/ 23 May 2024

The silent threat: Degrading veld endangers global food and ecosystems

Namaqua Veld 1
The Namaqua veld. File photo

When a forest is destroyed, it is called deforestation, and evokes a great deal of emotion. But the destruction of ancient rangelands happens in silence, according to Ibrahim Thiaw, the executive secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

The world’s rangelands, or veld as it is known in South Africa, consist of grasslands, savannas, shrublands, wetlands, tundra and deserts that cover more than half of the land surface and are in a perilous condition with up to 50% degraded, a new UNCCD report has warned.

This degradation, caused by overuse, misuse, climate change and biodiversity loss, poses a severe threat to food supplies and thus to the well-being or survival of billions of people, the report found.

Pastures, meadows and rangelands are often perceived as “land frontiers” that are of little value until they are transformed by human hands, Thiaw wrote in the report.

“The term ‘development’ is often taken to mean human action, agricultural development, destruction of natural habitats, draining of wetlands, or urban development. Rangelands are often referred to as arable land, a sign that planners see them as better ‘developed’ when transformed than when left in their natural state.”

These extensive ecosystems provide biodiversity, support rural livelihoods, account for a sixth of global food production, and represent nearly  a third of the planet’s carbon reservoir. 

Two billion people — small-scale herders, ranchers and farmers, who are often poor — depend on healthy rangelands, and marginalised pastoralists and livestock breeders find it hard to influence development policies. 

They are “voiceless, powerless, and generally, a minority” in the political and administrative machinery, the report noted. “Although estimated to number half a billion souls, they are sometimes classified as indigenous peoples or as societal outsiders.”

The degradation of rangelands is largely driven by converting pastures to cropland and other land use because of population growth and urban expansion, rapidly rising food, fibre and fuel demands, excessive grazing, abandonment and policies that encourage over-exploitation.

Ironically 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, the report noted. 

Rangelands are also often poorly understood and limited reliable data undermines the sustainable management of their value in food provisioning and climate regulation. 

In addition, weak and ineffective governance, poorly implemented policies and regulations, and the lack of investment in rangeland communities and sustainable production models undermine them, the authors said.

A core recommendation is to protect pastoralism, a mobile way of life dating back millennia. It is centred on the production of sheep, goats, cattle, horses, camels, yaks, llamas or other domesticated herbivores, along with semi-domesticated species such as bison and reindeer. 

Rangelands are an important economic engine in many countries and define cultures, the report said. Home to a quarter of the world’s languages, they also host numerous World Heritage Sites and “have shaped the value systems, customs and identities of pastoralists for thousands of years”.

In many West African states, livestock production employs 80% of the population. In Central Asia and Mongolia, 60% of the land area is used as grazing rangelands, with livestock herding supporting nearly a third of the region’s population. Livestock production accounts for 19% of Ethiopia’s GDP and 4% of India’s. In Brazil, which produces 16% of the world’s beef, a third of agribusiness GDP is generated by cattle livestock. 

In Europe, many rangelands have given way to urbanisation, afforestation and renewable energy production. In the United States, large tracts of grassland have been converted to crops, while some Canadian grasslands have been made fragile by large-scale mining and infrastructure projects. The report applauded growing efforts in both countries to reintroduce bison, an animal of cultural importance to indigenous peoples, to promote rangeland health and food security.

South Africa is “seriously challenged” by the degradation of private and communal rangelands, which is being worsened by the effect of climate change, the UN report said. Afforestation, mining and the conversion of rangelands to other uses are driving degradation and loss of rangelands. 

They cover about 74.8% of the total land surface in the country, according to Andiswa Finca, a researcher, and Julius Tjelele, the research team manager at the Agricultural Research Council’s Range and Forage Sciences unit.

Rangeland is defined as land on which the indigenous vegetation is predominantly grasses, grass-like plants, forbs or shrubs, which is used for the production of grazing livestock and wildlife, the researchers said. 

“They serve as essential habitats for diverse flora and fauna, and play a crucial role in providing ecosystem services such as water, fuel wood, thatching grass, wild fruits, herbs and medicinal plants, forage for livestock and play a key role in carbon sequestration among others.” 

They said rangelands support the livelihoods of some of the country’s most economically disadvantaged people, who rely on them for sustenance and cultural practices, particularly livestock grazing.

The country’s rangelands are particularly vulnerable to the effect of climate change, Finca and Tjelele agreed. 

“Prolonged droughts, increasing temperatures, rainfall variability, and extreme weather events like floods, affect the productivity of the rangelands, leading to degradation characterised by increased soil erosion, bush encroachment and invasion by alien plants as well as change in species composition. This, in turn, affects the grazing capacity.”

Historically, South African land policies have overlooked local knowledge, hindering effective communal rangeland management, they said.

“The application of effective management strategies is crucial both to the sustainability of rangelands and to livestock health. However, currently the rangelands are extensively grazed and by the time the dry season comes, there is not enough grazing left to see the animals through the dry and drought seasons.”

This occurs on private land and communal rangelands but is more pronounced in  communal areas where access and use of the rangelands is on a collective basis. “In most of these areas, unregulated continuous grazing where animals are led to the communal grazing in the morning and collected in the evenings is prevalent,” said Finca and Tjelele.

This often leads to the over-use of certain grass species and the under-use of others and both cases provide an opportunity for invaders, leading to less desirable grasses dominating.

The proliferation of woody plants in rangelands is often attributed to high livestock populations, climate change and the suppression of fire, which diminishes grass cover, they said. Bush encroachment has led to the transformation of rangelands from grasslands and savannah to forests with little or no forage for livestock. 

Finca and Tjelele said the extent of bush encroachment is alarming. Their unit has done extensive research on the underlying factors causing this and have developed various interventions. 

They added that the rangelands “are also repositories of indigenous knowledge systems related to their use and management as well the use of the ecosystem services they provide”.