I'm sure many of us have heard about the problem of desertification, particularly in Africa, but also across large swaths of America (remember the Dust Bowl of the 1930's?). Well, today a very interesting article appeared in the Atlantic, looking at grassland management and preservation, what's been done wrong in the past, and how to fix it using nature's own techniques. Here's an excerpt.
The underlying technique is called holistic management, and was developed by biologist Allan Savory in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) beginning in the 1960s. He saw that the arid grasslands on which the region's people, livestock, and wildlife depended were succumbing to desertification. In looking for a solution, Savory recognized that the grasslands had evolved out of a symbiotic relationship with large, grazing herbivores. In time he saw that the same was true of similar ecosystems around the world, including that of western South Dakota and the rest of the Great Plains, with its once-great herds of bison.
In arid environments, plant matter doesn't degrade easily on its own -- it needs these large animals to break it down in their rumens and stamp it into the ground and generally work the land. This was accomplished naturally: As the herbivores traveled in large herds for safety against their predators, they would cause a great disturbance to the land; then, for their own sake, they would leave and not return until the plants had had enough rest to regenerate.
Now take away the Great Plains' bison, or the equivalent animals elsewhere, and replace them with cattle, property lines, and fences. The equation still includes large, grazing herbivores, but because they are relatively stationary within the landscape, the symbiosis is lost. Certain areas are overused, and elsewhere plants simply oxidize and die off from under-use; microorganisms decline, water cycles fall apart, and the land gradually collapses.
The basic premise of holistic management is to use livestock like wild animals. But whereas bison on the Great Plains moved through the landscape by instinct, now ranchers must supply that direction. Rather than simply turning cattle into a pasture, these ranchers conduct them like a herd, concentrating bodies to graze one area hard, then leaving it until the plants have regenerated. The effect can be tremendous, with benefits including increased organic matter in the soil, rejuvenation of microorganisms, and restoration of water cycles.
According to Howell and his colleagues, there can also be an exponential increase in the land's ability to sequester carbon. Savory explains in his paper "A Global Strategy for Addressing Global Climate Change" that there are already 12 million hectares (29.7 million acres) of rangeland managed holistically in Australia, Africa, and North America. Increasing those soils' organic matter by one percent would remove 3.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) from the atmosphere. (For context, he offers that "the annual total emissions from all sources for the year 2000 was an estimated 44 gigatons.") Savory goes on to argue that increasing the organic matter by just 0.5 percent across all of the world's 4.9 billion hectares of rangeland would sequester 720 gigatons of CO2e; increasing it by two percent would sequester 2,880 gigatons. In a nutshell, the Brown Revolution consists of sequestering massive amounts of carbon by bringing holistic management to the world's arid grasslands.
"It has to be done on a freaking massive scale," Howell says, "so it's going to require huge flows of capital to make it work. We're not going to own the whole world, but hopefully we're going to be a significant player at the table and influence land management policy on a global scale."
Howell's goal is two-fold: to implement holistic management on enough land as to have an impact on climate change, but also to provide a model that becomes the standard for grasslands management around the world.
There's much more at the link. It makes very interesting reading.
This African boy, who's seen (up close and personal) the Sahara, the Kalahari and the Namib Deserts expanding for years, hopes and prays that the project will succeed.