24 May 2024

“Half of the Planet’s rangelands are degraded,” UN says


A snapshot from the latest UNCCD Report: degradation affects up to 50 percent of rangelands, twice as much as previous estimates. Central Asia and North Africa are the hardest hit areas

by Matteo Cavallito


The degradation of natural grasslands poses “a severe threat to humanity’s food supply and the wellbeing or survival of billions of people.” This is the message issued by the “Global Land Outlook Thematic Report on Rangelands and Pastoralists” released by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, in recent days.

The problem, experts explain, affects up to 50 percent of these territories and is shown by phenomena such as “diminished soil fertility and nutrients, erosion, salinization, alkalinization, and soil compaction inhibiting plant growth.” Among the causes are land conversion, overgrazing, abandonment of the territories themselves and mining activities.

Extending over 54 percent of the earth’s surface

The category of rangelands includes mainly natural prairies used by livestock and wildlife, as well as savannas, shrublands, wetlands, tundra and deserts. All together, the UN explains, “these lands constitute 54% of all land cover, account for one sixth of global food production and represent nearly one third of the planet’s carbon reservoir.” On these environments, moreover, depend-especially in developing countries-the fate of two billion pastoralists, ranchers and farmers, with particularly high percentages in some areas of the Planet.

In many West African states, for example, “livestock production employs 80 percent of the population.” While in Central Asia, “60% of the land area is used as grazing rangelands, with livestock herding supporting nearly one third of the region’s population.”

In all this, however, the report notes, there is also a paradox. “Ironically,” says the organization, “efforts to increase food security and productivity by converting rangelands to crop production in mostly arid regions have resulted in degraded land and lower agricultural yields.” A result also linked to “weak and ineffective governance,” “poorly implemented policies and regulations,” and “the lack of investment in rangeland communities and sustainable production models” for pastures.

The degradation of rangelands has been underestimated for years

Compiled with contributions from more than 60 experts from over 40 countries, the report sharply revised upward estimates of pasture degradation. Previous estimates, which reported the phenomenon as extending over about a quarter of these lands, would have in fact underestimated “significantly the actual loss of health and productivity” on a global scale. Degradation, the new study argues, could actually affect up to half of the Planet’s grasslands.

“Rangelands are often poorly understood and a lack of reliable data undermines the sustainable management of their immense value in food provisioning and climate regulation,” the report warns.

Asia and North Africa have the most problematic situation

Among the hardest hit areas is, notoriously, Central Asia, where desertification, some observers have argued, is advancing at an increasing pace, threatening the security of an estimated half a billion inhabitants. Here, the report notes, “privatisation and agricultural industrialization left herders abandoned and dependent on insufficient natural resources causing widespread degradation.”

Also critical is the situation in North Africa, one of the driest regions in the world, where, “the impact of climate change in one of the world’s driest regions is pushing pastoralists into poverty and degrading the rangelands on which they rely.”

A new approach

To stabilize, restore and manage grasslands, the study notes, a number of strategies need to be adopted. First, for example, climate mitigation strategies need to be integrated with sustainable grassland management to increase carbon sequestration and storage. In addition, there is a need to avoid or at least reduce land conversion and to adopt conservation measures even outside protected areas to protect biodiversity.

Adding to this is the need to adopt and support pasture-based practices that help mitigate damage to the health of these lands. Promoting, finally, “supportive policies, full people’s participation and flexible management and governance systems to boost the services that rangelands and pastoralists provide to the whole society.”