By Chris Lang
In his 2016 book, Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, biologist E.O. Wilson argues that the only way to protect a large percentage of the earth’s biodiversity is to set aside half of the Earth.
Wilson’s ideas are supported by the Global Deal for Nature, which aims to protect 30% of the earth by 2030, and 50% by 2050. It’s been endorsed by a large number of organisations, including Avaaz, COICA (Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin), Rainforest Action Network, Nature Needs Half, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and the Global Greengrants Fund.
More than 2.3 million people have signed an Avaaz petition calling on world leaders to protect and restore at least 50% of the Earth. The petition states that the target must “have the active support of indigenous peoples”.
Before announcing her resignation last month as executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biodiversity, Cristiana Paşca Palmer called for making at least half of the world more nature-friendly by 2050. She told the Guardian that,
“It’s not 50% us versus 50% nature. For developing countries the message is not that they should close off more land, but to show how more sustainable use can bring social and economic benefits.”
But little work has been done on identifying the social and economic implications of this half-earth proposal. This is a serious omission, considering the recent reports by BuzzFeed News and others exposing human rights abuses in the name of conservation.
At least one billion people could be affected
A new paper in Nature Sustainability concludes that more than one billion people could be directly affected by the goal of protecting half the Earth. The paper is written by Judith Schleicher (Department of Geography, University of Cambridge), Julie G. Zaehringer (Centre for Development and Environment, University of Bern, Switzerland), Constance Fastré (Zoological Society of London), Bhaskar Vira (Department of Geography, University of Cambridge), Piero Visconti (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria) and Chris Sandbrook (Department of Geography, University of Cambridge).
The authors write that,
Our analysis suggests that at least one billion people live in places that would be protected if the Half Earth proposal were implemented within all ecoregions. Taking into account the social and economic impacts of such proposals is central to addressing social and environmental justice concerns, and assessing their acceptability and feasibility.
Currently almost 250 million people live in protected areas.
The authors note that the Half Earth proposal is “ambiguous about the exact forms and location of the new conserved areas being called for”. They also note that the reported impacts of existing protected areas vary widely.
Protected areas can be good or bad for people affected, depending, “on the type of protected areas, their governance and the restrictions they place on resource use”. The exact number of people evicted to make way for protected areas is unknown, with estimates ranging from 10 million people to 40 million.
The authors point out that,
Where the impacts are negative, they tend to disproportionally affect marginalized communities. . . . the global increase in conserved areas to 50% could have considerable implications for the lives of those living inside, or in the vicinity of, these areas.
The authors base their analysis on an ecoregion approach suggested in a 2017 paper that proposes a Global Deal for Nature “to promote increased habitat protection and restoration, national- and ecoregion-scale conservation strategies, and the empowerment of indigenous peoples to protect their sovereign lands”.
The authors’ approach in estimating the number of people that could be affected by Half Earth is conservative:
Our approach assumes a protection strategy designed to minimize the key impacts on society, including avoiding areas with high population density and agricultural land. It ignores the effects on people living beyond the boundaries of the conserved areas, such as those constraining access to resources. For these reasons our approach generates a conservative estimate of the potential number of people affected.
Human impacts of Half Earth must be taken into account
The authors write that,
We recognize the importance of conserved areas for the future of life on Earth, and the fundamental need for radical action in the face of unfolding environmental crises. However, our findings highlight the crucial importance of taking into account the human impacts of Half Earth, Global Deal for Nature or other ambitious (area-based) conservation targets. Even with our conservative approach, a very large number of people would be affected by implementing Half Earth. Therefore, any such proposals need to explicitly consider and seriously engage with their social and economic consequences. Considering these implications is not only central to concerns about social and environmental justice, but will also determine how realistic their implementation is in terms of achieving their intended conservation outcomes.
And they make three recommendations:
- Half Earth proponents should be explicit about the types and locations of the conserved areas they are calling for, to allow more indepth assessments of their social, economic and environmental impacts in the future.
- The advocates of all area-based conservation measures should recognize and take seriously the human consequences, both negative and positive, of their proposals.
- The parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, tasked with negotiating and implementing the post-2020 conservation framework, should apply more holistic, interdisciplinary approaches that take into account social and economic implications across various scales.