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María Fe Schmitz, Cristina Herrero-Jáuregui

Cultural Landscape Preservation and Social–Ecological Sustainability

Sustainability 13: 2593 2021

DOI: 10.3390/su13052593


Cultural landscapes are the result of social–ecological processes that have co-evolved throughout history, shaping high-value sustainable systems. They are an interface between nature and culture, characterized by the conservation and protection of ecological processes, natural resources, landscapes, and cultural biodiversity. The adaptation to the environment and the social–ecological resilience of cultural landscapes depends, to a great extent, on the transmission of culture associated with the so-called traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of recognized importance in the sustainable use of natural resources and the conservation of ecological processes and biodiversity. Therefore, the conservation of naturalness and culturalness must be considered together within the socioecological framework of biocultural heritage, which requires adequate protection and management. The current processes of global change, such as agricultural intensification, rural abandonment, urban sprawl, and socioeconomic dynamics, are threatening cultural landscapes worldwide. Even though this loss is often unstoppable because of rapid and irreversible social–ecological changes, there are also examples where rational protection measures can preserve cultural landscapes while promoting the sustainability of social–ecological systems. In Europe, significant efforts have been made in recent decades to preserve TEK and cultural landscapes. However, not all conservation policymaking processes consider the value of cultural landscapes, which makes their preservation even more difficult. Indeed, protected areas (PAs) designed to safeguard remaining habitats and species represent the cornerstone of conservation efforts, and their effectiveness can range from areas with inclusive and adaptive programs for sustainable management to areas with no active management, known as “paper parks”. Land conservation policies have frequently been defensive, and management plans have often neglected or even restricted traditional rural activities, forgetting the local population, which has contributed to the high conservation values recognized in cultural landscapes. These nature conservation efforts based on wilderness and naturalness have resulted in the decline of functional species composition and plant diversity of pasture systems, loss of natural and biocultural diversity and, ultimately, in the abandonment of the rural landscape and the reduction or disappearance of traditional knowledge. Additionally, management plans of PAs are too often dependent on administrative boundaries and political legislation, and not on social–ecological relationships, biophysical processes, and ecosystem services fluxes, which reduces their effectiveness in protecting landscapes based on social–ecological interactions. Therefore, there is a growing need of developing innovative theoretical and methodological approaches that are focused on management strategies for preserving cultural landscapes and natural heritage.