Human Impacts on Land Determined Whether Communities Survived or Failed

First Posted: Jan 28, 2016 09:31 AM EST

What impacts are humans having on land? Researchers have conducted a 10-year project to study the long-term effects that humans have on land, which may also reveal why communities survive or fail.

Humans have been working the land to sustain our lives for millennia, cultivating plants or herding animals. This has created socio-ecological systems and landscapes that are a produce of both human actions and natural forces.

In this latest study, the researchers looked at the impacts of humans and the consequences for communities whose livelihoods depend on the land. This latest research has led to some surprising reasons why communities survive or fail.

The researchers combined computer modeling with field research in order to understand how human and natural forces, like climate, began to interact to create socio-ecological landscapes, like terraced fields, orchards and pastures found throughout the Mediterranean today. More specifically, the researchers focused on small-holder farmers or herders, which still comprise more than 70 percent of the world's food producers.

The researchers found that there are thresholds in the impacts of arming that separate success from failure. Farmers and herders can find a balance in working the land that keeps it productive. But as communities grow they pass unforeseen thresholds where the land-use practices that once allowed them to thrive began to destroy the productivity of the land that supported them.

"What happens is when the population starts to grow the people who are 50/50 expand operations, but then they have dramatic crashes and sometimes never recover," said Michael Barton, one of the researchers, in a news release. "It looks like people who are half and half farming and herding are not practicing a sustainable way of life over the long term. It also explains why the world is divided into people who produce our food by mostly farming and who do it mostly by herding."

The research also showed how long-term small scale farming practices affect large scale, long-term environmental change in the Mediterranean

"This work has helped us differentiate between environmental changes driven by climate and environmental changes driven by human land use," said Barton. "We are finding that there may be really strong signatures where the impact of landscape change occurs and they seem to be affected differently by human activity or by climate change."

The findings are published in the journal Anthropocene.

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