An awakening for the world’s rangelands

Pastoralists and their ancestral lands are showing their value for the global future

A Fulani boy in Niger herds his family's animals. Stevie Mann, ILRI
18 February 2020
18 February 2020

What if much of the basic information being used to describe approximately half of the world’s land surface dated from as far back as the 1960s? (And, is ‘approximately half’ even still a correct estimation?)

This is the case with rangelands, which directly support the livelihoods and cultures of some 500 million people. The relationship between rangelands and pastoralists epitomizes the intimate ties that have historically existed between land and people. “Man’s happiness is an empty field,” says a proverb referring to the vast grasslands of Mongolia, which along with East Africa and Brazil, has some of the world’s largest rangeland landscapes.

Rangelands are areas where rainfall is often scarce or highly variable, and the ground is covered in native grasses and shrubs grazed by wildlife and livestock. Most rangelands are not suitable for any other land use, including crop farming. Pastoralists move across these mostly arid or semiarid lands with their livestock, transforming the vegetation into highly nutritious foodstuff such as meat and milk. They produce food in the world’s driest, hottest, coldest and steepest lands.

Camels are herded in Ethiopia's Metahara area. Apollo Habtamu, ILRI
Camels are herded in Ethiopia’s Metahara area. Apollo Habtamu, ILRI

“Pastoralism is increasingly recognized as one of the most sustainable production systems on the planet and plays a major role in safeguarding ecosystems and biodiversity in natural grasslands and rangelands,” notes the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) in its assessment conducted specifically to identify the glaring gaps in knowledge about rangelands.

According to the advocacy group CELEP (the Coalition of European Lobbies for East African Pastoralism), ideas that pastoralism is an inefficient form of land use, and that rangelands are wastelands are still common among land-use planners and policy-makers. Such misperceptions have led to poor tenure security in rangelands; the breakdown of traditional governance systems refined over centuries; and the implementation of policies that result in land degradation and the disintegration of pastoral communities. 

“We need ‘big data’ to make the case for rangelands and to push back against misperceptions,” says Fiona Flintan, senior scientist with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and coordinator of the global component of the ILC Rangelands Initiative. “Just like data on forests, we need updated, quality data that demonstrates the value of rangelands and covers issues such as land-use change and degradation so we can better engage policy-makers.”

An ancient Egyptian cow relief in Egypt. Elsworth, ILRI
An ancient Egyptian cow relief in Egypt. Elsworth, ILRI

Waste not

In countries such as India, rangelands are referred to as “wastelands.” This misnomer, amongst many others, contributes to the deleterious views of rangelands as idle no man’s lands. Healthy rangelands play an important role in water recycling and account for up to 30 percent of the world’s terrestrial carbon storage, thanks to their complex root systems. In addition, economies and billions of people benefit from the tourism, biodiversity, livestock products and renewable energy sources provided by rangelands.

Take the Brazilian Cerrado, the second-largest biome in South America and the most biodiverse savanna in the world. Up to 75 percent of the biomass of its low trees and shrubs is underground in the form of deep root systems that channel rain into soil reservoirs, feeding the Amazon and two other major water basins in the southern regions of South America. Brazil’s expanding agricultural frontier is eating away at the Cerrado, substituting its native vegetation with crop monocultures whose shallow roots cannot offer the same ecosystem services of water recycling, note Brazilian researchers.

And the expansion of intensive agriculture and extractive activities – such as soy plantations in Brazil and gold and copper mining in Mongolia – are not the only challenges. Pastoralists produce food where no crops can grow (or grow sustainably), and they depend on mobility to access water and grazing in the face of uncertain climatic conditions. Blocked migration routes and water points and loss of grazing areas are making it harder for pastoralists to continue acting as environmental stewards of the land. “This is why we must address the issues of tenure security and land-use planning before or while embarking in restoration activities or other projects,” says Flintan.

The dwindling capacity of pastoralist communities to migrate along their ancestral routes – often due to conflict, border restrictions and privatization of the land – is jeopardizing rangelands around the globe. “Where pastoralists are unable to graze, bush encroachment – a form of degradation – often follows,” note the Voluntary Guidelines on Good Governance and Tenure Technical Guide (VGGT) on Improving Governance of Pastoral Land from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (FAO). FAO’s Pastoralist Knowledge Hub is leading the implementation of these guidelines, in conjunction with pastoralist associations.

“In Kenya during the 1970s, a region called Simbol was rendered inaccessible to Pokot pastoralists due to the risk of cattle raiding,” say the guidelines. “The result was infestation of the land with thorny acacia shrubs over a period of about six years and eventual loss of as much as 80,000 hectares of productive land.”

A Laotian herder feeds her livestock salt, a daily dietary requirement of mature cattle. Stevie Mann, ILRI
A Laotian herder feeds her livestock salt, a daily dietary requirement of mature cattle. Stevie Mann, ILRI

Higher places

This exemplifies how rangeland degradation can seriously impact national economies. For example – though figures are gray – the UNEP report says that pastoralists contribute up to 44 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in African countries and 30 percent in Mongolia.

According to FAO, healthy pastoral systems can be two to ten times more productive per unit area than land uses that have been proposed to replace them such as mining and crop farming. Soil fertilization, wider seed dispersal, compatibility with wildlife and landscape maintenance are some of the reasons for this productivity.

Mongolia, where 70 percent of the rural population depends on herding, is one of the countries spearheading initiatives to protect rangelands in the face of global warming and unsustainable practices. It is leading the call for a U.N. International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists to raise global awareness and push for a global rangelands protection law.

For Flintan and others devoted to rangelands, such a global initiative, along with momentum that is building from the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021–2030), will hopefully open up more opportunities for researchers and scientists to gather critical data on rangelands that would support initiatives to protect and restore these valuable landscapes.


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