Reversing Desertification with Livestock

2012•05•30 Robert Blasiak Stockholm Resilience Centre

Robert Blasiak from the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies had the opportunity to interview Allan Savory during several bus rides in Nairobi. Savory is a Zimbabwean-born biologist, farmer, game rancher, politician and international consultant and co-founder of the Savory Institute. He is credited with developing the “holistic management” framework back in the 1960s and has been leading anti-desertification efforts in Africa for decades now using a rather unorthodox approach of increasing the number of livestock on grasslands rather than fencing them off for conservation.

Savory is having some pretty remarkable successes and his ideas are resonating — he gave the keynote speech at UNCCD’s Land Day last year as well as a recent TED address in Johannesburg, not to mention the awards that he and the Savory Institute have garnered.


Land on the left is managed under Holistic Planned Grazing, showing a contrast with advancing desertification on the right. Photo: Savory Institute.

Q:  Rapid desertification is a scary prospect and many people point to livestock as a main driver of this process. Can you talk about holistic management and why you see livestock as part of the solution?

A: Livestock are not part of the solution but vital to reversing desertification. Let me explain. Desertification is the end result of the available rainfall becoming increasingly less effective. It is occurring to varying degrees in vast regions of the world where atmospheric humidity is erratic due to rainfall that is seasonal in nature. Throughout history people have associated desertification with overgrazing by too many livestock. This deep belief has assumed scientific validity and I too fell into that trap and published papers that today are embarrassing to me.

Let me explain why much vilified livestock are the only thing that today can reverse the desertification that is playing such a critical role in man-made droughts, floods, poverty, social breakdown, violence, cultural genocide and climate change.

The vast grasslands, savannahs and man-made deserts that constitute the greatest areas of the world’s land experience seasonal rainfall and thus dry or dormant periods in every year — high or low rainfall. They do not enjoy the more even distribution of humidity of even low rainfall areas in much of Europe or some, mainly coastal, areas of the United States (US). In such seasonal environments perennial grass plants, and their dead litter, provide most of the soil cover and more so as rainfall gets lower and insufficient for a full canopy tree cover. Such grass plants co-evolved with their living soils and the vast herding herbivore populations that sustain pack-hunting predators. Most perennial grasses have growing points close to ground level, out of harm’s way because they co-existed with billions of grazing herbivores.

Grass plants grow profusely during the growing season, but as the atmosphere dries off most of the plant above ground dies. This dead plant mass, dying with in a compressed few months every year, needs to decay biologically and rapidly for growth to continue uninterrupted in the following season. However in the absence of adequate grazing herbivores the dead material that stands upright shifts from rapid biological decay to gradual breakdown through oxidation and weathering. This gradual breakdown leads to the dead material filtering and inhibiting light from reaching growth points and thus provoking the death of many grass plants. What follows varies with the amount of rainfall. If the precipitation level is high enough, grassland shifts to shrubs and trees, or else where lower, it shifts to bare generally algae-covered soil and desert bushes.

In such seasonal environments perennial grass plants, and their dead litter, provide most of the soil cover and more so as rainfall gets lower and insufficient for a full canopy tree cover. Such grass plants co-evolved with their living soils and the vast herding herbivore populations that sustain pack-hunting predators.

As grass/plant spacing opens and bare soil increases, the available rainfall becomes less effective — leading to desertification. Rain that soaks into the soil largely evaporates out of the soil surface in subsequent days. Or, if large falls of rain occur, most of the rainwater flows off — causing flooding. This is why both droughts and floods have increased in frequency and severity even where no change in rainfall has yet occurred. This process happens more rapidly where rainfall is lowest.

In such environments, before humans killed off most wild herbivores, rainfall effectiveness and health of grasslands was maintained by masses (billions) of large herding animals with bunching behaviour as protection from pack-hunting predators. Bunching, even where no migration occurs, ensures movement off of dung and urine fouled ground, so constant movement led to trampling, grazing, dunging and urinating thus maintaining overall soil cover and grassland health.

Following the killing of most herbivores and their replacement by relatively few domesticated livestock, humans would soon have learned that the grasslands began dying if not burned using fire. While fire does remove the moribund material and thus keep adult grass plants alive prolonging the grassland, it also exposes soil and leads to wider plant spacing and thus desertification over time.

Q:  So how big of a herd is needed for this to work effectively?

A: There is no specific size but the larger the herd the more rapidly the reversal of desertification comes about. The largest that anyone I know of is using is 25,000 sheep in one flock and they measured a 50% increase in the productivity of the land in the first year. What matters most is how the livestock (from any type of cattle to goats or camels) are managed. When in the 1960s I first realized that livestock could be used to mimic nature’s herds of old, I still did not know how we might do this. Herding seemed out of the question with some 15,000 years of highly knowledgeable pastoralists constantly moving their livestock having contributed to creating the vast man made deserts.  And almost a hundred years of range science using fencing — which led to modern rotational and others grazing systems — had accelerated desertification even in higher seasonal rainfall environments including in the United States

The essence of the problem was finding a way to address the complexity of dealing with the needs of livestock, wildlife, plants, soils and soil organisms simultaneously. Grazing systems were designed to simplify this complexity for understandable reasons and also I suspect so that they could be replicated in research trials. And pastoralist herders, although they had understood the need to move livestock to avoid overgrazing plants, had neither tried to address complexity nor comprehended the changed behaviour when livestock were protected from pack-hunting predators. To address complexity through a planning process, I first tried Andre Voisin’s rational grazing.

Voisin was the French researcher who first established that overgrazing was not due to animal numbers, but due to time of plant exposure to grazing and re-exposure. He had understood the failings of too simplistic rotational grazing and had accordingly developed rational grazing — meaning thought-out or planned and never simply rotated. While rational grazing had proven so successful in the relative simplicity of more humid European climates and pastures, I quickly ran into trouble dealing with the greater complexity of seasonal rainfall rangelands, where we were also integrating wildlife, dealing with very erratic rainfall, while also beginning to incorporate social and economic factors.

Ecologists, wildlife and range scientists had never addressed such complexity in management. So, rather than reinvent the wheel, I simply took the hundreds of years of European experience as taught at Sandhurst, the British Royal Military Academy, and the planning process they had found to be best suited to immediate battlefield conditions. Military planners having established a process of building the best possible plan at any moment through simple sequential steps that build upon one another, I had only to develop a chart to plot the emerging plan that could cater for the changing dimensions of time, area, numbers and behaviour for which military planning did not cater.

Planning on a chart also provided other advantages such as the ability to plan grazings backwards at critical times, to plan animal moves through a minefield of other considerations concerning wildlife, weather, fire, cropping and other land uses. It also provided me with the ability to plan constantly for droughts on the basis of time and not areas of land, thus keeping production of both animals and land higher than the more conventional practice of reserving land in case of drought.

Holistic planned grazing, as it has become known, was immediately successful in restoring grassland health under increased livestock numbers and has continued to be successful wherever used since the 1960s. Today, holistic planned grazing is being practised on almost 30 million hectares on four continents and it is being taught by the Zimbabwe based Africa Centre for Holistic Management to semi-literate pastoralists and agro-pastoralists from Namibia to Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia.

Q:  Is it possible to fight desertification over the long term without large herds of livestock/ungulates?

A: No unfortunately. The situation is today so bad that even large national parks in Africa’s seasonal rainfall environments are losing biodiversity and desertifying.  Again, I am at fault as much as any scientist because it was my research that first led to culling large numbers of animals in national parks. When we first set aside some of the most wonderful wildlife areas in Africa as future national parks I observed that they rapidly began to lose biodiversity and desertify. Believing we had too many elephant, buffalo, etc., it was easy to gather the supporting data to fit our paradigm and recommend culling. This unpalatable suggestion led to intense resistance and the government formed a team of ecologists to evaluate my work. They agreed with me and in Zimbabwe we subsequently shot some 40,000 elephants, only to see the problem become worse! I was wrong, as were those who approved of my work.

While the “leave it to nature”, or rest, approach is working in the more perennially humid national parks, it is not in all parks unfortunately and a change in thinking and management will be necessary if we are to both save wildlife and reverse desertification. We will need to manage holistically and, wherever no measure will prevent biodiversity loss, we will need to consider integrating properly managed livestock with the wildlife as we are already doing at the Zimbabwean site with encouraging results. On that same land we have visitors observing wildlife and we conduct safari hunting and not a visitor even knows that there are livestock on the land unless we show them. This is because the managed herd of cattle, sheep and goats is always — day and night — on less than a hectare of the land and we control where that is happening months ahead so as not to interfere with any wildlife or other land use.

Q:  Aside from the direct environmental benefits you have found through holistic management, can you talk about the implications for climate change?

A: The implications for climate change are profound. I would stake my life on it that we will not be able to deal with climate change carrying on business as usual.

Agriculture is not simply crop production as generally treated. It is the production of food and fibre from the world’s land and waters. Agriculture today, even in the US, is producing more soil erosion than food. Agriculture is leading to global widespread desertification, to the annual burning of billions of hectares of grasslands, periodic burning of tropical forests. Feeding hundreds of thousands of cattle grain that should be feeding humans, producing ethanol from the same grain that humans need to eat. Frankly, when we combine all the unintended consequences of agriculture today, it is causing climate change as much as, and possibly more than, fossil fuels. And yet mainstream institutional scientists are advising that agriculture will need to adapt to climate change!

There are economists thinking differently… and increasingly they and other deep thinking people are coalescing and collaborating. Tragically these people are few in number compared with mainstream economists committing us to anthropogenic suicide.

What is worse is that even in a post fossil fuel world, when we do finally develop benign mass energy sources, climate change is likely to continue due to agriculture.  I feel like a lone voice in the wilderness pointing out such obvious facts and do not believe any informed scientist could dispute this simple reality.

I believe that the possibility of runaway weather change is real. The perfect storm is coming on us rapidly and we cannot keep on with business as usual.  Every ten years the world holds a Rio type major international conference. At each of these we bemoan the fact that globally the situation is worse. And at every such conference we make great resolutions and declarations and allocate millions of dollars to continue the same failing practices. And this will be repeated this year at Rio +20 and we will repeat the process ten years from now.

There are so many confusing views and pressures.  There are so many vested interests — financial and professional egos — that the world is understandably confused. Only if we put the entire issue of biodiversity loss, desertification, climate change on a “war footing” where it is no longer what we want to do but what we must do — as Paul Gilding recently described in his book The Great Disruption — have we any hope of avoiding catastrophe beyond imagination.  This is why at the Savory Institute we are striving to get the holistic framework into international consciousness as rapidly as we can to avert tragedy.

There is no silver bullet and least of all there never will be a technological silver bullet. We can, however, begin to turn the tide using the knowledge we have in our institutions, amongst farmers, fishermen, foresters, ranchers and pastoralists if we begin managing holistically and, particularly, forming policies holistically. We do not lack knowledge. We lacked a practical way to achieve our objectives in a holistic context. Floods do not begin as floods. They begin with drops of rain hitting dry earth and spattering dust, then damp earth, then wet earth and trickles join to become floods. The oil that keeps the wheels turning in society is our economies and these cannot begin as floods, nor be designed from above but can begin to change one decision, one project, one policy at a time like drops of rain.

Q:  It seems that the basic tools for holistic management have always been available. Have there been cultures in recorded history that have effectively used these tools?

A: Einstein stated that two constructs would be of great importance to the future of humanity.  His own of relativity, and that of holism developed by Jan Smuts who provided the theoretical foundation for my work.

Holistic management involves two new concepts — the first is the addition of livestock as a tool without which we cannot address desertification or climate change ultimately. This tool was always available but we lacked the knowledge to put it to use correctly until we understood more about the holistic nature of the world and the need to mimic nature in grasslands. Early people had, from time to time, observed a connection between healthier land and higher animal impact but never followed through. Early Scottish shepherds talked of the “Golden hooves” of their sheep. Navajo Indian leaders observed a connection between their sheep and the health of the land but their observation was ignored by range scientists and the US government shot 50,000 of their sheep to stop the desertification, only to see it increase with less sheep. John Acocks, a South African botanist mapping the advancing Karroo desert, wrote about South Africa being “overgrazed” but “understocked” only to be ridiculed. Now we know he was right.

These observant people, like myself, were ridiculed by authorities. It is hard to believe that others did not make similar observations over the thousands of years of increasing desertification, but probably to suffer similar fates.

The second greater part of holistic management that addresses complexity in practical terms at any level, from household to government or international agency, is entirely new. Some cultures came close, we see — like some native American tribes that tried to make all decisions thinking seven generations ahead. However, the key to avoiding unintended consequences in policy and project formation lay in the new concept of a holistic context. This was extremely hard to discover and develop because we did not know what we were looking for and there was nothing remotely like it in any religion, branch of science or philosophy.

Q:  This June marks the twentieth anniversary of the original Earth Summit, and the so-called Rio+20 conference will be held in Rio de Janeiro next month. Can holistic management play a role in transitioning to a Green Economy?

A: At Rio people will make great efforts to no avail, as in all previous such conferences, I fear. We have negligible chance of attaining a truly green economy until management of resources at all levels is holistic — from farmer, rancher, forester, fisherman, pastoralist to major NGO, government and international agency. Only when we can manage resources and form development projects and policies within a holistic context have we any real hope, I believe.

I loved Gandhi’s reply when asked what he thought of Western Civilization and he replied, “It is a good idea”. I am reminded of this because a Green Economy is a good idea but no more than that until we manage holistically. The only basis of any sustained economy is the photosynthetic process. This means green plants growing on constantly regenerating soils, mainly. This can never be achieved while our population continues to expand and we continue to produce more eroding soil than we produce food. And not only do we mine the world’s soils on our croplands and rangelands but we continue to mine the life in our oceans.

Fortunately, there are economists thinking differently and some have supported my work for years and increasingly they and other deep thinking people are coalescing and collaborating. Tragically these people are few in number compared with mainstream economists committing us to anthropogenic suicide.

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Reversing Desertification with Livestock by Robert Blasiak is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Robert Blasiak

Stockholm Resilience Centre

Robert Blasiak is a post-doctoral fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, a senior fellow with the NEREUS program, and a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo’s Laboratory of Global Fisheries Science. He has focused on different aspects of cooperation and conflict related to ocean management, with recent publications on the BBNJ process (biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction). Robert completed studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (BA), Lund University (MA) and University of Tokyo (PhD).