Exploring the Perspectives of Indigenous Peoples and Rural Communities in the Debate on ‘Land Sparing vs Land Sharing’

Conclusions of an International Workshop, 3-6 June 2013, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Ban Hin Lad NaiThe Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research (PAR) and Indigenous Knowledge and Peoples Network (IKAP) convened a workshop to explore the issues raised by the ‘land sparing’ versus ‘land sharing’ debate from the perspectives of those who depend on and sustain agrobiodiversity. A key feature of the workshop was that it brought together scientists and representatives of indigenous groups, NGOs and farmers from around the world in an inclusive process in which over half the participants were from indigenous communities.

The land sparing versus land sharing debate has been framed as a choice between two alternative approaches to conserving biodiversity while feeding the worlds’ growing population. Land sparing advocates the intensification of agricultural production on already-converted land to spare biodiversity-rich habitats, whereas land sharing or wildlife-friendly farming calls for the integration of conservation and agriculture.

Limitations of the debate

The workshop concluded that the current framing of the debate was over-simplified, involved unrealistic assumptions and reflected a failure to take account of the realities involved in land use and land management systems and of trends in global agricultural production. It identified a number of limitations in many of the contributions to the current debate:

  1. In reality, land management decisions are rarely based on an analysis of trade-offs between yield and biodiversity. The complex social and economic forces that determine land use change and management practices are not reflected in the debate.
  2. Agricultural intensification does not necessarily protect biodiversity. Intensive agriculture, driven by increasing global demand for meat, biofuels and other products, is a major (if not the major) cause of continued deforestation in the tropics. The production practices associated with intensive agriculture remain major causes of habitat degradation and biodiversity loss.
  3. Intensive agricultural production practices based on a continuing and increasing dependence on external inputs (e.g. chemical fertilizers, pesticides, water, artificial feeds supplements and antibiotics) are unsustainable and need to be altered. The need to develop more sustainable agricultural systems is widely acknowledged.
  4. Intensification has failed to provide food security. Current food production systems, with an emphasis on continuing intensification, fail to meet world food needs. Nearly a billion people lack food security and remain hungry, while globally 40% of food is lost or ends up as waste.
  5. The debate largely fails to address the realities of the rural communities and indigenous peoples who have long inhabited areas that are the subject of decisions on sparing or sharing and whose ancestral and legal rights, role in conserving agricultural and wild biodiversity and demands for increased control over their land use management and food production systems continue to be ignored.
  6. Biodiversity conservation practices need to take many different forms to adequately secure ecosystems and species’ populations, and to secure continued delivery of ecosystem services. Different areas of different sizes under different management practices are required both for the survival of important species and for the provision of key ecosystem functions such as pollination.
  7. Agrobiodiversity, which contributes to resilience and sustainability of agro-ecosystems, has been largely ignored in the debate. This diversity which has been maintained by farmers, pastoralists, fisher folk and forest dwellers for millennia remains a key element in the livelihood strategies of the small scale farmers who produce and gather an estimated 70% of the food in the developing world.
  8. The debate takes little account of the importance of embedding resilience and adaptability into both food production and biodiversity conservation efforts. Change, particularly climate change, is likely to have profound effects both on the nature and the locations of areas most suited for natural conservation and agricultural production.

Moving the debate forward

As the debate intensifies and policies and investments are made with respect to land sparing or land sharing alternatives, there remain gaps in knowledge or unsubstantiated assumptions of what is the actual situation on the ground with people, landscapes and ecosystems. The Workshop drew attention to the importance of expanding and continuing investigations, research and analyses. It emphasized the need for the adoption of participatory and trans-disciplinary approaches that will be relevant to rural communities’, farmers’ and indigenous peoples’ decisions over land use and that can also provide the knowledge needed to support the global integration of food security and biodiversity conservation. Such work should explore:

  • Changes in land use and the nature of the decision-making processes involved, particularly in areas of the world where high levels of biodiversity and agrobiodiversity are found;
  • The links between rural communities and natural environments such as forests, wetlands and rangelands and their contribution to the management and protection of natural areas as part of landscape management strategies;
  • The contribution of biodiversity to sustainability and ecosystem function in agricultural systems, and the interactions between production and natural ecosystems;
  • The ways in which biodiversity can contribute to adaptability and resilience of ecosystems including agricultural, pastoral, forest and aquatic;
  • The challenge of improving food security and nutrition and securing food sovereignty in the context of biodiversity conservation and use.

Follow-up activities

The workshop agreed to seek to implement a number of specific follow up activities to bring the experiences from indigenous peoples, civil society and other groups into the debate and improve the knowledge available on key topics. These activities include:

  • A description of the practices, approaches and methods that are used in the decisions made by communities, farmers, and indigenous peoples with respect to land sharing or sparing;
  • The collection and compilation of experiences from coastal to mountainous areas, from drylands to rainforests, which have not been captured or considered in the debate;
  • The creation of an ongoing dialogue to support the further development of a more collaborative and participatory process in the debate which can strengthen the collaboration between the scientific community and those affected by decisions on land sparing or sharing.


The Karen people from Maelankhan and Ban Hin Lad Nai who provided the hospitality and space to debate and reflect on these issues in their lands and The Christensen Fund for their financial support.