Pastoralism provides direct and indirect benefits to the environment in dryland areas and deserves more recognition of this contribution, according to a new report by World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism (WISP).
This traditional form of raising livestock produces tangible benefits such as meat, wool and milk but it also has indirect value by providing wider environmental services such as safeguarding biodiversity or promoting tourism in rural areas. The study has even demonstrated a link between pastoralism and preventing soil erosion for the first time.
The study focuses on pastoralism in Ethiopia, Iran, Kyrgzstan, Mali, Peru and Spain. Pastoralists everywhere struggle under a wealth of misconceptions, as many people in developing and developed countries see their occupation as backward and unproductive. Governments gather little information on this activity and so often take badly informed decisions which negatively affect the sector.
Surprisingly, increasing environmental awareness is only making things worse. “More and more people are pointing the finger at livestock as a producer of greenhouse gases, but cattle ranching in Central America has a very different impact on the environment than areas where livestock has been grazed for thousands of years,” says Jonathan Davies, Regional Drylands Programme Co-ordinator of ESARO IUCN in Nairobi.
The report aims to make the benefits of pastoralism visible and even measure their direct and indirect contribution to the economy. Grazing animals can help maintain biodiversity if properly managed. The grasslands they live on are useful for their capacity for holding water and can supply human populations living nearby. These areas currently store around 34 percent of the global stock of CO2 and tropical savannas may have an impressive capacity to store carbon underground.
The chapter on Spain throws up more interesting examples of environmental services. Pastoralism not only helps fix rural populations, according to Pablo Manzano, researcher at Black Vulture Conservation Foundation, but a flock of livestock grazing in the undergrowth can be up to ten times as efficient at fire prevention than a team of people.
The findings of the Spanish team also show that pastoralism can help prevent soil erosion, a discovery which will be of interest to many in dryland areas around the world. “We found there is a close link between the rate of erosion and the amount of manure desposited per hectare,” says Dr Manzano, “there is also the plus that free-ranging livestock will distribute this fertilizer equally with no need for transport to do so.”