Farmers… and guardians of Europe’s last biodiversity

Explotaciones agrícolas en la campiña toledana. Foto: Raúl Casado (EFE)

They are the crop farmers of La Mancha - one of Europe's least profitable dry areas - and they are also the custodians of a habitat which is home to Europe’s most threatened and vulnerable steppe birds.
 
The long-term survival of these birds will depend to a large extent on the farmers sustaining their work, but to do so they should receive monetary compensation to guarantee the conservation of this vital landscape.
 
Sixty municipalities in La Mancha and hundreds of crop farmers are to join forces on an ambitious European project to ensure their farms are more profitable, at the same time as improving the conservation of these threatened birds.
 
The project “Estepas de La Mancha” (La Mancha Steppes), coordinated by the Global Nature Foundation with participation from Castilla La Mancha Regional Government, is to be extended until 2019 with funding from the European Commission’s Life programme, the only EU funding instrument to be dedicated exclusively to the environment.
 
Crop farmers: essential for land management
 
The initiative is based on the move away from traditional farming methods being one of the main causes of the decline of many species of steppe birds, the importance of adopting sustainable crop and livestock farming practices, and the importance of conserving La Mancha’s distinctive ‘mosaic’ landscape.
 
“You cannot manage land if you don’t work directly with farmers”, said Eduardo de Miguel, director of the Global Nature Foundation, who is critical of the way protected areas such as those in the Natura 2000 network have been set up without the direct involvement of the primary sector.
 
In statements to EFE, De Miguel pointed out that crop and livestock farmers on occasion suffer from “the limitations” of being in a protected area which they do not themselves take part in managing, or they receive “conflicting” information from management, unions, and ecologists; “they don’t know what to do because nobody is giving them adequate information about the benefits Natura 2000 has to offer them”.
 
The European project aims to improve the profitability of crop and livestock farms and reduce their costs, and is being implemented in four zones included in the Natura 2000 network: the northern La Mancha steppe region; the La Mancha Wetlands; Hito Lagoon; and San Clemente.
 
The project aims to improve the conservation of threatened bird species, including the little bustard, the Dupont's lark, the great bustard, and the lesser kestrel, all of which are characteristic of all steppe regions and are included in European directives aiming to ensure the survival of the most valuable species.
 
The least profitable steppes in Europe
 
To do so, the initiative seeks to reduce the use of insecticides or change pest control techniques, but above all it is looking to create a climate of trust amongst crop and livestock farmers and hunters - so they can embrace the fact that conserving the species is not only compatible with different land uses, but can even benefit them both socially and financially.
 
Eduardo de Miguel explained how the average profitability of crops farms in the La Mancha steppe region is lower than other Spanish dry land areas, and “much lower” than the rest of Europe. As such, it is important to achieve higher levels of quality in order to differentiate their produce.
 
In his opinion, CAP support is not enough to make their income equal to dry land farmers in the rest of Europe. This is why he puts forward the idea of higher quality, specifically, “ecological production”, with an emphasis on their farming activities being essential to conserve “the last biodiversity of western Europe”.
 
The head of the Foundation has argued that Europe must understand that if it wants to conserve the last of the steppe bird species on the continent “it needs to pay for it” and guarantee support for farmers who work in Natura 2000 network areas to contribute to the preservation of the birds’ habitat.
 
The project proposes that crop or livestock farmers sign up to “free and voluntary” agreements so they can put into practice agronomic measures allowing them to improve the profitability of their farming: with decreased usage of fertilisers and plant protection products, access to rural development grants, and access to marketing initiatives to differentiate their products.
 
A “Code of Sustainable Production”
 
According to the Global Nature Foundation this is about creating a “code of sustainable production” which identifies crop and livestock farming in La Mancha as having a production system differentiated by the quality of its traditional produce and the primary sector’s involvement in protecting natural values.
 
As well as eliminating risks and threats (the use of insecticides and fertilisers) the project will also work on the regeneration of hedgerows and water points, the restoration or construction of nesting areas for birds, and the planting of over 100,000 plants which contribute to protecting La Mancha’s biodiversity and distinctive landscape, as well as an extensive programme of training, education, and awareness-raising in schools and communities.

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Spread the meaning and values ​​of the Natura 2000 network is the objective of LIFE + " Infonatur 2000 " project , cofinanced by the LIFE financial instrument of EU and coordinated by the Government of Extremadura , and in which the Council of Lerida involved , the Board Tourism Girona- Costa Brava and Agencia.


More informaton about the Natura 2000 network in http://infonatur.gobex.es[13/11/2016]

 

 

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