Today, across the planet, hundreds of millions of acres of land are being abandoned due to what’s known as rural outmigration, or people leaving for urban centers.
Some people leave their rural lives behind to seek economic prosperity in cities when agriculture is no longer profitable. Others are forced out due to conflict or the effects of climate change. Along with globalization and mechanization, these factors are causing less productive lands to be vacated and more abandoned acres to be accumulated.
You would reasonably think that as people migrate out, both the climate and wildlife populations would have a chance to recover as abandoned farms and pastures revert to forests and grasslands.
But what looks like a great opportunity for nature could also turn into a major threat.
Leaving the lands
The past 50 years have seen an increased exodus of people from rural to urban areas. Today, 55 percent of the world’s population lives in or around cities, and this proportion is expected to expand to up to 68 percent by 2050. The drivers for this depopulation and, consequently, land abandonment are intensifying due to issues such as climate change and the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, for example, has already created new abandonment hot spots.
One effect of this continuous decrease in rural populations is that the land they leave behind leads to a rise in the number of abandoned factories, fields, forestry areas, mines, pastures and even entire human settlements. While it’s unknown what the exact number of abandoned lands around the world is, it’s estimated that it could comprise up to 988 million acres globally, which is an area roughly half the size of Australia. Most of this abandoned land is in the Northern Hemisphere, of which around 289 million acres falls within the former Soviet Union.
To explore how biodiversity is influenced on lands where human activities have ceased—and what this means for conservation efforts and ecological restorations—scientists at the University of Gottingen in Germany took a closer look at abandoned lands around the world. In their findings, which were published in the journal Science in May 2023, the researchers state that land abandonment is a globally important process, and its effect on biodiversity can be positive—or negative.
Weighing the wins
The biggest wins in abandoned lands, say the researchers, are likely to be found in areas that were previously intensively farmed and where biodiversity was low. The first changes that will probably be observed in these types of locations would be the return of birds, invertebrates and plant life that can survive and do well in recently disturbed ecosystems.
If the abandonment of crop fields is coupled with people leaving the area entirely or with wildlife reintroductions, this can lead to rewilding, with the possible return of large herbivores and even carnivores. The authors of this study, however, point out that not all abandoned land will recover without help and that some of the land that was previously intensively farmed will never return to what it once was.
Leveraging the losses
Land abandonment can also have negative impacts in terms of biodiversity, as well as for human cultures and traditions. In areas that have traditionally been used for low-intensity or subsistence farming over a long period of time, for instance, the close ties between the people and the land have created interdependent ecosystems that break down after people move away, thus leading to the loss of locally rare species or the proliferation of only one or two dominant species at the expense of others.
Some of these croplands eventually regenerate into natural habitats, helping both to increase biodiversity and absorb atmospheric carbon. But that is unlikely to happen without policy interventions; and any gains in biodiversity on abandoned land can, unfortunately, be very quickly undone when land is recultivated or repurposed. There is growing pressure to find new industrial uses for abandoned land—such as large-scale solar and wind energy production—often in just over a decade after abandonment.
Because abandonment usually happens out of sight, there is still a lot unknown about the imprint of land abandonment on the planet. Researchers are currently working in Bulgaria, the quickest depopulating country in the world, to determine what types of birds, plants and other life-forms return to villages long after the last house lights have been turned off.
The authors conclude that finding the best use for abandoned lands will involve balancing benefits for conservation, human livelihoods and sustainability. They suggest that biodiversity changes on abandoned lands be included in regional and global assessments, policies and scenarios; and in places where abandoned lands are reused, care should be taken to ensure that economic needs are balanced with conservation and restoration goals.
Healing our hearts
Today, there’s a shifting tide in terms of cultural awareness and interest in environmental issues. Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of the book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, has said that “People have a great longing to be in a right relationship with nature, and they just don’t know how. We’re suffering from a failure of imagination.” She believes that what we can do is imagine ourselves as kinfolk to rather than masters of the universe.
Just the process of restoring the land alone offers a way of achieving a healthier relationship between us and the rest of nature. The way we treat the land is often mirrored in the way we treat each other. We can promote Indigenous and Western knowledge in tandem, giving both science and spirit voice.
If we are to address our biggest challenge in the present, climate change, we’ll need a healthier, more interconnected future. Although we have the science and technology to competently deal with our warming planet, we aren’t putting enough of it into practice. Intellectual know-how isn’t enough. We need to activate our emotional responses to propel us to change. As Aldo Leopold said, “we need poets who are foresters.”
Our relationship with the land needs healing. Restoring abandoned lands—the products of centuries of interactions between nature and people—so that they sustainably support us and our fellow beings at the same time is a good place to start.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,