Most policies to tackle desertification are bound to fail. The problem will get solved as soon as they become holistic
I once heard evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris say, “If we had viewed Earth from space for thousands of years, we would describe humans as a desert-making species.” Over that time, we would have watched the few natural deserts that receive almost no rainfall, expanding into regions that receive rainfall as high as 1,000 mm, or more. Such environmental degradation caused by one species is terrifying and it is entirely due to humans. This desertification is occurring in regions that experience seasonal rainfall with long dry periods and is the greatest visible sign of human presence.
Before I go any further, let’s look at the symptoms of desertification, which include increasing frequency and severity of droughts and floods, poverty, social breakdown, mass emigration, violence, war and clima te change. I do not include biodiversity loss as a symptom because desertification itself is a symptom of biodiversity loss, starting with the loss of vital soil-covering plant material. Exposed soil between plants results in the available rainfall becoming less effective as water runs off the soil surface or evaporates out of soil, which is why droughts and floods increase.
Over millennia, desertification has led to the failure of many civilisations. During my lifetime (and I’m 84), trillions of dollars have been spent and millions of lives lost because we continuously address only the symptoms. We all know that to be successful, we must address the cause of a problem.
Throughout history we have blamed livestock for causing desertification — too many sheep, goats, cattle or camels over-grazing. Today, thousands of academic papers and reports attribute desertification to overgrazing by too many animals. As a young man in the 1950s, I began to notice desertification occurring in national parks and tsetse fly-infested areas in Africa, but in these areas there were no livestock at all. This made me begin to question the dogma that was being taught and my training as an ecologist.
In a 2013 TED Talk, that went viral, I showed severe desertification on research plots and land managed by USA’s National Parks Service, which did not have any livestock on it at all. What could possibly be causing desertification if it wasn’t livestock? Finding it difficult to do meaningful research in an institution, in 1964, I decided to become an independent scientist. I was helped by thousands of ranchers, farmers, pastoralists and scientists on three continents, and we established the cause, and a remedy, over the next 20 years.
What we discovered is that the cause of both desertification and climate change are the same: Management and policies that have never been able to adequately deal with the inevitable web of social, cultural, environmental and economic complexity. We have always believed that we have many tools to manage our environment, but all of them are aspects of ever-advancing technology, right from our first stick and stone tools.
Other than technology in various forms, the only tools we actually do have are: Fire and the idea of resting our environment. Both these tools (fire and rest) lead to desertification in seasonally arid regions.
The third tool, technology, can never be used to prevent, or reverse, desertification which is a biological problem that we can only solve using a biological solution. As I explained in the TED Talk, we have no option but to use the much-maligned livestock to help us mimic the vast herds of the past, which all soils and vegetation (in areas of seasonal rainfall) evolved with symbiotically.
The first piece of this puzzle was how would we do it? For thousands of years, knowledgeable pastoralists herded their animals, fully aware that their entire culture was dependent on their land and stock, but this had resulted in desertification. Then, a century of modern science devised a plethora of rotational and other grazing systems, which accelerated desertification, including in those nations where range science was developed!
There was simply no known way of running livestock without exposing the soil between plants over millions of hectares, which would result in desertification. Except in the areas of our planet that experience constant humidity: In these places, no matter how livestock are managed, desertification does not occur.
Seventy years ago, French pasture scientist Andre Voisin had established the reason why, even when using the best of rotational grazing, it leads to a loss of biodiversity in Europe although not to desertification in that environment. This is because of well-distributed humidity. Voisin had also discovered that some sort of “planning process” was needed to prevent rotational grazing causing biodiversity loss, and proved that overgrazing was not a function of animal numbers, as society and institutions still believe to this day.
Overgrazing is a function of time. It all depends on how many days plants are exposed to grazing and how many days before they are grazed again. We simply had to find a way of managing livestock, that catered for many variables, such as the rate of plant growth, number of herds, types of animals, while ensuring repeated, high physical animal impact (to mimic past herd behaviour under threat of predation), and cater for wildlife, crops, other land uses, as well as for erratic seasons. Only by doing this could we begin to reverse desertification.
We knew what we had to do but no one knew how to do what was needed. Following Voisin’s clue that some form of planning process was essential, we began management in all fields, to see if anyone had ever dealt with such complicated, ever-changing situations successfully. We found what we were looking for in military colleges of Europe.
Over centuries they had learned how to plan in immediate battlefield situations by breaking the situation down into small components that any human mind could easily comprehend. While this idea was easy to grasp, battles are fought for short periods but livestock movements had to be planned for many months ahead, catering for erratic seasons. Again, the solution was simple: Use a paper chart to express several dimensions, including time.
Our early efforts using this military method of planning worked immediately, with evidence of improvement of land. However, over the next few years some livestock owners began experiencing failure. Analysis showed that this was not due to the grazing planning process, but because I had failed to consider the social and economic aspects. We had, in fact, only learned how to plan livestock/land management in what amounted to dealing with complicated and ever-changing circumstances.
What we had not yet learned to manage was the web of social, cultural, environmental and economic complexity that is always present and inevitable. It took us a further four years to learn how to do that successfully, at which point the word holistic was added to the grazing planning process and it became Holistic Planned Grazing.
We managed complexity by using a Holistic Management Framework, and when used correctly, the results were consistent. Desertification is being reversed economically and profitably in a holistic context using livestock. We all need to take action to meet our needs, desires or to solve problems, but we avoid reducing the web of complexity to simple objectives by developing an overarching holistic context to guide all our actions.
I had originally set out to understand and solve the problem of environmental degradation, which I first saw in Africa, in the 1950s. And as I searched for answers, more by accident than intent, it resulted in the profound realisation that we had a far, far greater problem that needed to be solved: Humankind’s inability to manage complexity.
This profound development and realisation resulted largely due to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) engaging me to train 2,000 scientists and others over a two-year period. I don’t believe that any management process has ever been subjected to such a grilling, by so many scientists challenging the science and logic behind it, which enabled us to refine and perfect the Holistic Management Framework.
In summary: If we are ever going to seriously address desertification rather than its symptoms, it is essential that we do so at two levels. First, with farmers and pastoralists using livestock as a tool with the Holistic Planned Grazing Process (or a better process when it is developed). Second, at the policy level, with our governments and other institutions using the Holistic Management Framework to develop policies holistically.
Over the past 50 years, there have been many impressive results on the ground from farmers, ranchers and pastoralists. So much so that there is now a network of 43 locally led and managed Holistic Management hubs on six continents, affiliated with the Savory Institute, Colorado, USA. Among these is the first universityled hub (Michigan State University) in the US.
Results at the policy level have been confined to analysis of existing, or planned, policies because no government has yet developed any policy holistically. The large sample of 2,000 scientists and managers (from USDA, World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development and American universities) analysed hundreds of their own policies, concluding that all would fail because they were reductionist. One group in training made a statement that we published: “We now recognise that unsound resource management is universal in the United States.”
I provided similar training about 30 years ago to the Indian Forest Service in Bhubaneswar, which resulted in those officials analysing 12 of their existing or planned policies. Their conclusion was that all of the policies would lead to damaging consequences to the people, the land and the local economies.
Desertification is no longer either a mystery or a technical problem. It is now a people’s problem that will be solved as soon as people insist management and policy be holistic, thus addressing the reductionist management that is responsi-ble for desertification.
(The author is president of Savory Institute, Colorado, USA. He has made a significant breakthrough in under-standing what causes degradation and desertification of grassland ecosystems)
This was first published in Down to Earth's print edition dated 1-15 September, 2019
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