The dichotomy between productive and preserved landscapes is false, and leads to negative outcomes in both productivity and conservation.
Much ecological philosophy seems to be largely founded on the notion that clear boundaries must exist between territory dedicated to human activity, whether it be productive industry or settlements, and territory dedicated to habitat and wildlife conservation.
According to this thinking, the “best” conservation sites are those where the fewest people are allowed to enter, and where Nature is left untouched to thrive in it’s “purest” form, unencumbered by destructive and burdensome human activity.
The main problem with this kind of thinking is that it fails to take into account human tenacity in the pursuit of productive goals, and assumes an ability for governments or other organizations to stem the tide of economic development, human population pressure and the voracious appetite of global capitalism for growth.
By creating territories by decree, and deciding on to use them in ways that do not immediately address the needs of the surrounding populations, countries and regions, these conservation agreements are set up to fail.
Human animals have evolved within a variety of natural habitats and demonstrated a limitless ability not only to adapt to these environments, but to alter and adapt the environments to their own needs and visions.
There are many examples, both living and ancient, of traditional societies that inhabit natural environments and maintain sustainable production sufficient to provide for what are sometimes large and dense populations while still creating a surplus of wealth for trade.
A great deal (if not arguably all), of traditional knowledge deals with how to live in Nature as humans. While research into exactly when and how the idea cam to be that we exist and grow separately from Nature may be interesting from a historical or academic perspective, the fact remains that this not the actually case. This concept is in fact no longer useful to our survival, and must no longer be allowed to drive our designs and policies moving forward.
The concept of human-free conservation areas, while very appealing, seems based on this outdated mode of understanding. Humans are capable of living in Nature without destroying or upsetting its balance. This statement is true when a community and society draw directly upon their environment for their daily survival, understanding themselves to be a part of it, and living the consequences of their actions on it.
When considering the restoration of devastated landscapes and habitats, it is important to understand that humans and human activity will be a living part of the restored environment. The wealth of ecosystem services and other bounties offered by a thriving ecosystem must be enjoyed and fostered by the human population that live and survive on it. In the end, there are no better caretakers for a landscape than those people whose livelihoods are drawn directly from it, the people who are invested in the ecosystem in every aspect of their lives.