A 5-minute starter on rangelands and why they matter

At times majestic and beautiful, rangelands can also be tough ecosystems that are not suitable for agriculture. Yet wildlife and livestock can thrive thanks to rangelands watershed characteristics and varied vegetation. Snow Canyon State Park, southern Utah. Amber Dalke, Rangelands Partnership
26 June 2019
Landscape News Editor

Rangelands will be discussed at GLF New York 2019, 28 September. Join the event online here.

By Mireille Ferrari, Communications Manager, CGIAR Research Program on Livestock

What are rangelands?

When people of think of rangelands, their minds don’t usually go further than the images of shrubs or endless fields of dry grasslands. But beneath and above these vast spaces, life teems and even flourishes. At the recent session on the UN Decade on Ecosystems Restoration at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn on 23 June 2019, rangelands had a golden opportunity to take the stage alongside forests and other important ecosystems. In this post, we break down what rangelands are all about, the surprising economic and environmental roles they play and why they absolutely need our attention.

Though rangelands can include wetlands and forests, they are mostly found in drylands or arid and semi-arid lands, where rainfall is low and variable. They are areas where vegetation consists predominantly of grasses, grass-like plants, forbs or shrubs that are or can be grazed, and which are used as a natural ecosystem to raise grazing livestock and wildlife.

Why do they matter?

They’re ubiquitous. Nearly half the Earth’s land surface is classified as rangelands. Their health and productivity are directly linked to the livelihoods and cultures of more than 500 million people around the world, many of whom are indigenous peoples, such as pastoralists.

Source: Terrestrial ecoregions of the world: a new map of life on Earth. Bioscience 51(11):933-938.; Natural Earth.

They have many uses. Rangelands are semi-natural ecosystems dependent on grazing by livestock or wildlife. They also provide watershed services that sustain surrounding communities and the incredible biodiversity of rangelands.

They are natural climate change mitigators. Rangelands are an important landscape to be considered next to forests, although most of the carbon is stored below ground in rangelands. In humid environments, rangelands may also sequester significant amounts of carbon in their soils.   On top of that, their vast open spaces make them great sources for wind and solar power.

What are the challenges?

Land degradation is the major challenge faced by rangelands, resulting from, amongst others, a lack of grazing management plans, invasive species, and a lack of land tenure security.  Signs of degradation include a shift in species composition, biodiversity loss, reduction in biomass production, less plant cover, low livestock productivity and soil erosion.

Lack of land tenure rights. Most formal legal systems in governments in developing countries do not recognize or guarantee customary tenure rights for pastoralists. This is threatening pastoralist traditional ways of life, where access to grazing land is vital for their livestock productivity and pastoralists ability to exercise their role as environmental stewards, shaping and maintaining landscapes while conserving biodiversity.

Mongolia has over 16 million animals and 70,000 nomadic pastoralist households. For centuries, herders have roamed the grasslands “following [their] animals,”, building, packing, and rebuilding their traditional gers, or tents, to make their living from their natural environment. ILRI

Information gaps remain. Though we know why rangelands are important, we still lack individual and aggregated data to support governments, private sector and local and international organizations to enable them to preserve and sustainably manage rangeland ecosystems. There remains the need to quantify and qualify:

  • The detailed role and contribution of rangeland ecosystems.
  • The extent of rangelands degradation – there is a lack of a detailed and agreed global map on rangelands.
  • The real cost of degradation and loss – both economic and environmental, including linkages with conflict and human security.
  • Clear evidence on the linkage between land tenure/rights and rangelands restoration.
  • Evidence on the linkage between land tenure rights, participatory rangeland management approaches and rangeland restoration.

Pastoralist community from Fentale woreda, Ethiopia, Karayu, mapping their use of rangelands and rangeland resources as part of participatory rangeland management (PRM). Kelley Lynch, PRIME

Why include rangelands in the UN Decade on Ecosystems Restoration?

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, declared on 1 March this year by the UN General Assembly, aims to massively scale up the restoration of degraded and destroyed ecosystems as a proven measure to fight the climate crisis and enhance food security, water supply and biodiversity.

In Africa alone, millions of hectares of grazing land and rangeland are threatened with degradation – from the arid north, the semi-arid south, the Sudano-Sahelian countries to the drier parts of Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria. A decade committed to ecosystems restoration provides an opportunity for rangelands to be considered as one of the targeted landscapes. It also reinforces efforts made thus far to declare an International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists.

Rangeland restoration will produce three types of benefits, that are interlinked and cannot be considered separately:

  • Economic: Land restoration allows the diversification of the income for the people who depend largely on rangelands.
  • Social: Secure rangeland tenure contributes to a more secure world, which in turn can lead to greater investment in rangeland restoration.
  • Environmental: restoring rangelands to their healthy, productive levels ensure the continuity of the livelihoods of the local people who provide precious environmental services to rangelands, while allowing rangelands to preserve their important roles of sustaining biodiversity, carbon sequestration and as watersheds.

For more information on rangelands and the International Land Coalition Rangelands Initiative, contact Fiona Flintan, Coordinator of the Rangelands Initiative global component, ILRI: [email protected]

Read our other story on rangelands here at the GLF website.

The work of ILRI and ICARDA on rangelands are part of the CGIAR Research Program on Livestock, which is supported by contributors to the CGIAR Trust FundCGIAR is a global research partnership for a food-secure future. Its science is carried out by 15 Research Centers in close collaboration with hundreds of partners across the globe.


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