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The Political Economy of Conservation and Food Security

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Bhaskar Vira is Professor of Political Economy, and Head of Department, at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge. He is a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, and an Honorary Fellow of St John’s College. He was Founding Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, and is a Trustee of the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. In 2018, he was honoured with the Royal Geographical Society’s Busk Medal, in recognition of his contributions to interdisciplinary research on environment and development. In 2021, he was elected as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. Bhaskar’s research examines the ways in which societies engage with land and nature, and the political and economic context within which communities, businesses and policy makers make choices and negotiate trade-offs over alternative resource access and use strategies. He works on the dynamics of societal transformations in contemporary South Asia, especially present and potential futures of agrarian and peri-urban lives and livelihoods. He has contributed extensively to global science policy processes and dialogues in the context of food and agriculture, and Chaired the IUFRO -led Global Forest Expert Panel on Forests and Food.

How do we feed the world and ensure equitable access to nutrition without undermining the planet’s life support systems? How do we reverse the decline of nature and biodiversity while meeting the expected needs of over 9 billion people by the end of this century? These are the challenging questions that lie at the heart of this lecture. Even before the Covid pandemic, the world was moving away from the commitment to end global hunger and malnutrition by 2030; the pandemic has accelerated these trends. At the same time, there is growing evidence of an unprecedented decline in nature since the 1970s, coupled with the projected impacts of climate change, likely to be the most significant driver of biodiversity loss in the next couple of decades. These interconnected global challenges take place in a context of increased pressure on existing land, and the competing demands of diverse groups on a finite resource base. Addressing these needs involves explicitly acknowledging trade-offs, and finding ways to enhance synergies between different objectives. Options that maximise productivity in increasingly specialised landscapes, separating agriculture from conservation, need to be evaluated in comparison with more integrated landscape mosaics, which attempt to simultaneously deliver food production, conservation outcomes and livelihood benefits. These alternatives involve different forms of knowledge, diverse institutional structures, and contrasting structures for governance and decision making. This lecture will explore some of the issues that frame difficult choices over conservation and food security in the twenty first century, and describe recent thinking on strategies to meet these important global objectives.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Lecture Series series.

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