Conservation is too often carried out at the expense of the poor – either through outright expropriation of land and resources or through more subtle means. Yet, pitting the needs of wildlife and people against each other is a lose-lose proposition, as can be seen across Africa, where the world’s most majestic wildlife persist in falling numbers on shrinking ground, while more than 400 million people—more than one-third of the population—live in extreme poverty. The majority of the poor are farmers and their families, whose lack of options feeds a cycle of hunger and habitat loss.
It is time to come to grips with a basic reality: we cannot solve the crisis of lost biodiversity without also solving the crisis of rural poverty and hunger.
Both African wildlife and Africa’s smallholder farmers face a crisis. Wildlife is in danger of extinction: Kenya alone has lost nearly a third of its wildlife population in the last 40 years. Meanwhile, across Africa, unsustainable and low-yielding farming methods drive the conversion of more land to agriculture, even as tens of millions of farmers remain impoverished. Persistent low yields—often just 20% of global averages—make it impossible for farmers to progress out of poverty. Exacerbated by an under-performing agriculture and shrinking land for wildlife, the competition between land for farming and for wildlife is growing, and any opportunities for synergy are at risk of being lost.
Increasing productivity of existing farmlands through sustainable intensification of agriculture can reduce expansion of agriculture on to new lands and reduce deforestation. This is entirely possible.
Over the last 25 years, farmers in more than 20 countries improved food security while maintaining or increasing forest cover.
If Africa’s yields were to rise to current global averages by 2050, which is feasible using existing technologies such as improved seed, irrigation and fertilizers, the continent could feed and clothe itself on less land than is currently farmed. And that could be key to securing the future for wildlife.
Globally leaders are galvanizing action to reverse the loss of wildlife habitats to crop lands and cities as the global population explodes to an anticipated 9 billion by 2050. Until we improve the prospects for farmers who live alongside wildlife, poverty will persist and wildlife will continue its decline. The worlds of wildlife conservation and agricultural development must come together, and direct their intertwined missions to improve prospects for both people and wildlife.