Balancing trade-offs between land-use policy objectives

Exploring options in an abandoned agricultural project in Kalimantan

Farmers at work in an Indonesian rice field. The Mega Rice Project aimed to help grow the economy, create employment and alleviate poverty for men and women. Unfortunately, the many other values of the peat swamp it replaced were discounted. (Photo by Josh Estey.)

Farmers at work in an Indonesian rice field. The Mega Rice Project aimed to help grow the economy, create employment and alleviate poverty for men and women. Unfortunately, the many other values of the peat swamp it replaced were discounted. (Photo by Josh Estey.)

Conservation and economic paradigms are shifting. In decades past it seemed fine to dedicate land to either conservation or production. But more recently we realise that this is inadequate to save all biodiversity, particularly where we want and need it. We live in a world of complexity and competing objectives: multiple stakeholders, multiple uses of the same land and multiple goals (effectiveness, efficiency and equity). Given this complexity, why, where, and how do we best conserve nature?

We’ve been working on a few different ways to understand how policy choices can impact multiple objectives, and we’ve been using a globally important case study region – the abandoned Mega Rice Project in Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.

Rehabilitating a mistake

In 1996 the Mega Rice Project set out to transform an area of tropical peat forest in Kalimantan into a rice producing region. It was part of an agricultural self-sufficiency program which, against the advice of agricultural experts, was rushed forward. Within two years almost one million hectares of tropical lowland peat forest had been cleared, over 4000 km of canals were carved out of the peat, and thousands of families were translocated to the region. The venture largely failed to meet its agricultural objectives, and the environmental damage it inflicted was exacerbated by droughts associated with an extreme El Nino event in 1998. The tinder-dry degraded peatland suffered extensive fires, sending large volumes of haze throughout south east Asia, and releasing massive quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (see the story ‘For peat’s sake’).

The project region is now the focus of a global effort to reduce carbon emissions, with concurrent goals of reducing poverty through agricultural development, while also conserving and rehabilitating the biodiversity that’s left. This includes securing a future for charismatic threatened primates such as the Bornean Orang-utan. The region is also a focus for widespread oil-palm development, and ongoing (albeit currently illegal) forestry activities.

How do you manage all these expectations? How do you sustain the different environmental values (real and potential) embedded in this landscape? A first step towards sustainable management is to understand the spatial distributions of the various environmental values. However, different stakeholders often perceive these values in different ways.

For effective, efficient, and equitable management these local-scale trade-offs will need to be carefully considered in future land-use planning.

Measurement matters in managing landscape carbon

In Law et al. (2015a), we explored the implications (for carbon, biodiversity, and development) of different methods used to estimate carbon stocks and flows. There are many ways to conceptualise and measure carbon dynamics in landscapes. One of the easiest methods is to estimate carbon stock in the visible part of the forest (above ground). However, this does not necessarily correspond directly to carbon in above and below ground biomass, nor stocks that include stores in soil, or the potential for sequestration and carbon emissions mitigation in the future.

We found the commonly used metrics of above-ground biomass are not an adequate surrogate for emission dynamics in the Ex Mega Rice Project Region. Further, current regulation that limits development on peatland, while perhaps avoiding further catastrophic loss, may fail to encourage the restoration this area badly needs. Our discussion in this paper highlights that the most appropriate carbon proxy may not be the most accurate one, but rather the one that best incentivizes positive actions in suitable locations.

Identifying trade-offs between ecosystem services

Some of the landscapes we are focussing on are being managed to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. These landscapes need to be managed for multiple social, economic and environmental goals (see A modular approach to REDD+). In Law et al. (2015b) we quantified and mapped key (policy-relevant) ecosystem-service values, and evaluated the expected outcomes of four future land-use scenarios in the study region. We found that these prospective land-use plans should see considerable improvements on current land use.

That’s good, but our analysis identified several potential trade-offs that decision makers need to keep in mind. For example, oil-palm development may push smallholder agriculture into low-productivity areas, and therefore negatively impact on the livelihood opportunities for local people, as well as on biodiversity and carbon outcomes. This highlights that for effective, efficient, and equitable management these local-scale trade-offs will need to be carefully considered in future land-use planning for the region.

Finding effective policy strategies

By simulating the impact of different land-use policies, we can estimate potential outcomes and highlight where we may anticipate conflicts. In Law et al. (2015c,d) we focused on two alternative strategies of land-sharing and land-sparing, which both aim to improve biodiversity and production across the landscape. Land sparing involves maximising production in parts of the landscape in order to spare other parts of the landscape which can be devoted to non-production values like biodiversity conservation. Land sharing involves reducing the intensity of production across the landscape to make it more suitable for non-production values, in other words sharing the land to multiple values. Land-sharing and land-sparing provide a simple but realistic contrast of strategies embodied in agricultural and environmental policies currently applied in landscapes around the world.

The relative benefits and shortcomings of the two approaches have recently been the focus of considerable debate. However, the strength and therefore preference for either approach is heavily dependent on specific context where they are applied. This makes it very difficult to generalise: what works best in long standing agricultural regions of temperate Europe may not be the best option in the forest frontiers in tropical Indonesia. Complicating matters further, few studies have looked at both ecological and economic objectives over the entire landscape. In Law et al. (2015c) we developed a simple model of land-sharing and sparing to test the influence of contextual variables. While past debate has focussed mainly on species types (whether they are sensitive or tolerant to agriculture), we show that the preference for either strategy also depends heavily on the amount of land currently in agriculture, the types of crops considered, how non-agricultural land is managed, and how strongly policies are applied. We also find an influence of the way objectives are framed (whether main objective is to maximise biodiversity or agricultural production), and how decisions are made (whether or not losses are tolerated). Overall, this study shows that even simplified policy decisions can be complex.

Micro dams are being constructed as part of the rehabilitation of degraded peatland. (Photo by Josh Esty)

Micro dams are being constructed as part of the rehabilitation of degraded peatland. (Photo by Josh Esty)

Analysing strategies in complex landscapes

In Law et al. (2015d) we explored the implications of land sparing vs land sharing for the Ex Mega Rice Project region. This was the first study to assess the value and preference for land-sharing and land-sparing policies over a real (complex) landscape, including consideration of multiple ecosystem services and multiple stakeholder values. We assessed outcomes from land-sharing and land-sparing policies, when applied to four alternative land-use plans for the region.

We found that no plan or policy scenario assessed could satisfy all stakeholder targets. While some plans did pretty well, the remaining conflicts would potentially derail any advances made. Further, our analysis suggested that despite incremental improvement, neither land-sharing nor sparing would provide substantial benefits additional to that obtained from better land-use allocation from the outset. We hope these results will spur attention to the continued improvement of land-use plans for the region.

In particular, these results beg the question: Is simultaneous achievement of all stakeholder targets even possible in this region? And if land uses could be optimised for each strategy, which would give the best outcomes?

Stay tuned – this question will be answered in an upcoming paper, which uses some super-exciting new developments for the Marxan software family!

Rattan weaving, a traditional craft generating income for the local people. Land-use planning of the Ex Mega Rice Project region needs to meet multiple objectives including providing livelihoods for local stakeholders. (Photo by Josh Estey)

Rattan weaving, a traditional craft generating income for the local people. Land-use planning of the Ex Mega Rice Project region needs to meet multiple objectives including providing livelihoods for local stakeholders. (Photo by Josh Estey)

More info: Elizabeth Law


*Law EA, Bryan BA, Torabi N, Bekessy SA, McAlpine CA & Wilson KA (2015a). Measurement matters in managing landscape carbon. Ecosystem Services 13: 6-15.

Law EA, Bryan BA, Meijaard E, Mallawarachchi T, Struebig M, Wilson KA (2015b). Ecosystem services from a degraded peatland of Central Kalimantan: implications for policy, planning, and management. Ecological Applications 25: 70-87.

*Law EA, and Wilson KA. (2015c). Providing context for the land-sharing and land-sparing debate. Conservation Letters

*Law EA, Meijaard E, Bryan BA, Mallawarachchi T, Koh LP, Wilson KA (2015d). Better land-use allocation outperforms land sparing and land sharing approaches to conservation in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Biological Conservation 186: 276-286.

* Available open access.

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