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For more than two millennia farmers have been planting and harvesting crops within the tropical forests of the Western Ghats, a thread of mountains along India’s west coast. Such long-term, continuous farming near forests is unusual, and it’s an exciting dynamic for conservationists looking to protect wildlife and human livelihoods. “Unless native species can survive within agriculture, they stand very little chance at all in the long term,” says ecologist Jai Ranganathan. “Protected areas are simply too few and too isolated, particularly in the tropics, to save more than a small percentage of biodiversity on their own.”
In the Western Ghats, considered among the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems by Conservation International, Ranganathan has seen how farming can support bird protection. He discovered that 90 percent of the 51 forest bird species (including great hornbills and crested serpent-eagles) living in the region’s undisturbed native forests also live in cultivated arecanut palm plantations and other agricultural areas. These estates are a mix of high-value crops, including arecanut—also called betelnut and chewed as a mild stimulant similar to coffee—vanilla, coffee, banana, and fruit trees. The plantation’s forestlike structure with multiple layers below the canopy, in tandem with nearby forests, enables the birds to find sufficient shelter and food.
The healthy birds and habitat are largely due to the role forests play in farming. Traditional farmers collect leaf litter by oxcart in disturbed native forests—where extracting non-timber products is allowed—to prevent soil erosion and to use as mulch on the plantations. “Because these leaves are so essential for cultivation, they provide a strong economic incentive to keep nearby forests as forest,” says Ranganathan. Like the plantations, these disturbed forests also harbor nearly all the same bird species as pristine native forest.
Ultimately, Ranganathan believes, his work and other ongoing studies of coexisting wildlife and agriculture in South and Central America will help better understand the practice, and spread it to biologically rich forests in need of conservation. “We have just scratched the surface,” he says.
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