Pastoralism is vital for conserving large areas of natural and semi-natural habitats, and the abandonment of pastoralism threatens biodiversity. Where pastoralism is practiced effectively, and where local knowledge and institutions are effectively exercised, the environmental outcomes are positive. However, where local institutions are undermined, and knowledge is constrained, pastoral environments are easily degraded.

What is biodiversity?

Very simply, the term Biodiversity refers to the variety of life: the diversity of all living organisms from the various ecosystems of the planet. It “includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems” in which they live (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2005): Handbook of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 3rd Edition).

How does pastoralism protect biodiversity?

Pastoral livestock are an integral part of the environment in which they are reared, and in most cases they have played a major role in the development of their environment. Those environments are often highly biodiverse, and both livestock and livestock managers have contributed to that diversity through systematic resource use and management techniques, such as burning and pollarding by livestock keepers, and grazing and trampling by livestock.

Livestock play an important role in the fertility and distribution of plants, by scarifying seeds in their guts, transporting them over great distances and fertilising the ground where they are deposited. The selective grazing and browsing of livestock and the active management by herders influences the distribution of plants and enables a wide diversity of plants to thrive. As a result pastoralism has modified grasslands and created environments that are favourable to certain kinds of wildlife species.

How is this role of pastoral systems recognized?

Some countries recognise, at policy level, that pastoralism is vital for the health of their rangelands. Legislation in Europe enables pastoralists to maintain their production system, and preserve their practices of mobility and their use of locally adapted breeds, for the sake of maintaining Biodiversity, or High Nature Value, in mountain ecosystems. In Eastern Africa, where countries earn significant foreign exchange through wildlife tourism, pastoralists are being increasingly remunerated to maintain favourable environments for wildlife migration and conservation.

Yet other countries are less enlightened of the role that pastoralism plays in conserving their rangelands, and they actively pursue policies to curtail effective pastoral management strategies and decision making. In many cases this stance is influenced by inappropriate or misunderstood theories of common resource management and pastoral economics. Anti-pastoralist policies are often based on the assumption that pastoralism degrades the environment, despite minimal evidence that this is the case, and sometimes in spite of overwhelming evidence that the opposite is true. In some cases, evidence of pastoral degradation of the rangelands is taken on face value, overlooking the fact that it is the policies to curtail pastoralism that have led to this unfortunate outcome.

How does the Convention relate to pastoralism?

Although the Convention does not place much emphasis on pastoralism, in essence it strongly supports traditional livelihoods as a mechanism to protect biodiversity. The convention clearly highlights the role of indigenous communities and the importance of protecting traditional knowledge especially through its provisions on traditional knowledge and customary use of biological resources in the articles 8 j) and 10 c) respectively. The CBD’s thematic work programmes on dry and sub-humid lands, mountain Biological Diversity and the ecosystem approach are important parts of the Convention relevant to pastoralism.

NB: More links to "PASTORALISM AND THE CONVENTION ON BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY" can be found on the right.