The Rangelands Atlas is a first of its kind inventory of global rangelands compiled by a coalition of international environmental and agricultural organisations, including the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the WWF and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).
Their goal is to make rangelands a ‘prominent part’ of policy discussions, touching as they do on issues that range from climate change, to poverty reduction, biodiversity, water stewardship and the development of sustainable food systems.
“We care about land, we care about peoples’ livelihoods, we care about ecosystems,” Ibrahim Thiaw, of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, told an event to launch the atlas.
He placed the conversation around rangelands within the context of the need to feed a growing global – and increasingly middle class – population. This, he said, must to be balanced against the ‘need to protect land’.
“Investments in rangelands are low. The [pastoral] economy has attracted little political attention,” he explained. Just 10% of national climate plans, as part of the Paris Climate Agreement, include rangelands – compared to 70% that reference forests. “Mapping rangelands is a first step in ensuring they are sustainably managed.”
Shirley Tarawali, Assistant Director General of the ILRI, said it is her hope that the Atlas will ensure rangelands are included in the upcoming high-level intragovernmental discussions focused on issues like biodiversity and food system sustainability.
"If we have any chance of achieving climate, nature and food goals, the management and use of rangelands must be addressed at the highest levels. Our hope is that rangelands will be included in upcoming UN conferences on biodiversity, climate, land and food," Tarawali, who is also chair of the FAO-hosted Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock (GASL), commented.
Croplands – not livestock – are the biggest threat
Currently, 12% of rangelands are designated protected areas. According to the Atlas’s authors ‘much of the rest is threatened from escalating conversion, particularly for croplands’. The Atlas shows over the past three centuries an area larger than North America has been converted to produce arable crops.
In fact, FAO policy advisor Vivian Onyango suggested, livestock are an important contributor to the health of global rangelands.
Livestock agriculture is developed ‘mostly for economic reasons’ she noted, pointing to the 60% contribution that animal agriculture in rangelands makes to Tunisia’s agricultural GDP.
However, livestock agriculture is also ‘a way to manage rangelands’ sustainably and the ‘most optimal’ way to produce food in arid conditions. Livestock, she continued, can stimulate grass growth and even act as pollinators.
Indeed, sustainably managed livestock cultivation in rangelands can contribute to land restoration, the FAO expert argued. “There are opportunities… around restoration. Livestock can play a very important role.”
Better livestock management and governance needs to be achieved working alongside local communities, taking into account traditional uses of land and development goals, she concluded.