From: Morgan Erickson-Davis, MONGABAY.COM, More from this Affiliate
Published July 6, 2014 10:25 AM

A Fine Line : New Program Predicts When Human Impact Becomes Too Much

Indigenous groups control approximately half of the world’s vegetated areas. As globalization changes the ways in which traditional communities interact with the land on which they live, it is important to be able to predict how the surrounding environment will respond.

Scientists at Stanford University recently unveiled a new modeling program that can predict the response of the environment to the land-use changes of human communities. Using their model, they found that natural resources can support humanity — up to a certain point. They recently published their findings in the journal Environmental Modelling & Software.

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Their model showed that in an area in which food is acquired through mostly hunting and with some cultivating, a human community can remain in-balance with the surrounding environment if it stays within a certain population range.

"Once indigenous populations move outside that [range], the land use rapidly shifts to another state characterized by a much lower forest cover, with negative impacts on both biodiversity and carbon stocks in the vegetation," said Eric Lambin, a professor and senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Lambin and his team developed the model by incorporating many different ecological factors that are known to affect native communities, such as vegetation diversity and deforestation rate. They then projected how changes in these factors would impact the growth rate of communities through food availability. While the actual dynamic between human communities and the environment is more multifaceted and also involves a complex of social factors like education and policy, the researchers believe this initial version of their model will still be useful in predicting land changes.

"This makes it more of a universal model, because all people need calories," said Jose Fragoso, a senior scientist at Stanford and co-developer of the model. "They must meet their daily caloric requirement. If they farm more to do that, then they hunt less, or vice versa. But that drives the system and causes all the changes to occur."

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