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Minimising the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in an intact landscape under risk of rapid agricultural development

The Llanos (savannahs) of the Orinoco region in Colombia are one of the most important reservoirs of biodiversity in the Neotropics. The country has recently emerged from 50 years of civil conflict after a peace treaty was signed in 2016 between the government and the dominant militia group. This treaty has opened economic opportunities in under developed lands that were previously off-limits. The Orinoquia is one of these main regions, and is now targeted for agricultural expansion. Without adequate information to help guide future land use planning decisions, the region is as risk of losing massive amounts of biodiversity and ecosystem services. We created a novel, spatially explicit, land use planning framework using mathematical optimisation. Our framework considers different, competing economic-environment objectives (agricultural production value, biodiversity conservation, ecosystem service retention) when land use change is inevitable in an intact landscape. We use it to:

  • Assess the implications of the conversion of native vegetation to agriculture
  • Find the best and worst case scenario and everything in between (in other words, describingthe trade-offs) between competing objectives

We used the framework to quantify the consequences of different thresholds of conversion of the region to agriculture. We found that production value is associated with loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. For example, when 20% of the landscape is converted, on average agricultural production value is $8,031 million USD per year, but leads to a mean increase of 7.65 local species extinctions, the loss of 12.3% of each ecosystem, the loss of 1.78 million tonnes of soil carbon and the loss of 70.83 trillion litres of water per year. Once it is has been decided how much area will be converted to agriculture (the most important decision), it is possible to minimise loss of environmental values using our framework. We identified planning solutions that perform well across all objectives simultaneously, despite the trade-offs among them. Through our analysis we provide an evidence base to inform proactive planning for environmentally sensible agricultural development policy and practice in the region. Our framework can be applied to
any relatively intact environment that is being opened up for development, where minimising loss of core environmental values is a key objective.

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