Zoning farms and forests?

Apparently Jeffrey Sachs and a bunch of food scientists think we should zoning farmland according to the results of scientific assessments. (I don’t have a subscription to Nature, so am having to rely on Richard Black’s blog post.) As with much of what Prof Sachs suggests, it is hard to disagree with the principles he propounds, but I do wonder to what extent these ideas are feasible. In many human affairs the problem is not so much working out what would be the ideal way to manage something, but how to get from where we are (with all the vested interests and established ways) to where we want to get to. Political and social systems are inevitably evolved systems with all the inherent imperfections that kind of heritage implies. Richard Black draws the analogy with city planning, but most major cities in developing countries are largely unplanned, especially in the poorest countries, with development happening far faster than planners can keep up. Indeed unmanageable rules systems may well lead to corruption as being the only way out of the impasse.

Richard Black does point to some encouraging signs in Brazil, although arguably his examples are cases where conservationists have pragmatically surrendered the moral high ground in favour of active engagement with agricultural interests. I applaud the approach, but it is a big leap from such obvious self-interest to enlightened self-restraint when it comes to expanding your farm. As everyone from Brazilian soy-barons to Israeli settlers knows, facts on the ground count for an awful lot, and I fear land grabs will be a menace to conservation for many years to come. It would help, of course, if these land grabs were not encouraged by planning bureaucracies with ungrounded and over-simplified notions of land resources, of which I have seen a few examples at close quarters, and I suppose if Sachs et al’s proposed network of agricultural land research centres can help mitigate this then we should be thankful. But overall, I tend to side with Bill Easterly when it comes to the choice of Planners vs Seekers, and this kind of approach does rather sound like another gigantic planning exercise.

Projects such as Valuing the Arc are, I am sure, daunting technical challenges which should not be underestimated, and the researchers involved will have to use a range of innovative approaches to succeed. But it will take real visionary zeal and political cunning to translate such research into practical action. The research, alas, is usually the easy bit.

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