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Conservation in the Age of Climate Change: Saving the Cows—and Grasslands—of Rural Zimbabwe

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In the midst of drought and famine, rural villagers Zimbabwe are food-sufficient and see wildlife return. The reason? They’re managing cattle in a way that jump-starts soil biology and restores land. Image by Tony Eprile. Zimbabwe, 2015.

Sianyanga is a small community far from any paved road in Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe’s poorest province. The village, part of the Hwange Communal Lands, comprises about 150 households — one household being six or seven family members living in a group of small, thatched huts. From the 1990s until about 2010, along with problems endemic to the region, including hunger and lack of clean water, the people of Sianyanga bore an added affliction: biting ants, or izinyebe, that thrive on bare soil.

These weren’t just annoying bugs that nipped a little. Balbina Nyoni, a single mother who has spent her whole life in the area, told me that being rushed on by izinyebe is like having boiling water poured on the skin; the onslaught has sent men to the hospital. The ants were known to gouge out the eyes of baby goats, killing them in minutes. People who lacked shoes, as Nyoni did, wrapped their feet in plastic to avoid getting stung. Being bitten could mean losing toenails, so open shoes were of no use. Plus, the ants ravaged low-growing staple crops such as groundnuts and cowpeas.

In September 2014, I toured Sianyanga with a group of community leaders. I was there to see the results of a seven-year effort to restore a landscape beset by desertification and drought. An older man paused in a grassy meadow and said, “This used to be so bare you could pick up a needle from the land.”

A few moments later we were on a narrow path when Balbina grabbed my shoulders and shouted, “Look! An ant!” I had to crouch down and squint to see it scuttling in the reddish dirt. Balbina told me that the ants have recently become quite difficult to find.
It was only then that I noticed that the women were all wearing sandals.

The izinyebe were a symptom of a broader problem affecting both Sianyanga and much of the world’s arable land: desertification, a process in which poor land management, overgrazing, and development combine to disrupt the fragile water cycle of semi-arid areas. Shade trees are cut down, natural grasses are removed for crops, and the soil dries up from the direct exposure to the sun. Once-fertile soil becomes inert dust, unable to sustain life. It primarily affects grassland ecosystems, which represent a significant portion of the world’s land mass; it is an important factor in poverty, conflict, and internal and international migration.

In Sianyanga, Balbina said the decline began in the late 1980s, when the Nalomwe River went dry. The river had provided the community’s water and Balbina used to swim there as a child. Soon the village, formerly productive and dappled with shade trees, could no longer support its livestock. When the rains came, the water carved deep ditches in the Earth. Each passing year meant longer forays for water and forage for their cattle. A 78-year-old man named Thomas Mudimba said: “To get water, if I left at mid-day, I came back from the other village at six in the evening. If I took five animals for water, maybe I come back with two.” For the 20-kilometer journey meant exposing their livestock to predators, mostly lions.

Today, though, the riverbanks are stable and covered with grass, and water flows months longer into the dry season. The revived landscape provides more wildlife habitat, and a variety of animals are returning. The crop fields are more fertile, which means less hunger and poverty. Whereas even five years ago most villagers depended on international food aid, people are now growing enough to feed themselves. “Neighboring communities now come to us for food,” said Busie Nyachari, a young mother. And with better economic prospects, people are less prone to share information with poachers or kill animals for food.

Sianyanga is just one village, and the region’s desertification problems are far from solved. But some hope that the village can be a model for how rural villages in desertified areas can revive streams and rivers and the vitality of their land — not by abandoning their agricultural practices, but by embracing them.

The model that was applied in Sianyanga is called Holistic Planned Grazing, and it was developed by Allan Savory, co-founder of the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe. As a wildlife biologist working in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in the 1950s, he observed that, when parkland was safeguarded from roving animal herds, the land deteriorated. He concluded that grasslands and grazing animals evolved together, so that the land needs the animals just as the animals need the land.

Over several decades he devised a set of principles for managing livestock so that their behavior mimics that of wild herbivores: they nibble grasses in a way that promotes growth; their waste adds organic matter; and their trampling aerates soil and presses down dead plant matter to be decomposed by soil microorganisms. And the animals are kept on the move, as they would be with natural predators, so plant cover isn’t damaged by continuous grazing.

Today, his approach is being applied on five million hectares (12 million acres) on six continents. Savory’s work in Zimbabwe has won accolades, including the Buckminster Fuller Challenge in 2010 and the Humanitarian Water and Food Award in 2014. With renown comes criticism, and many academics and environmentalists take issue with his ideas. To date, research has added little clarity, in part because studies have focused on a number of different grazing regimes that may or may not follow the same protocols. And the notion that cattle could restore land has rankled those whose experience has led them to expect the opposite.

The prospect of livestock as a restorative tool was also counterintuitive to Savory, who says that he long harbored a strong dislike of cattle. But he came to believe that, in the absence of the vast, wild herds that historically crisscrossed the world’s savanna, steppes, and prairie, ordinary livestock appropriately managed could fill the niche.

Without animal disturbance, according to Savory, old grasses slowly decay without becoming part of the soil, stifling new growth. The result: the plant material oxidizes and the soil loses carbon and water as well as the capacity to support plant and animal life. Whereas plants cool the ground through shade and transpiration, without cover a patch of soil gets a direct hit of solar radiation.

In Savory’s view, while many landscapes are definitely overgrazed, others are undergrazed (or over-rested). Essentially, managing livestock strategically helps resolve a key challenge for people living in seasonal drylands: how to maintain soil moisture and healthy plants from the end of one rainy season to the beginning of the next. The synergy between the land and the vegetation and the ruminant’s digestive process can forestall, and even reverse, desertification in grassland ecosystems.

The ACHM, an educational and demonstration site near Victoria Falls, began community training in Sianyanga in 2007. Precious Phiri, who grew up in a nearby village and worked for ACHM until earlier this year, says that “conditions were so bad I was shaking inside at the thought of starting on this project. They started to see changes in 2009. And now look at what they’ve been able to do!”

In villages like Sianyanga, where few own more than one or two animals, ACHM devised a system whereby cattle are pooled and moved as a single herd onto common areas and family garden plots — like a bovine brigade. This mimicked the impact of wild herbivores like Cape buffalo and antelope. Even small changes can have huge consequences. The animal hooves chip at hard soil so that water can begin to soak into the ground, for example. In Sianyanga, crop fields where ACHM’s techniques were put into use had 3.5 times the yield as those that didn’t, says ACHM co-founder and Allan Savory’s wife Jody Butterfield. She noted that the increased yield was “the difference between feeding your family for two months versus feeding them for the better part of a year.”

And it’s not just people that benefit. ACHM staff members claim that restorative grazing can prompt a rebound of native wildlife as well. At the 7,500-acre Dimbangombe Ranch, where ACHM is located, the river now extends a kilometer higher than it has in living memory; Egyptian geese and African fish eagles, water-loving birds, have returned. I saw several healthy herds of sable antelope, a beautiful, regal-looking animal whose numbers are dwindling in many southern Africa parks. Herders at Dimbangombe have of late sighted lions more frequently than in the past five years. The number of wild “painted” dogs, a threatened species, is on the rise. Recently, even the endangered pangolin, an insect-eating mammal with scales, has been seen, says Elias Ncube, a training facilitator.

Poaching is another problem that ACHM hopes that restorative grazing can help to address. Many of the 20 communities that work with ACHM border the Hwange National Park, where the famed Cecil the lion lived before being lured away and meeting his untimely demise. Animal poaching is rampant in this region; it’s also an example of how addressing rural poverty advances wildlife preservation. Large-scale poaching is perhaps the inevitable result of extreme poverty and coveted wildlife. For someone with no food and little hope of employment, it is hard to turn down thousands of dollars for, say, a tip about a rhinoceros’ whereabouts. And helping rural people find other sources of income can enable them to care for the environment in other ways too. For one, the killing of animals for meat can be reduced. “If the land is deteriorating and you’re losing your animals,” Ncube says, “you have no alternative to killing for food.” Ncube also says that areas where croplands have been restored have seen a reduction in the number of trees cut down for lumber.

Lastly, re-aligning the water cycle in arid areas could be an effective way to fight climate change. Desertification distorts the carbon, water, and energy cycles, and so is at once a result of climate change and a contributor to it. Productive grasslands and croplands build carbon in the soil, by drawing down atmospheric carbon through photosynthesis. Carbon-rich soil holds water, thereby promoting plant growth and minimizing bare ground — the rural equivalent of urban heat islands.

Since my 2014 visit Zimbabwe has been extremely dry. The last several years have seen scant rainfall, which many link to climate change. With the nation’s maize harvest down by half, the World Food Programme warns that 1.5 million are at risk of going hungry. Thousands are leaving drought-ridden areas for places with more water, prompting fears of unrest in a nation already politically and economically fragile. Zimbabwe remains under the thumb of the ruthless President Robert Mugabe, whose corrupt land policies went violent and wrong; with eight legal currencies, the financial sector is chaotic. To make something work here is by definition an uphill battle.

Despite the poor rains, the communities that use animal impact are holding their own. “The moisture is held longer in the soil, so the crops can grow for a longer period of time,” says Simon Garikayi, ACHM’s director of training. As for food, “they have a bit of reserves.”

Going forward, ACHM’s goal is to continue to scale up restorative grazing in Africa. The Dimbangombe demonstration site and training center draws high-level staff from international agencies and interested individuals from around the world. A Czech-based non-governmental organization (NGO) is supporting similar training and monitoring in Zambia. The United States-based Savory Institute, which promotes restorative grazing, has multiple hubs, of which ACHM was the first to be accredited. South Africa has a hub in the Eastern Cape, and there are two hubs up for accreditation in Kenya and others in process in Malawi and Ethiopia. A project in partnership with Heifer International in West Africa is also expected to start in February 2016.

In rural Zimbabwe, the Africa Centre is now influencing 72,000 hectares (178,000 acres), as the main driver or in partnership with NGOs such as CARE-Zimbabwe. As they continue to try to restore more land and waterways, perhaps more rural villages will be self-sustaining. And perhaps wild species — like those stately sable antelope — will have more company roaming the Africa savanna.

This article was produced with FERN, a non-profit investigative news organization reporting on food, farming, and the environment. The Pulitzer Center provided travel support.