‘Silent Demise’ of Vast Rangelands Threatens Climate, Food, Wellbeing of Billions: UNCCD

    EnvironmentDrought‘Silent Demise’ of Vast Rangelands Threatens Climate, Food, Wellbeing...
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    ‘Silent Demise’ of Vast Rangelands Threatens Climate, Food, Wellbeing of Billions: UNCCD

    Rangelands cover 54 per cent of all land; as much as 50 per cent are degraded, imperilling a sixth of humanity’s food supply and a third of the Earth’s carbon reservoir. A recent UNCCD report points way to restore, better manage rangelands, urges protection of pastoralism.

    Degradation of Earth’s extensive, often immense natural pastures and other rangelands due to overuse, misuse, climate change and biodiversity loss poses a severe threat to humanity’s food supply and the wellbeing or survival of billions of people, the UN warns in a stark report today.

    Authors of the Global Land Outlook Thematic Report on Rangelands and Pastoralists, launched in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), say up to 50 per cent of rangelands are degraded.

    Symptoms of the problem include diminished soil fertility and nutrients, erosion, salinization, alkalinization, and soil compaction inhibiting plant growth, all of which contribute to drought, precipitation fluctuations, and biodiversity loss both above and below the ground.

    The problem is driven largely by converting pastures to cropland and other land use changes due to population growth and urban expansion, rapidly rising food, fibre and fuel demands, excessive grazing, abandonment (end of maintenance by pastoralists), and policies that incentivise overexploitation.

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    What are rangelands?

    The rangelands category of Earth’s land cover consists mostly of the natural grasslands used by livestock and wild animals to graze and forage.

    They also include savannas, shrublands, wetlands, tundra and deserts. 

    Added together, these lands constitute 54 per cent of all land cover, account for one sixth of global food production and represent nearly one third of the planet’s carbon reservoir.

    “When we cut down a forest, when we see a 100-year-old tree fall, it rightly evokes an emotional response in many of us. The conversion of ancient rangelands, on the other hand, happens in ‘silence’ and generates little public reaction,” says UNCCD Executive Secretary Ibrahim Thiaw.

    “Sadly, these expansive landscapes and the pastoralists and livestock breeders who depend on them, are usually under-appreciated,” Mr. Thiaw adds. “Despite numbering an estimated half a billion individuals worldwide, pastoralist communities are frequently overlooked, lack a voice in policy-making that directly affects their livelihoods, marginalised, and even often seen as outsiders in their own lands.”

    Two billion people – small-scale herders, ranchers and farmers, often poor and marginalised – depend on healthy rangelands worldwide.

    Indeed, in many West African states, livestock production employs 80 per cent of the population. In Central Asia and Mongolia, 60 per cent of the land area is used as grazing rangelands, with livestock herding supporting nearly one third of the region’s population.

    Ironically, the report underlines, efforts to increase food security and productivity by converting rangelands to crop production in mostly arid regions have resulted in degraded land and lower agricultural yields.

    The report calls out “weak and ineffective governance,” “poorly implemented policies and regulations,” and “the lack of investment in rangeland communities and sustainable production models” for undermining rangelands.

    An innovative approach

    The new report’s 60+ expert contributors from over 40 countries agree that past estimates of degraded rangeland worldwide – roughly 25 per cent – “significantly underestimates the actual loss of rangeland health and productivity” and could be as much as 50 per cent.

    Rangelands are often poorly understood and a lack of reliable data undermines the sustainable management of their immense value in food provisioning and climate regulation, the report warns.

    The report details an innovative conceptual approach that would enable policy-makers to stabilise, restore and manage rangelands. 

    The new approach is backed by experience detailed in case studies from nearly every world region, drawing important lessons from successes and missteps of rangeland management.

    A core recommendation: protect pastoralism, a mobile way of life dating back millennia centred on the pasture-based production of sheep, goats, cattle, horses, camels, yaks, llamas or other domesticated herbivores, along with semi-domesticated species such as bison and reindeer. 

    Says Mr. Thiaw: “From the tropics to the Arctic, pastoralism is a desirable default – and often the most sustainable – option for that should be incorporated into rangeland use planning.”

    Economic engine of many countries

    Rangelands are an important economic engine in many countries and define cultures. Home to one quarter of the world’s languages, they also host numerous World Heritage Sites and have shaped the value systems, customs and identities of pastoralists for thousands of years.

    The report includes detailed analyses of individual countries and regions.

    For example, livestock production accounts for 19 per cent of Ethiopia’s GDP, and 4 per cent of India’s. In Brazil – which produces 16 per cent of the world’s beef – fully one-third of agribusiness GDP is generated by cattle livestock.

    In Europe, many rangelands have given way to urbanisation, afforestation and renewable energy production. In the United States, large tracts of grassland have been converted to crops, while some Canadian grasslands have been made fragile by large-scale mining and infrastructure projects.  There are also many positive notes such as, for example, growing efforts in both countries to reintroduce bison – an animal of great cultural importance to indigenous peoples – to promote rangeland health and food security.

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