Author: Ian Scoones

Pastoralists as conservationists

Source(s): Pastres

Pastoralists are often blamed for environmental destruction – not only the climate but processes of ‘desertification’ and ‘biodiversity loss’ too. 

Of course, there are conditions where concentrations of people and animals can cause damage, but as with every pastoral system, there are lots of misunderstandings that confuse policymaking around the world.

Rangeland ecologies, desertification and tree planting

One confusion arises from basic understandings of rangeland ecologies. In drylands and montane systems, these are often what are called ‘non-equilibrium’ systems, driven by variations in rain or snowfall, rather than the population pressures of animals. When a drought occurs, for example, very often, annual grasses disappear, grazing is short, and animals are lost, but when the rain comes again, the system bounces back, and so do animal populations.

Concepts such as carrying capacity and stocking rate control, designed for stable grasslands in more temperate settings, are largely irrelevant in such highly variable environments. The traditional conservationist plea to return to a balance of nature simply does not apply. This makes regulating livestock populations according to fixed numbers for ‘conservation’ purposes inappropriate – as has been imposed on reindeer herders in Norway or Maasai pastoralists in Tanzania.


Maasai, Loliondo, Tanzania / Vince Smith / cc-by 2.0

This basic set of lessons, however, has not been incorporated into policy thinking, despite extensive debate over many years. The book ‘Living with Uncertainty: New directions in pastoral development in Africa’, which was first published in 1994 and released by PASTRES as an open-access edition in 2023, remains highly relevant nearly 30 years later. Along with many other publications, this edited book challenges mainstream equilibrium thinking, suggesting a different set of approaches in a whole range of domains.

Yet, too often we hear about ‘deserts advancing’, the need to wage a ‘war on desertification’, and solutions including building ‘great green walls’ to stop desert encroachments. These approaches are often founded on a false understanding of dryland ecologies and a misunderstanding of what ‘desertification’ actually means. A whole series of PASTRES blogs (see here, here and here) challenge these narratives as we have tried to develop a more constructive, positive role for pastoralism in environmental management.

Rangelands, where pastoralists make a living, are ‘open ecosystems’, mixes of trees and grasses maintained by a combination of grazing and fire. These are highly dynamic ecosystems – savannas, parklands, montane rangelands, and so on – and are important on all continents. Yet they remain poorly understood as many assume that the ‘climax’ vegetation is always a closed forest. This has led some to argue for the planting of trees in rangelands.

The assumption is that these are degraded forests and planting trees can return the landscape to its ‘natural’ state, and in the process, carbon can be sequestered and sold. This is a big mistake, rooted in a poor ecological understanding. What is ’natural’ is, of course, unclear given these areas have been used for millennia.

Trees planted in such settings often die and tree planting projects have a dismal track record. Tree planting may not be the best method for sequestering carbon, even if above-ground carbon is easier to sell on offset markets, as grasslands and soils are massively important but poorly understood parts of the carbon cycle.

Centring pastoralists in biodiversity conservation

To coincide with the global biodiversity conference in 2022, PASTRES – in partnership with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) – launched a series of briefings on pastoralism and biodiversity, together with a short film summarising the issues.  

One area where pastoralists can play a positive role is in the promotion and protection of biodiversity in open rangeland ecosystems. Mobile animals can spread seeds, while transhumant corridors can connect ecosystem patches, and protected key resource patches can be vital not only for livestock grazing but also for the conservation of migratory bird species. As in Colombia, the management of water resources in extensive rangelands is also good for wildlife. Pastoralists’ breeding strategies also encourage animal biodiversity in important ways.

As many places experience devastating wildfires accelerated by the impacts of hotter temperatures due to climate change, one important response is to involve livestock keepers in reducing the fire risk through grazing. Too many fires in Mediterranean Europe, for example, are caused by a lack of people and animals on the land with grass and shrubs growing up ungrazed and becoming a tinderbox, which can catch fire with devastating consequences. 

Some approaches to ‘rewilding’ suggest removing animals so that a ‘natural’ ecosystem can return. Yet livestock – and other herbivores – are important elements of the rangeland ecosystem and, together with controlled burning, maintain ecosystem integrity. Removing livestock and returning areas to an imagined ‘wilderness’ is therefore not ‘natural’, but part of an aesthetic and political choice, which may undermine livelihoods and rural landscapes.

This certainly has been the experience of the colonial imposition of national parks and conservation areas, for example, in Africa. A colonial aesthetic that removed people and their animals for the benefit of hunters and tourists has had many negative effects on pastoralists, for example, in northern Kenya.

Reintroducing predators – wolves, bears, and so on – has been part of this approach, but such animals may come into conflict with livestock keeping, meaning that, a successful approach to landscape management must explore how multiple uses can combine, with pastoralists involved in the decisions.

One of the key lessons from PASTRES work across the world is that pastoralists can be important allies in conservation efforts. This is highlighted in contributions from Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, India, Amdo Tibet, Latin America and Italy. This means rethinking land use and its demarcation.

Rather than separating off areas with guns and fences, a more integrated, hybrid land use is required. As we found in Kenya, the conflicts that arise around so-called ‘conservancies’ are intense, creating divisions within communities and ultimately undermining conservation for the long term. Working with pastoralists, with a locally based approach, rather than excluding them from protected conservation areas, can have huge benefits in the control of poaching, as well as the management of biodiversity through grazing and fire reduction.

In sum, deep misunderstandings of pastoral systems and their underlying ecologies combine with persistent biases in policy that see pastoralists as destroyers of environments and biodiversity. But in practice, pastoral systems can contribute positively to biodiversity and enhance environmental conditions, especially if mobility is assured. A different approach to environmental policy is required that takes account of pastoral livelihoods and needs.

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