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Down on the range: The upside to savvy grazing

Pressing environmental problems are coming home to roost. Smart rangeland management can help change this, but we must act now, while learning from the past.        

Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, seeking new-fangled ways to better manage Africa’s rangelands, we ought to learn from how the continent’s forebears did it.

Our ancestors on the continent were the original holistic farmers and we’re missing a trick if we fail to draw on this truth to win over today’s pastoralists and commercial farmers.

This was a central message that emerged at a Tipping Points webinar held on 25 May to ponder how the grazing of domestic animals in wild spaces might be done more sustainably.

The Tipping Points series, hosted by Oppenheimer Generations Research & Conservation, promotes African voices in finding solutions to environmental degradation and the effects of climate change.

Ancient skills

Panelist Max Makuvise said his forefathers had practised holistic farming.

“The rural pastoralists, my great, great, great, great-grandfather, were probably holistic practitioners because they worked with the land. They worked holistically with the land, with their animals, with their crops, with their families,” he said.

Makuvise is the director of Shangani Holistic, which runs more than 7500 head of Nguni cattle on a ranch with no fences, where livestock roams freely with wildlife. This includes more than 400 elephant, eland, kudu and giraffe and predatory hyenas and leopard.  

Pioneers

Joining him on the Tipping Points panel were Roland Kroon, a regenerative land management fundi, and Allan Savory, a cattle farmer, ecologist and pioneer of holistic land management.

Craig Atherfold, a corporate communications specialist, facilitated the discussion.

Agriculture, he said, was vital to feeding the continent’s growing population, but can we farm without compromising the integrity of the environment?

Makuvise’s answer was a resounding yes. He said that through Shangani Holistic’s operations, small holder farmers in Matabeleland had come to appreciate the fact the more biodiversity there was the on rangelands, the healthier the cattle would be, resulting in increased profit – far more so that “growing maize where it should not be, pumping the land full of fertilizer and producing no income.”

Kroon and Savory agreed that agriculture and conservation need not negatively impact each other.

Savory said holistic management of grasslands recognised that overgrazing had little to do with livestock numbers. “Ït has everything to do with the number of days a plant is exposed to grazing and how long it takes for its roots to recover before it’s grazed again”.

Kroon, a farmer and businessman serves as the lead trainer at the Herding Academy, north of Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape. The academy offers practical and theoretical short-course training in the ancient skills of herding. Trainees, including landowners and labourers, are taught planned grazing and holistic land management techniques to help them farm more successfully while regenerating their lands.

Savory has ties to the academy, and through the Savory Institute, which he co-founded in 2009, collaborates with experts across four continents to develop regenerative solutions to desertification. Today, the institute comprises a global network of 50 hubs that collectively manage 21 million hectares of land worldwide.

Asked to explain holistic management in practice, Savory described it as a concept, “where we tie our lives to our life-supporting environment”, seeking to keep it in a condition so that “centuries from now [it may] sustain our descendants”.

Allan Savory
Allan Savory asserts that managing holistically is all encompassing. It’s not just about cattle or land, it’s about managing the entirely of our lives,” says the ecologist. (Photo: Supplied)
Same but different

Kroon said this often involved stepping back from “an operational mindset” that governs commercial and conventional farming practices.

Holistic management is not about doing different things. It’s actually just about doing what we already do, differently,” said Kroon.

“It is principle based. It’s not prescriptive. It does not come with a recipe,” added Kroon. “It’s got nothing to with fencing systems, or grazing systems or anything like that. It’s about developing a regenerative mindset,” he said.

Cost-effective

And often, less capital was needed to apply holistic management than you would spend conventionally.

Kroon said basic holistic practices could also be effectively applied beyond agriculture. He referred to a South African mining operation that has a legal responsibility to rehabilitate the land when the life of the mine is over.

He said up to R121 million of shareholders money had been set aside “to tick a bunch of boxes of a rehabilitation exercise” that was “absolutely guaranteed to fail.”

“We could probably do the same, rehabilitate and improve livelihoods and be regenerative for less than 10% of that capital,” said Kroon.

Flexibility

The bottom line, added Kroon, was that people need to be capacitated to try something new, to be flexible and able to adjust.

“We saw for example, during Covid, the wholesale collapse of tourism in the game reserves. All of a sudden, we could use livestock as a land regeneration tool and generate income which had been pariah until the need arose.”

Policy

Savory stressed the need for a policy framework to promote holistic management and tackle Southern Africa’s pressing environmental and social problems.

“What is happening in Southern Africa, much like America, is that we’re seeing increasing droughts, floods, desertification, poverty, social breakdown, violence,” he said.

Soldiering on

During a colourful career that has spanned soldiering, cattle farming, conservation, research, public administration and politics, Bulawayo-born Savory has taught the principles of holistic management to more than 2000 conservationists, researchers and scholars worldwide.

“When I adopted the technique of planning, that came from the army,” he said, explaining that over thousands of years the military had accumulated considerable experience “in planning, extremely complicated, ever-changing situations in battlefield conditions”.

Aside from the work being done by his fellow panelists, Savory said there were very few cases where Africa’s grasslands were managed holistically.

And there was a limit to what individuals and companies could do when working “in an environment where finance is driving environmental destruction”.

Warning

Unless that changes, we are “absolutely doomed”, warned Savory. “If for example, in 10 years’ time nothing has changed, then I’m afraid the prediction is very easy to make, but it’ll be far worse because of what we’re seeing at the moment.”

Makuvise was more optimistic, buoyed by what Shangani Holistic has already achieved.

And every citizen had a role to play, said Makuvise. We need to collaborate and see the bigger picture if we want a better future.

“I can’t sit here and wait for the government to come up with a holistic policy on agriculture. What I can do is, work with my board and my shareholders and come up with holistic grazing,” said Makuvise.

“Plans that we can work out here, we can take to the people around us and the people around them and the people around them, and thus let the change happen.”

Convincing commercial farmers to step out of a conventional mindset was also part of the solution, said Kroon.

“We keep on telling them: ‘Guys, you have got to spend more time thinking. Sit back, close your eyes and think about the piece of land that you’re managing, the business you are running or the organization you’re in charge of. Think about it in a way beyond your lifetime, about the impacts you make now which will have consequence further on’.” – Additional reporting, Savannah Burns and Fred Kockott

Watch a recording of this webinar here.

Kater and Burns are taking part in Roving Reporters environmental writing training project, New Narratives. Supported by Jive Media Africa, the training initiative caters for young writers and early career scientists.

This article was first published in the Daily Maverick on 31 May 2023.

Author
Maxcine Kater

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