Reversing desertification through livestock grazing

The troubles for the villagers of Sianyanga, Zimbabwe, began in the late 1980s, when the Nalomwe River, which watered the village, went dry. Soon, the shade trees died and the villagers’ cattle herds suffered for lack of water and forage, says a Pacific Standard story produced in partnership with FERN. “If I took five animals for water, maybe I come back with two,” recalls villager Thomas Mudimba. The 20-kilometer journey exposed livestock to predators, including lions.

“Today, though, the riverbanks are stable and covered with grass, and water flows months longer into the dry season,” writes Judith Schwartz. “The revived landscape provides more wildlife habitat, and a variety of animals are returning. The crop fields are more fertile, which means less hunger and poverty.” The village, in Zimbabwe’s poorest province, may be a model for revival of villages in desertified areas by embracing agricultural practices. Sianyanga is a demonstration of “holistic planned grazing,” which mimics the ages-old pattern of wild herbivores briefly grazing in a region and moving to fresher pastures.

The technique, developed by Allan Savory, relies on livestock to nibble on grasses to promote growth, to deposit urine and manure as natural fertilizers, and to aerate the soil and press dead plants into the ground to speed decomposition and add organic matter. The grazing technique is applied on five million hectares on six continents, says Pacific Standard. It has drawn accolades as well as criticism; it seems counterintuitive to use livestock, often blamed for overgrazing land, as the major tool to restore them.