Rangelands are facing a ‘silent demise’, suffering losses as high as 50%

Past estimates understated actual loss of rangeland health and productivity, states new report by UNCCD

By Shagun
Published: Tuesday 21 May 2024
Up to 500 million people across the world practise pastoralism. Photo: iStock

A new report by the United Nations paints a concerning picture of the world’s rangelands, with up to 50 per cent estimated to be degraded. This figure is nearly double the previous estimates that ranged from 20-35 per cent, the land outlook report on rangelands and pastoralists highlighted.

Past estimates of degraded rangeland worldwide significantly understated the actual loss of rangeland health and productivity, which could be as much as 50 per cent, agreed over 60 expert contributors from over 40 countries of United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in the report.

The report, Global Land Outlook Thematic Report on Rangelands and Pastoralists, was released May 21, 2024. 

Read more: Pastoralists are an asset to the world — and we have a lot to learn from them

While some estimates say that around 20 per cent rangelands were degraded, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), up to 35 per cent of grasslands are at risk of degradation, with other rangelands showing significant risk at 26-27 per cent.

Recent estimates of rangeland degradation have declined significantly and experts are now concerned that these assessments may significantly underestimate the actual loss of rangeland health and productivity, said the UNCCD report. 

Rangelands cover 80 million square kilometres, or over 54 per cent of the terrestrial surface, constituting the largest land cover/use type in the world but accounting for one sixth of global food production and representing nearly one third of the planet’s carbon reservoir.

According to the Rangelands Atlas, livestock production systems in rangelands cover 45 per cent of the global land surface, almost half of which is situated in drylands. 

In India, rangelands occupy about 121 million hectares and the area used for grazing is estimated at around 40 per cent of the total land surface of India, including grasslands (17 per cent), and forests (23 per cent). 

Read more: Greener pastures: How Indian pastoralists are being aided to return to their traditional livelihood

The degradation globally was 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.

Ironically, the report underlined that while rangelands have been converted for crop production in mostly arid regions, this conversion has resulted in decreased agricultural yields because of land degradation, diminished soil fertility and nutrients, erosion, salinisation, alkalinisation, among other things. 

This conversion and loss of rangelands is done in “silence and attracts little public attention”. 

“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. 

Often marginalised or considered outsiders, many pastoralist and rangeland communities are unable to influence the policies and programmes that directly impact their food security, livelihoods and cultural identity. 

Read more: Recognize environmental contribution of pastoralists: Experts

“They are voiceless and powerless and represent a small minority in the political and administrative machinery that governs development and investment decisions in the rangelands,” the report said. 

Pastoralist livelihoods and cultures around the world are under threat and the report called 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.

Pastoralism is one of the oldest and most sustainable food systems on the planet, where herders, along with livestock, move from one climatic region to another every year in search of food, to take advantage of suitable pastures and grasslands, and to avoid extreme temperatures. Up to 500 million people across the world practise this form of animal husbandry. 

In 2022, the United Nations declared 2026 the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists, with an aim to raise awareness and advocate for healthy rangelands and sustainable pastoralism, and to promote capacity building and responsible investment in favour of the pastoral livestock sector. 

Read more: Return of pastoralism: How villagers fought a long battle to regenerate grazing lands, assist herders

In a first such step in India, the Union Ministry for Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying is on its way to estimating the number of pastoralists in the country, the number of animals with them, and the economy of pastoralism, for which currently there are no figures. 

This will be the first such census for pastoralists in India and is likely to start this year. 

According to organisations working with the communities, about 20 million pastoralists graze India’s forests and grasslands currently. 

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