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Wednesday Jan 23, 2013

Money matters most in conserving farmland

A study on the Agulhas Plain has found that a major determining factor for farmers when making decisions around conserving their land is how much money is available.

The study, "Conservation begins after breakfast: The relative importance of opportunity cost and identity in shaping private landholder participation in conservation", was carried out by Beatrice Conradie of UCT, and Martina Treurnicht, Karen Esler and Mirijam Gaertner of Stellenbosch University.

In explaining the title of the study, the researchers said: "When private landholders on the Agulhas Plain in the Cape Floristic Region claim that 'conservation begins after breakfast', they imply that conservation is a luxury which has to wait until the urgent work of farming is done."

The researchers said that if these claims accurately reflected how most farmers predominantly thought about conservation, it meant that participation in conservation was a matter of affordability and forgone income, and was not primarily determined by attitude or identity.

About 70 percent of the land in the Agulhas Plain is owned privately.

The area is part of the Cape Floristic Region and is rich in biodiversity, with 1 751 plant species.

Biodiversity is threatened by agriculture and urbanisation, which have transformed 23 percent of the land, and invasive alien vegetation, which has claimed at least 11 percent of the land and is spreading.

Traditional farming accounts for 42 percent of the average landholder's household income, while 25 percent of income comes from biodiversity business, like fynbos harvesting.

The researchers suggested introducing compensation for landholders where possible to reduce the opportunity cost of participation, but warned that this needed further study.

"Unfortunately, designing the right scheme is not so simple. Many schemes exist the world over, but significant concerns around cost and conservation effectiveness have been raised for most of them, whether they involve compensation for livestock losses or conservation easements as they exist in North America or France."

They concluded that they found opportunity cost variables to matter more than any of the other factors typically used to explain conservation-mindedness.

"These results therefore demonstrate the need to understand a farmer's ability to invest in conservation if private land is going to contribute significantly to conservation targets. The conservation opportunity literature increasingly emphasises opportunity cost as an important determinant of willingness to engage in conservation on private land."

Cape Argus

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