What's new about old fields? Land abandonment and ecosystem assembly.

Cramer, VA; Hobbs, RJ; Standish, RJ.

Cramer etal. survey the “biotic and abiotic legacies” of agricultural cultivation to identify three distinct scenarios of plant community assembly and restoration of abandoned fields: those that assemble along a broadly repeatable successional trajectory, those that assemble along a novel and/or delayed successional trajectory, and those that remain in a persistent degraded state, with little assembly towards an historiral or natural state.

The value of this article lies in the fact that, as the authors argue, “old fields provide not only interesting case studies for ecological theory and restoration ecology but an important challenge for the practice of ecological restoration now and into the future.” (104) Both aspects come as a consequence of “the growing trend of abandonment of agricultural land worldwide” (ibid.) that creates fertile ground for the activities of restoration ecologists and land managers (pun most definitely intended).

The fundamental weakness with this article is the complete neglect of the other side of the “abandonment” coin, viz., the global land grab that is currently taking place. Intensive agriculture is not diminishing its extension through abandonment, but in fact growing more extensive as more and more diversified small farmers are driven (by violent economic and political forces) to rural or urban wage labor instead. The “future challenge” that Cramer etal. recognize, therefore, cannot limit itself to the “restoration of old fields” but must encompass the entire agricultural production system and its shifting spatiality that acts as the fundamental determinant of what ecologists and land managers consider “proper objects” of management, conservation, and/or restoration.

Gustavo Oliveira

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