Pastoralism provides crucial services to humanity, can support green economy transition

Better management of neglected sector would boost water regulation and biodiversity and sequester up to 9.8 per cent of anthropogenic carbon emissions

Drylands in Kenya - Garba Tula

Cancun, 9 March 2015 – Pastoralism—extensive livestock production in the rangelands—provides enormous benefits to humanity and should be supported as a key element of the global transition to a green economy, according to a new report released today by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Released at the 3rd Scientific Conference of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in Cancun, Pastoralism and the Green Economy – a Natural Nexus?, highlights pastoralism’s role in safeguarding natural capital across a quarter of the world’s land area.

The report finds that sustainable pastoralism on rangeland ecosystems—such as desert grasslands, woodlands and steppes—maintains soil fertility and soil carbon and contributes to water regulation and biodiversity conservation. It also provides other goods such as high-value food products.

Pastoralism is practiced by up to half a billion people across the globe. Despite its clear benefits, decades of underinvestment have eroded the lifestyle in many developing countries. Reversing this decline and realizing pastoralism’s full green economy potential will require leadership and the establishment of a global development framework for sustainable pastoralism, the report says.

“As our world becomes increasingly mechanized and industrialized in the pursuit of progress, it is easy to forget that there is much to be learned from traditional ways of life such as pastoralism,” said UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. “Yet half a billion pastoralists across the world are struggling to maintain a way of life that is far more consistent with green economy goals than many of our modern methods of rearing livestock.”

“As developing economies grow and middle classes flourish, the demand for animal protein is only set to expand,” he added. “With smart, targeted policies, a revitalized attention to pastoralism can play a significant role in fulfilling this demand whilst protecting rangeland biodiversity and ecosystem services and reducing greenhouse gases emitted to the atmosphere.”

Carbon sequestration provides just one example of how pastoralism can support the green economy. Grazing lands cover five billion hectares worldwide and sequester between 200-500kg of carbon per hectare per year, playing a leading role in climate change mitigation. Up to 70 per cent of dryland soil carbon can be lost through conversion to agricultural use.

There is evidence that effective animal grazing by pastoralists promotes the biodiversity and biomass production needed to maintain these carbon stores. Improved grazing management could in fact sequester 409 million tonnes of CO2, or around 9.8 per cent of anthropogenic carbon emissions, the report says.

“Biodiversity, including grasses, herbs and shrubs, is the basic productive resource of pastoralism,” said Jonathan Davies, Coordinator of IUCN’s Global Drylands Initiative. “When pastoralism is practiced efficiently, it conserves biodiversity and rangeland environments, providing a wide range of benefits to humanity.”

Evidence can be found across the globe. For example, in Spain the seasonal movement of pastoralists and their herds along traditional migration corridors supports habitat connectivity and biodiversity through the transport of seeds and insects by sheep.

In Australia, short livestock grazing by pastoralists on invasive grass species has been found to be of critical importance to conserving populations of the Bridled Nailtail Wallaby – a species endemic to Australia, listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™.

“Pastoralism makes intensive use of available natural, human and social capital to produce an array of economic, environmental and social goods and services,” said Dr Davies. “Capitalizing on these benefits requires a change in investment paradigms, moving away from intensifying the production of individual commodities and towards optimizing the production of a wide range of goods.”

Policies, public services and investments have to be tailored to support this shift and ensure that the full range of benefits offered by pastoralism is secured, the report says.

The report issues a series of recommendations that would bolster sustainable pastoralism, through actions in areas such as improved governance, greater engagement of pastoralist communities and increased access to markets.


Establish a global development framework for sustainable pastoralism
This framework should reinforce existing international commitments, address sub-national development disparities, and respond to the current under-representation of pastoralism in the global discourse, whilst protecting against harmful investments, such as land grabbing for biofuel production.

Connect pastoralists to domestic and international livestock markets
Policies and investments are needed to connect pastoralists to markets. Greater investment is needed in local-level processing and value addition, both to improve local revenue capture and to provide employment opportunities in pastoral areas.

Capitalize on the environmental benefits of pastoralism and expand green niche markets
Genetically diverse livestock raised on natural rangelands produce goods that cannot be replicated by intensive production systems. Growing consumer demand for such goods has created niche marketing opportunities that can be capitalized upon.

Strengthen property rights and governance over rangeland resources
Rights and governance over rangeland resources should be strengthened through capacity building and awareness-raising for better application of national laws, building institutions for natural resource management, and empowering pastoralists through knowledge sharing and respect for Free, Prior and Informed Consent.

Integrate pastoralists into the development mainstream
Pastoralists should be integrated into the development mainstream by improving representation in decision making and promoting innovation in the provision of basic services—including education, health, communications, safe water, and renewable energy.

Pastoralism and the Green Economy – a Natural Nexus? and a related policy brief can be downloaded here.

For more information please contact
Ewa Magiera, IUCN Media Relations, +41 76 505 33 78, [email protected]
Michael Logan, Information Officer, UNEP Division of Communication and Public Information
+254 725 939 620, [email protected]

Work area: 
Climate Change
Global Policy
Social Policy
Environmental Law
South America
East and Southern Africa
West and Central Africa
West Asia
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