The Plight of the Pastoralists
Imagine an African landscape where wildlife, cattle, people, and native grasslands thrive together in harmony. North of Mt. Kenya and stretching toward the southern border of Ethiopia is an area called the Northern Rangelands of Kenya. This expansive, beautiful landscape is occupied by 26 indigenous tribes, mostly pastoralist communities who rely on cattle grazing on the grasslands for their livelihoods.
It was also once one of the most abundant wildlife areas on the continent, teeming with scores of black rhinos; however, poaching reduced the rhino population in Kenya from over 20,000 individuals in the 1960s to just over 500 in the 1980s.
The Start of Northern Rangelands Trust
My first trip to the Northern Rangelands came in 2017 while the area was in the grips of a long drought. It was desperate times with armed conflicts taking place between rival tribes trying to secure enough land to graze. Population growth and cultural traditions of managing cattle as a walking bank account led to dramatic growth in livestock numbers and overgrazing of the grassland. I had never seen a grassland in such tough condition and, given the circumstances, I was not overly optimistic on the prospects for renewal.
At the time, plans were being laid by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), with support from The Nature Conservancy (TNC), to create a new business model with market incentives for pastoralists who follow a planned grazing approach with the goal of improved grassland condition.
I questioned how the program would work given the simple fact that tribes who did improve their local grassland condition based on an adaptive management plan of grazing and rest, would simply attract other pastoralists from neighboring tribes to opportunistically graze off their good efforts when needed.
A Hopeful Return
Just recently, I returned to the same areas I visited in 2017. Following a period of above average rainfall, the grassland was in amazing condition, demonstrating the inherent resilience of the landscape. To the eye, it was a night and day difference. The team I had met with three years ago had made great progress, starting a new business model and partnership between the pastoralists and NRT called LivestockWORKS.
This program allows pastoralists to enter their livestock in a program designed to offer better market returns for the cattle. Pastoralists access the program by investing $10 per head, which is then matched by an investment of $20 per head by NRT. Their cattle are microchipped to maintain identity and then managed in a program involving adaptive planned grazing, access to veterinary services and better cattle genetics.
The fees invested also pay for NRT to provide grazing consultants to the community of pastoralists as well as funding the removal of invasive species, which overtake the grasslands in degraded areas. The fees also help manage plots to produce and harvest perennial grass seeds for reseeding of degraded areas.
These projects provide additional sources of employment for community members and it was encouraging to witness the dividends of their hard work when aided by the recent timely rains.
Another significant benefit of enrolling in the program is the opportunity to have access to grasslands on wildlife conservancies and private ranches closer to the market. The opportunity to add weight to their cattle immediately before harvest creates a more certain profit and is starting to reverse the long-held traditions of acquiring and managing more cattle as a sign of prosperity.
Now, some pastoralists are beginning to selectively cull their herds and add back individuals with the genetic potential to maximize the benefits of the new planned grazing program. As a result, the pastoralists can be confident to receive higher profits by participating in the LivestockWORKS program.
Benefiting Pastoralists and Beyond
It is often surprising for tourists visiting the wildlife conservancies to see cattle foraging areas thought to be reserved only for wildlife. When properly managed, the timely presence of cattle grazing actually improves the rangeland condition for wildlife, owing to the fact that cattle will forage different grassland species than a water buffalo or rhino, benefitting all. NRT has invested in a sophisticated and effective security program, which has nearly eliminated the poaching issues in the area. With a healthy grassland and greater security wildlife numbers are increasing and tourism to the region is growing.
After several years of collaborative efforts between NRT, TNC, Soils for the Future and Native Energy to build a science baseline and develop effective monitoring, NRT is eligible to start earning carbon credits for the soil carbon sequestration activities their grassland restoration efforts are beginning to deliver.
The proceeds from this new revenue source will be reinvested in the improved management activities, with the hope of growing the number of tribes and community lands which can benefit from this new community-based conservation approach.
Taken altogether, it stands as a remarkable restoration example. While the program is still early in its implementation, it shows the potential of wise management anchored by a new business model where wildlife, tourism, tribal pastoralists, and cattle grazing together can make a more resilient landscape, improving both livelihoods and nature.
Valuing Conservation in the Economy
The Northern Rangelands Trust area may be one of the more extreme examples I have witnessed on the vital importance of restoring degraded lands, but it is not unique regarding the nature of the opportunity. Globally, the estimated value of ecosystem service losses due to land degradation is $6.9 to $10.6 trillion per year.
Equipped with the right knowledge and market incentives, we can create a new conservation-oriented economy based on the life-giving value of nature.