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Human development was not always destructive

By 10,000 BC, nearly 75 percent of Earth’s land had already been transformed by humans. However, human development was not always at nature’s expense, according to a new study from the University of Queensland.

The researchers analyzed current biodiversity data, and compared this with global maps of population and land use over the past 12,000 years. The results highlight the great care and respect that Indigenous and traditional peoples have shown to nature and the environment.

Professor James Watson said the findings challenge the modern assumption that human development inevitably led to environmental destruction.

“There’s a paradigm among natural scientists, conservationists and policymakers that human transformation of terrestrial nature is mostly recent and inherently destructive,” said Professor Watson. “But lands now characterized as ‘natural,’ ‘intact,’ and ‘wild’ generally exhibit long histories of human use.”

“Even 12,000 years ago, most of Earth’s land had been shaped by humans, including more than 95 percent of temperate lands and 90 percent of tropical woodlands.”

“And, importantly, current global patterns of vertebrate species richness and key biodiversity areas are strongly associated with past patterns of human land use, when compared to current, ‘natural,’ recently-untouched landscapes.”

Professor Watson explained that humans have been intertwined with nature for most of humanity’s existence, and this is critical for how we should plan for conservation in the future.

According to the researchers, the modern world’s biodiversity crisis has been caused by more complicated factors than simple human expansion and development.

“Modern environmental destruction has resulted from the appropriation, colonisation and intensifying use of biodiverse cultural landscapes, long shaped and sustained by prior societies,” said Professor Watson. “As such, we need to harness the knowledge of traditional and Indigenous peoples.”

“We’re in a biodiversity crisis – an enormous extinction event – and lessons learned through millennia of stewardship are, and will be, invaluable. Areas under Indigenous management today are now some of the most biodiverse areas remaining on the planet.”

“Landscapes under traditional low-intensity use are generally much more biodiverse than those governed by high-intensity agricultural and industrial economies.”

“Here in Australia, our Indigenous peoples have lived in sync with incredible biodiversity for the last 50,000 years.”

Professor Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland said the results showed Indigenous collaboration was critical.

“Effective, sustainable and equitable conservation of biodiversity needs to recognise and empower Indigenous, traditional and local peoples and foster their cultural heritage of sustainable ecosystem management,” said Professor Ellis.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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