Cambridge conservation scientist Andrew Balmford helps Mekong River region
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 January 2017
Iliffe Media Ltd
Natural forests are worth more to mankind if left intact. But the pressure for growth in the Mekong River region means that large swathes of it are disappearing. Enter Cambridge conservation scientist Andrew Balmford.
A Cambridge scientist has unveiled a highways strategy for Vietnam and other nations watered by the Mekong river.
It offers hope that 320 million people in the region can have their cake and eat it: that is, as populations grow and cities expand, their road planners could make the best use of croplands and save some of the world’s richest rainforest.
Not bad for a zoologist who started his career with the sex life of an African antelope and who has never done science in south-east Asia.
But the strategy – in the journal PLOS Biology last month – is a new approach that addresses one of the great global challenges: how to feed a planet that will be home to 1.1 billion more people by 2030 and in which biodiversity is being lost at an accelerating rate.
Andrew Balmford, professor of conservation science, and colleagues in the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the World Agroforestry Centre have devised a systematic approach to development and conservation, and then made a theoretical test in a region that has already lost 31 per cent of its forests since 1973.
The reasoning is simple. Natural forests are worth far more to humankind if left intact – in the value of biodiversity, ecosystem services, flood control, climate management, sustainable harvesting and so on – than if cleared for farmland.
But that’s no help to the hungry who live hard by. So enter a new kind of conservation science, constructive and proactive rather than negative and reactive.
“We would still argue that if it looks like real wilderness, probably don’t touch it,” Professor Balmford says. “But we accept that people are going to build more roads and people are going to need more food, and we are better engaging in where that can be applied with the least environmental impact.”
Humans will build 25 million kilometres – 15.5 million miles – of new roads between now and 2050, and two development banks have earmarked $150 billion for the Asia-Pacific region. New highways in the right places could enhance existing agricultural productivity and protect the so-far undamaged natural habitats, while new roads in the wrong places would harm the natural world and still leave people hungry and poor.
Research by other scientists implicitly supports Prof Balmford’s case. A study in the journal Science has shown how devastating roads can be. Four-fifths of the terrestrial landmass is without roads, but this vast area is divided by roads into 600,000 patches, and only seven per cent of these are greater than 100 square kilometres. So roads make any wilderness vulnerable.
A study in December in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences calculated that urban expansion by 2030 could convert two per cent of the world’s cropland. Since this would be prime cropland, that could mean a four per cent loss of yield. So hard thinking is needed.
Prof Balmford, married with two children, was born in the Midlands and graduated from Cambridge. He is one of a generation of conservation scientists working not just on what should be done to save the wild things, but what can be done. He is one of the begetters of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, now 120-strong, and the Cambridge Conservation Forum, a network of 1,000 professionals.
One of his studies proposed that all life on earth could be conserved for just $320billion a year, one quarter of what governments spent on subsidies that damage the environment. Another proposed that the financial benefits of conservation outweigh the rewards of destroying it by a hundredfold.
There have been at least five such rigorous studies.“In every case of any size, conversion did not make sense from the point of view of wider benefits to society as a whole,” he said. “Nevertheless, in every case it did make sense from the point of view of the private flows of services to the people in charge of that conversion. It’s not going to be a global pattern, but I bet it is pretty typical.”
As humans convert more and more wilderness, the benefits of that conversion go down. “They are bound to, because we are smart and converted the most profitable places first,” says Prof Balmford. “The trick is: OK, if society as a whole is better off not converting, how can we make sure that the people who are in charge of that place are also better off for not converting? How can we capture those benefits that you and I get because we have decent atmosphere, better flood regulation or just that feeling in our hearts that there are still tigers on earth? How can we capture those benefits we get and pass a portion of them on to the people who would be paying a price, foregoing an opportunity?”
The Mekong River region: Rich in biodiversity
The Mekong river – at 2,703 miles (4,350km), the world’s 12th longest – runs through Yunnan province in China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The greater Mekong region is home to 20,000 plant species, 2,000 land vertebrates and 850 species of freshwater fish.
The natural habitats are threatened. Paradoxically, most of the damage has been done since peace broke out.
The Vietnam War lasted from 1955 to 1975, and in the final 11 years US planes reportedly dropped more bombs on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos than Allied planes deployed in the entire Second World War.
The jungles were sprayed with toxic defoliant and seared by napalm. But in the decades that followed, the surviving forests of the region astonished biologists with rich discovery, including, in 1992, an antelope entirely new to zoological science.
“Nature is remarkably resilient and thank goodness for that,” says Professor Balmford. “Even though we were burning and bombing people in forests we didn’t clear hundreds of square kilometres of trees completely and turn them into fields.
“nd that is what people have been doing since the end of the Vietnam War, for a very good reason.”
So ploughshares are more dangerous than swords? “That’s what the evidence seems to suggest. It is not surprising: these forests have had elephants wandering around knocking things over, wild rivers, fires, natural disturbance agents. On small scales, they have evolved to be resilient.”