Rosario, Argentina, abuts a mighty river upstream of Buenos Aires. It used to be surrounded by highly productive pampas grasslands and the Guarani people who engaged with semi-sedentary forms of agriculture and fishing.
As the Spanish came looking for argentum, the Latin word for silver that the country was eventually named for, the Guarani were swept away. The introduced livestock of the Spanish colonisers came to dominate as gauchos grazed the cattle that would become the famous Argentine steak, spawning the ritual of the weekend asado (barbecue) and much of the new country’s cultural heritage.
I recently visited Rosario for the International Rangelands Congress. The conference brought together professionals working on the agricultural production and sustainability of rangelands, the uncultivated lands often used for livestock grazing (pastoralism). Rangelands are estimated to cover about 70% of our world’s land mass and contain about 35% of our people. Despite their importance to our environment and people, they are undergoing rapid change that threatens their very existence.
When case studies hide the real story
Change in rangelands at the local level is mostly caused by socio-economic or political factors that are common at the global level. Rangeland people have little control over these factors, yet they have serious implications for the sustainability of their environment, culture and livelihoods. Conference talks gave case study after case study illustrating the local impacts that global change can bring.
In Kenya, rangeland population sizes had increased, partially due to people being pushed ‘back into the (rangeland) wasteland’ as intensive agriculturists were allowed to expand their population and crops into increasingly marginal landscapes. Increased populations put more and more pressure on the arid rangelands as livestock numbers had similarly increased. This overwhelmed the ability of the vegetation to regenerate itself.
In Brazil, pastoralists had legal minimum numbers of livestock they must graze. This increased the chance of them overgrazing and causing land degradation if they have more livestock than what their land can support.
In Inner Mongolia, China, several hundred years of colonisation by intensive agriculturists had forced pastoralists onto increasingly marginal land. These lands were less productive, but pastoralists still needed a minimum number of livestock to sustain their families. Less productive and smaller areas of land could not sustain the same number of livestock. The spring dust-storms that contribute to respiratory illness in Beijing were just one product of the resulting overgrazing. Many Inner Mongolian pastoralists, with a unique culture evolved over thousands of years of mobile grazing, now live in expatriate villages at the margins of towns due to county-wide ‘grazing bans’ designed to protect Beijing.
During a fieldtrip around Rosario, it took us three hours to even access the rangelands. Recently planted genetically modified soy crops were far more profitable than the traditional cattle, so diverse grasslands had been ploughed up to make way for them. I was told that companies now lease the rangelands off landholders who had subsequently moved to Buenos Aires. Rural populations, and culture, were declining because of it.
With population and consumption increases, total demand for beef in Argentina has not declined, however. Today an estimated 40% of cattle are fattened in intensified feed-lots to produce meat that is reportedly less healthy and more energy intensive than when it was extensively grazed. Meanwhile, as we saw on the news at night, landless squatters were being evicted from the barrios of Buenos Aires due to a lack of affordable, available housing.
When global change becomes a threat
One of the most insightful papers given at the conference was by Australian rangeland scientist, Mark Stafford-Smith. Mark talked about the threat that rapid change can bring when it is at a scale far greater than the ability of socio-ecological systems to absorb it. Mark suggested that the rates of global change in significant socio-ecological variables (such as population growth, climate change, biodiversity decline) are now so great that knowledge systems are often no longer able to adequately to manage them.
Mark drew on examples from Central Australia, but he could have used examples from any of rangeland systems case studied during the conference. Mark suggested that governments have a significant role to play in ‘smoothing’ the knowledge gaps caused by rapid change in the rangelands.
I generally agree with Mark’s sentiments. But it is highly unfair and inefficient (and more than a little schizophrenic) to rely on the intervention of particular government departments to ‘protect’ the environment whilst other government departments are mandated to facilitate the very causes of environmental and cultural degradation through facilitating consumptive growth.
Saying no to ‘more for less’
Rangeland scientists around the world are asked to help produce more – more food to feed an increasing and increasingly hungry population. We are simultaneously asked to maintain the ecosystem goods and service upon which we all depend. We are asked to achieve both of these with less – less land, less sustainable forms of soil carbon and less water. Globally, the types of change that cause this quagmire is encouraged as it comes in the name of growth. Even the term ‘development’ implies dynamicism along a consumption trajectory with no end.
The environmental science sector, by design, offers band-aid solutions to problems with root causes outside the discipline in which it is ‘allowed’ to influence. The agricultural science sector, at best, buys us some more time whilst we address the root causes that threaten our long-term ability to feed ourselves.
The next International Rangelands Congress is in rapidly ‘developing’ India in three years’ time. Perhaps there we can finally start linking the stories of change from Kenya, Brazil, China, Argentina and Australia, and start having a serious discussion about their origin: namely, an obsession with growth.