three years to June 2018, an area equivalent to roughly 570,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds (1,138,000 hectares) of bushland was cleared, including 284,000 hectares of remnant (old-growth) ecosystems.

Tree clearing can worsen fire risk in several ways. It can affect the regional climate. In parts of eastern Australia, tree cover reductions are estimated to have increased summer surface temperatures by up to 2℃ and southwest Western Australia by 0.4–0.8℃, reduced rainfall in southeast Australia, and made droughts hotter and longer.

Removing forest vegetation depletes soil moisture. Large, intact areas of forest typically have cooler, wetter microclimates buffered from extreme temperatures. Over time, some forest types can even become fire-resistant, but smaller patches of trees are typically drier and more flammable.

Trees also form a natural windbreak that can slow the spread of bushfires. An analysis of the 2005 Wangary fire in South Australia found that fires spread most rapidly through paddocks, rather than through areas lined with native trees.

Trends from 1978 to 2017 in the annual (July to June) sum of the daily Forest Fire Danger Index, an indicator of the severity of fire weather conditions. Positive trends, shown in the yellow to red colours, indicate increasing length and intensity of the fire weather season. Areas where there are sparse data coverage, such as central parts of Western Australia, are faded.
CSIRO/Bureau of Meteorology/State of the Climate 2018

Finally, Australia’s increasing risk of bushfire and worsening drought are driven by global climate change, to which land clearing is a major contributor.

Farmers on the frontline of environmental risk

Extensive tree clearing also leads to problems for farmers, including rising salinity, reduced water quality, and soil erosion. Governments and rural communities spend significant money and labour redressing the aftermath of excessive clearing.

Sensible regulation of native vegetation removal does not restrict existing agriculture, but rather seeks to support sustainable production. Retained trees can help deal with many environmental risks that hamper agricultural productivity, including animal health, long-term pasture productivity, risks to the water cycle, pest control, and human well-being.

Rampant tree clearing is undoing climate policy too. Much of the federal government’s A$2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund has gone towards tree planting. But it would take almost this entire sum just to replace the trees cleared in Queensland since 2012.




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Stopping land clearing and replanting trees could help keep Australia cool in a warmer future


In 2019, Australians might reasonably expect that our relatively wealthy and well-educated country has moved beyond a frontier-style reliance on continued deforestation, and we would do well to better acknowledge and learn lessons from Indigenous Australians with respect to their land management practices.

Yet the periodic weakening of land clearing laws in many parts of Australia has accelerated the problem. The negative impacts on industry, society and wildlife are numerous and well established. They should not be ignored.The Conversation

Martine Maron, ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Andrea Griffin, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, University of Newcastle; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Bill Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University; Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Euan Ritchie, Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, and Steve Turton, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Geography, CQUniversity Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Queensland’s new land-clearing laws are all stick and no carrot (but it’s time to do better)


Philippa England, Griffith University

The Queensland government passed legislation last month to prevent the clearing of high-value regrowth vegetation on freehold and Indigenous land. The move has been deeply unpopular with many landholders. They have argued that they are footing the bill for the commmunity’s environmental aspirations – without compensation.

The government’s intention was to reinstate a “responsible vegetation management framework”, broadly in line with legislation first passed in 2004, but which the Newman government repealed in 2013.




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Queensland’s new land clearing bill will help turn the tide, despite its flaws


But time has moved on since 2004. Instead of relying on a heavy-handed regulatory approach, a mix of carrots and sticks might have generated economic value for landholders, and reduced land clearing into the bargain.

Why landholders are fuming

Broadly speaking, landholders are worried the government hasn’t listened to their concerns and won’t pay for the land that is now effectively under state regulatory control. The parliamentary committee set up to report on the bill received more than 13,000 submissions (including 777 non-pro-forma submissions) – the largest number received by any committee of the Queensland parliament.




Read more:
Australia is a global top-ten deforester – and Queensland is leading the way


The government itself has admitted stakeholders were not consulted in the preparation of the bill, although the department report cites a “substantial history” of consultation on many of its measures. Nevertheless, the Queensland Law Society felt that further consultation would have been appropriate given “the sensitive nature of this legislation”.

Many submissions raised concerns about information shortfalls, regulatory duplication and excessive red tape. The department’s fallback position was simply to argue that “the proposed amendments are consistent with the government’s 2017 election commitment”.

Ironically, it is not only landholders who have lost out financially. The Queensland government is now effectively in control of an additional 1.76 million hectares of land, which it intends to leave undeveloped. But, in today’s world, the carbon stored in this land has a market price as well as an environmental value, if it’s properly managed.

Better alternatives

With a little more preparation and creative thinking, the government might have been able to spare our vegetation, create a huge pool of lucrative carbon offsets ready to market to the world, and provide compensation to affected landholders.

For instance, instead of an outright prohibition on land clearing, the government could have put in place a three-year moratorium on land clearing. Landholders could then be given a chance to opt out of the moratorium by transferring their land to a permanent conservation covenant or similar arrangement.

Although some careful drafting would be required to ensure the offsets integrity standards and other regulatory requirements are met, landholders who opted out of the temporary moratorium could become eligible to earn carbon offsets, or any other available financial incentives.




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Can carbon farming change the face of rural Australia?


On the other hand, landholders who do not respond to this financial “carrot” would run the risk of being hit with the (uncompensated) “stick” of a more prescriptive approach (temporary or not) at the end of the moratorium period.

The government could help this transition along by helping landholders sign up for one or more of the various existing schemes for conservation covenants, carbon offsets and biodiversity offsets. One of the main factors preventing greater participation in these schemes is prohibitively high transaction costs, especially in the early stages.

I realise there is a degree of wishful thinking about this proposal. Several hurdles, particularly political ones, would need to be overcome. But if we want serious, fair and enduring land use reform, I think these options merit a more meaningful investigation.

At the moment, a heavy-handed sweep of a pen by politicians in Brisbane has locked both landholders and government out of the market for ecosystem services. Given that the government now essentially owns a huge store of carbon assets, it’s a missed opportunity.




Read more:
Australia’s biggest emitters opt to ‘wait and see’ over Emissions Reduction Fund


The ConversationWith a little more creative thinking, Queensland might have provided compensation to landholders at no cost to itself. Instead, it has used a regulatory hammer to impose rules that – judging by past performance – have no guarantee of surviving past the next election.

Philippa England, Senior Lecturer, Griffith Law School, Griffith University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.