Nature’s matrix: Linking agriculture, conservation and food sovereignty

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An important book argues that conservationists who focus on creating nature preserves are undermining their own cause. To truly protect biodiversity, environmentalists must support the global struggle of peasant farmers for human rights, land, and sustainable agriculture.

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Nature’s Matrix: Linking Agriculture,
Conservation and Food Sovereignty.
The cover painting, by Beatriz, depicts a Zapatista community farm.

An important book argues that conservationists who focus on creating nature preserves are undermining their own cause.

To truly protect biodiversity, environmentalists must support the global struggle of peasant farmers for human rights, land, and sustainable agriculture.


Linking Agriculture, Conservation and Food Sovereignty

by Ivette Perfecto,
John Vandermeer,
and Angus Wright

Earthscan, 2009

reviewed by Ian Angus

In any discussion of biodiversity and species extinction, someone insists that overpopulation is the problem. More people equals more farms equals less wilderness equals more extinctions. Life is a zero-sum game: you can have people and farming OR wildlife and biodiversity, but not both.

For a convincing antidote to such views, I highly recommend Nature’s Matrix, an important book by ecologists Ivette Perfecto, John Vandermeer and Angus Wright. Drawing on their extensive practical experience with conservation and agriculture in Central America and the Amazon, combined with recent research in ecology and agronomy, they propose a radical “new paradigm” for conservation, a strategy based on powerful evidence that preserving biodiversity is inseparable from the growing struggle of peasant farmers for human rights, land, and sustainable agriculture.

The issue is not how many people there are, but what the people do: some forms of agriculture destroy life, others preserve and expand it. Only by strengthening the social forces that support biodiversity-friendly farming can we hope to slow or reverse what’s being called the Sixth Extinction, a global species annihilation comparable to the death of the dinosaurs.

A doomed strategy

The orthodox approach to protecting biodiversity was expressed recently by David Attenborough, the well-known broadcaster and naturalist who is also a patron of the UK-based World Land Trust. In a letter to WLT supporters, Attenborough wrote:

“On the reserves purchased through donations to the Trust, which are expertly managed by its overseas partners, permanent protection is in place. Buying land for conservation is the most direct and certain road to conservation and in doing so WLT is ensuring that at least some of our wilderness, and its biodiversity, survives.”

Most conservation groups follow that approach: they try to protect biodiversity and limit species extinctions by creating wilderness reserves where human activity is limited or banned. Often they literally erect fences and pay armed guards to prevent intrusions, even by people whose ancestors lived on the land for millennia. What happens outside the reserves is only relevant if it threatens to impinge on the pristine environment where nature is protected from people.

Nature’s Matrix argues convincingly that such a focus on creating protected areas is a doomed strategy that actually harms biodiversity, increasing the likelihood of extinctions.

This is so for three reasons.

First, most tropical landscapes are not exclusively untouched or exclusively farmed. The most common pattern is a complex matrix with fragments of forest separated by a variety of farms, as this aerial photograph illustrates.

A fragmented landscape near Campo Grande, Brazil. Darker areas are remnants of natural vegetation embedded in a heterogeneous agricultural matrix

Despite the sincerity and hard work of conservationists, nature preserves will never represent more than a small fraction of biodiversity-rich areas.

“Even as the world struggles to protect the few remaining large areas of tropical habitats from further exploitation, we must acknowledge that a large fraction has already been exploited and that perhaps most of the world’s biodiversity is located not in those few remaining protected natural areas, but in the far more extensive landscapes in which thousands of islands of natural habitat exist in a matrix of myriad agricultural activities.” (31)

“If a minimum of 50 per cent of the world’s surface is covered in managed ecosystems, and if managed ecosystems contain even a small fraction of the biodiversity contained in unmanaged ecosystems, ignoring them will be counterproductive, to say the least.” (20)

Second, within natural habitats, even large ones, local extinctions are normal and inevitable. “Each subpopulation faces a certain likelihood of extinction. Accumulated evidence is overwhelming that extinctions, at this local subpopulation level, are ubiquitous.” (6) Local populations must be constantly reinforced by migrations from other areas. “As long as the migration rate balances the extinction rate, the population will survive over the long run.” (196) If migration is blocked or seriously inhibited, eventually all of the local populations will disappear and the species will be extinct.

Some kinds of agriculture block such migration, others facilitate it.

“There is now little doubt that isolating fragments of natural vegetation in a landscape of low-quality matrix, like a pesticide-drenched banana plantation, is a recipe for disaster from the point of view of preserving biodiversity. It is effectively reducing the migratory potential that is needed if the metapopulations of concern are to be conserved in the long run.” (Nature’s Matrix, p. 5)

Third, the focus on creating preserves ignores the biodiversity that exists in farmed areas. “Many conservationists think of agriculture as the defining feature of biodiversity loss. The world gets divided into those areas untouched or minimally touched by Homo sapiens as contrasted to those areas ‘despoiled’ by human activity.” (18)

That view is simply wrong. It is not the existence of agriculture, but the type of agriculture, that determines whether biodiversity is preserved: “some types of agro-ecosystems contain great amounts of biodiversity while others contain virtually none at all.” (204)

What kind of agriculture is most likely to produce a high-quality matrix? The intuitively obvious answer is confirmed by research.

“Large-scale production of bananas, sugar cane, tea, technified coffee and cacao, soybeans, cotton, pastures, and others are notorious for their environmental unfriendliness. Small-scale farmers with their usually mixed farming techniques applying, either by conviction or necessity, organic-like and environment-friendly techniques, square far more obviously with the emerging concept of a high-quality matrix.” (209-10)

The authors aren’t naïve: they recognize that traditional farming isn’t always sustainable, and that some of what poses as organic farming is little different from industrial farming. Nor do they suggest that a single model applies everywhere: the most sustainable forms of agriculture depend on the farmers’ detailed knowledge of local conditions and their ability to adapt as conditions change. Nevertheless, experience and research show that a combination of traditional knowledge and the latest agro-ecological research can produce results that are biodiversity-friendly while producing as much food as high-input industrial farms.

A new paradigm

Unlike most books on environmental issues, Nature’s Matrix doesn’t limit itself to a description of the problem and pious wishes that “political will” for change will somehow emerge. Instead it asks what social forces can be mobilized to change the dominant agricultural model.

Clearly, we cannot expect change to come from the corporations that profit from ever-increasing use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers. Likewise, the giant food growers and processors whose empires depend on monocrop plantations are no friends of biodiversity – nor are the governments and international agencies that do their bidding.

But a countervailing force is growing.

“In many developing countries the small farmers and the landless are organizing and demanding access to land and their right to a decent livelihood. These farmers’ organizations, increasingly organized under the banner of food sovereignty, sustainable agriculture and biodiversity conservation, are an integral component of the discourse.” (129)

Using examples from the Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST), Mexico’s Zapatistas, and others, Nature’s Matrix argues that the fight for biodiversity-friendly farming is inseparably linked to the growing international movement of small farmers against neoliberal agricultural policies and for what the umbrella organization Via Campesina calls food sovereignty – “the conjoining of the rights of people to consume food to the rights of people to produce their own food.” (207)

Protest organized by La Via Campesina
and Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST)

“If the phenomenal rise in rural grass roots social movements continues, it is here that the future of rural landscapes will be determined. Since it is the agriculture in the matrix that is key to the overall conservation agenda, as we have argued, the social movements that form the basis for the future organization of that agriculture become key players in the overall conservation agenda. The Via Campesina, with its philosophy of food sovereignty, agro-ecology and conservation of natural resources, offers an excellent example of where conservation energy should be placed at the present time.” (133-4)

Instead of working with local elites and governments, conservationists must ally with and support the social movements that can actually carry through agrarian revolutions. They must adopt a “new paradigm” ―

“a reorientation of conservation activities, away from a focus on protected areas and towards the sustainability of the larger managed landscape; away from large landowners and towards small farmers; away from the romanticism of the pristine and towards the material quality of the agricultural matrix, nature’s matrix. At the centre of this new paradigm is the urgent need for social and environmental justice, without which the conservation of biodiversity ultimately becomes an empty shibboleth.(10)

The conservation strategy outlined in Nature’s Matrix “gives preference to more progressive political struggles for land rights over traditional lobbying for set-aside reserves of inviolate nature.” (211) It rejects blaming species extinctions on birth rates in poor countries, instead identifying the poorest people in those countries as allies. The authors conclude:

“This new paradigm carries with it normative consequences. It suggests that conservation activities need to interact with the rural masses and their social movements more than with wealthy donors. Indeed, we suggest : that these new rural social movements hold the key to real biodiversity conservation. Joining the worldwide struggle of millions of small-scale farmers clamouring for food sovereignty is more likely to yield long-term biodiversity benefits than buying a patch of so-called ‘pristine’ forest.” (213)

Some may call that conclusion utopian, but what’s truly unrealistic is the belief that small islands of biodiversity can somehow survive in rising oceans of industrial agriculture. Without an agro-ecological revolution, the Sixth Extinction cannot be stopped – and without the active involvement of mass peasant movements, the agrarian transformation cannot succeed.

Perfecto, Vandermeer and Wright have written a powerful social and scientific critique of current conservationist policies, and have outlined the basis for a radical alternative. Nature’s Matrix should be read and heeded by everyone who is concerned about the survival of life on earth.

Ian Angus is editor of Climate and Capitalism, and co-author, with Simon Butler, of Too Many People? Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis

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  • Before criticising the World Land Trust, I suggest the reviewer actually checks what we do. Taking a small part of David Attenborough’s letter (to potential donors) out of context does not reflect reality at all. The last three major land purchases made by the in-country partners of WLT, using funds we have provided, have all involved transferring title to indigenous communities. The WLT is not a promoter of Wilderness as an end in itself, we promote community involvement in all conservation areas. More recently, and not yet published, we have been working with anthropologists to ensure that the aspirations of local communities are taken into account, and are an integral part of the planning process for wildlife conservation.There is plenty of information on our website, and I hope that any potential critics read about what we actually do, before making ill-informed claims. I haven’t read the book in question yet, but I hope the authors have experience of actually doing things. I do get a bit bored by books written by theoreticians and academics — it’s difficult doing anything in some parts of South America, and we believe some of the recent achievements set a new paradigm, and we hope the model can be extended elsewhere Nonetheless, we would still welcome criticism, preferably based on what we and our partner organisation actually do, not what someone THINKS we do.

    John Burton CEO

    • John, I agree that people should learn what WLT actually does. You might set an example, by responding to what my review actually says, rather than what you fear it says. How you and other preservationist groups treat indigenous people is a very important matter, but that is not the subject of my review or of Nature’s Matrix.

      I used the quote from David Attenborough (which doesn’t mention indigenous people) simply to illustrate the approach followed by hundreds upon hundreds of organizations like yours. I could replace it with many other quotes that say exactly the same thing. For example, from the WLT’s “About” page:

      “What is the World Land Trust? The World Land Trust (WLT) is an international conservation charity, which protects the world’s most biologically important and threatened habitats acre by acre.”

      Nature’s Matrix calls that a “doomed strategy” — trying to protect biodiversity by creating protected habitats. That approach doesn’t stop extinctions within the reserves, it fails to address the important areas of biodiversity, and it ignores the social movements that “hold the key to real biodiversity conservation.”

      I hope you will read Nature’s Matrix. it’s an important book written by experts with extensive hands-on experience, and it challenges sincere conservationists (and I include WLT in that) to adopt a new approach that can actually achieve your stated goals.

    • Your review states “Most conservation groups follow that approach: they try to protect biodiversity and limit species extinctions by creating wilderness reserves where human activity is limited or banned. Often they literally erect fences and pay armed guards to prevent intrusions, even by people whose ancestors lived on the land for millennia. What happens outside the reserves is only relevant if it threatens to impinge on the pristine environment where nature is protected from people.”

      The WLT does not do that, nor does it fund its partner organisation to do it. I would also like to have a list of the hundreds of organisations like ours. I have worked in conservation and wildlife field, for half a century, and one of the reasons I helped found the WLT was that few other organisations were doing what we now do, and none were totally dedicated to the process we adopt.

      My point really is that is seems strange to to pick on one of the relatively few organisations that are actually trying to change the conventional paradigm. As I wrote, constructive criticism of what we are actually doing is certainly welcome. Bearing in mind that very few organisations are actually DOING anything, and there is far to much research, lobbying and campaigning with reams of publications, but with virtually nothing achieved. What have we done, to deserve being grouped with those who “try to protect biodiversity and limit species extinctions by creating wilderness reserves where human activity is limited or banned?” What we and our partners have achieved is very little indeed in the big scheme, but at least it is something. I agree it will not save a huge amount of biodiversity. But is will help some. Biodiversity corridors, and not the only answer, but they are a good start, that’s why we are concentrating efforts in many areas. And the US -style wilderness concept is certainly not an answer for most of the world. But there are some places where it is viable.

      Let me know what we are doing wrong, and I will see if we disagree. But please do not suggest or imply we “erect fences and pay armed guards to prevent intrusions”. Yes, when illegal loggers enter lands owned and protected by a local community and steal timber, we expect our partner organisations to help defend those rights (unarmed) and as a result their HQ was fire-bombed last week by almost certainly by illegal loggers.

      I hope to get round to reading the book, but from what little I have gleaned so far, it strongly suggests that we are working very much along the lines they advocate. But that is based on an unread guess.

      • You are so eager to defend your organization’s method of creating and protecting nature preserves that you miss the substantive argument — that nature preserves, no matter how they are managed, are a “doomed strategy” that does not protect diversity and detracts from activities that do.

        • May be they are a doomed strategy, as you suggest. But at least we are doing something, and in the short-term this may supply a bridge until someone comes up with a better strategy, that can actually be implemented. I am not concerned about the political arguments, I believe that action is what is needed. And quite how creating reserves (whether or not extractive or protective) actually detracts from biodiversity conservation is difficult for me to understand. And of course I am going to defend what we do, I have been developing and implementing these methods for many years, and until someone demonstrates a better way that can actually be implemented, it’s a tool that should be used. I certainly don’t believe that any one method of conserving biodiversity is right, like diversity itself, the more varied the ways, the better chance of success. But while we continue to have an over-exploitive growth-based economy, fuelled by greed, habitats are being destroyed at such an alarming rate (over 1000 acres a day in Paraguay alone), any action to slow the destruction down must in some way help conserve biodiversity.

  • Great review, Ian. I know Perfecto and Vandermeer from my time at UO and they are excellent scholar/activists. I look forward to reading this new book. Others might be interested in an earlier book of theirs, Breakfast of Biodiversity: The Political Ecology of Rain Forest Destruction

  • We humans  are an expression of Nature. Starting at least 10,000 years ago with the agricultural revolution we started, with our annual grain crops, behaving in a way that unconsciously exploited our source, Nature, rather than working in harmony with it, and that continues to this day. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot work in total harmony with Nature if we set our minds to  it. Wes Jackson in his book ‘Consulting the Genius of the Place’ give some pointers as to how we might do this beginning with agriculture.