How biodiversity conservation schemes can harm the environment

Land loss for livestock production is increasingly seen as a major contributor to climate change and nature loss. While cutting down rich forests to grow livestock feed for industrial livestock is certainly harmful, misunderstandings about rangelands and pastoral interactions with their environments have led to harmful prescriptions for improving land use and landscapes.

Ahead of the COP15 biodiversity conference, a new set of briefings help us rethink biodiversity restoration schemes such as conservation, rewilding and tree-planting.

Different visions of landscapes and their uses compete in current debates reflecting values and understandings of ecosystems. In the environmental history of Africa and Asia, for example, European colonists imposed a particular vision of ‘forests’ that was conducive to their exploitation either through hunting or logging. They saw open rangeland environments, such as grasslands and drylands, as ‘degraded’, ‘wastelands’ or ‘empty’ and sought to return these to their ‘wild’, ‘wooded’ and ‘pristine’ condition.

Such a vision continues till this day, excluding pastoralists and misleadingly recommending tree-planting, fortress conservation and rewilding to combat the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.

A new set of briefings question these strategies. Even well-meaning advocacy of restoration can replicate colonial discourses. Examples include the United Nations’ Bonn Challenge, which seeks to afforest 350 million hectares of land by 2030; AFR100, that promises a 100 million hectares of afforestation in Africa; and the Great Green Wall are examples of this. Often such tree-planting involves fast-growing invasive species that are exploited commercially.

Prosopis Juliflora is an example. This fast-growing mesquite has been grown by the state in parts of East Africa and Asia on the pretext of arresting ‘desertification’ and ‘degradation’ while also being traded as a source of biofuels. The crop cannot be eaten by many animals, including livestock. At the same time, it does not allow local varieties of grasses and shrubs to grow as it consumes high amounts of water and soil nutrients, thereby degrading rangeland health. Native varieties, in contrast, thrive through the careful grazing of livestock by pastoralists, improving soil health and aiding in seed dispersal.

Overgrown Prosopis Juliflora in Isiolo, Kenya. Local pastoralists blame the shrub for diseases in their donkeys. Source:

Further, afforestation is often commoditized as carbon credits or carbon offsetting, and is, in turn, complicit in the degradation of these environments. While grasses have deep roots and high turnover with dead matter, the biomass of trees is visible overground, making the carbon measurable and therefore marketable.

Besides the deliberate planting of trees, some rewilding schemes also advance a divide between humans and nature, where habitats are assumed to ‘go back’ to a ‘wild’ or ‘natural’ state and ‘nature will take care of itself.’ In contrast, many pastoralists work with nature, taking advantage of the variability in rangelands, and offering many benefits in return. Such ecosystems, like many others, can thrive through interaction with pastoralists rather than without them.

While rangelands are increasingly encroached upon and appropriated for urbanization and industry, pastoralists who work with and contribute to the environment are increasingly being excluded on the pretext of biodiversity conservation. We must ask, therefore: what food system and what environment do we want, and for whom?

More on this topic

Read the set of 6 briefings that discuss different aspects of human-animal-environment relations ahead of COP15.

Specifically, see:

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