Conservation can sometimes seem like an amorphous, nebulous, unattainable goal. One school of thought believes the goal of conservationists is to restore abused land to primary forest. They argue this is the best and fastest way to see results. This may be fast on a per site basis, but land conversion can be slow and--especially if you're just a few people-- it’s hard to get it to catch on around the world. Another school of thought (spearheaded by Ivette Perfecto, John Vandermeer, and colleagues) believes that we need a grander paradigm shift if conservation is going to happen on a global scale. Instead of presenting human land use as essentially at odds with conservation (viewing conservation success as nature at its most pristine), these conservationists argue that humans can be part of nature if we change the way we use land. Specifically, we need to change agricultural practices on a large scale, and especially in the tropics, if we wish to conserve biodiversity. This latter school of thought is based on both theory and empirical research that show that rustic forms of agriculture, such as shade coffee and cabruca cacao, can actually maintain nearly equal levels of [animal] biodiversity compared with pristine forest.
My first three dissertation chapters are focused on the intersection of landscape modification (habitat fragmentation) with disease susceptibility. The underlying hypothesis that I am attempting to test is that as populations become fragmented, they become more susceptible to disease. After attending meetings of the New World Agriculture and Ecology Group (NWAEG) as well as a few joint lab meetings of the Perfecto and Vandermeer ("Perfectomeer") research groups at U. Michigan, I started to wonder about the true usability of this research in conservation. I became interested in not just looking at fragmentation as a binary variable (fragmented versus not), but in examining the effects on wildlife of different types of habitat modification (rustic landuse vs. intensive agriculture vs. pristine forest). So I decided to go to the epicenter of rustic farming and cacao capital of Brazil: Bahia.
[Read more on the James Lab Brazil blog]