This highly degraded land needs help!
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Transmitting an understanding of regenerative grazing practices
Before all else: observation!
Our approach, the short version
1) Work closely with the Maasai to accompany them in the adoption of regenerative grazing practices.
2) Teaching the basics of grass and grassland ecology in the schools of the region.
3) Continuous dialogue with all the other stakeholders throughout the region to foster a general understanding of the benefits of regenerative grazing.
After only 3 months of rest: no more bare soil and plant diversity. There is resilience in the ecosystem
As a result of poor grazing practices that exhausted the more desirable plants this savanna is dominated by Sporobolus pyramidalis, an unpalatable grass mostly ignored by grazers. This savanna is choking on this old growth and managers will burn it to allow a fresh green flush to occur. Unfortunately, burning has negative long term consequences for the soil and the climate. Concentrating livestock at a very high density for a short period of time would allow a more desirable and diverse plant community to express itself.
Our approach, the long version
As Robin Reid explains in her book Savannas of our birth “pastoralism is the most widespread way people use the land on Earth. But in these vast lands the absolute number of pastoralists in drylands worldwide is small: less than 250 millions (or less than 4 percent of the total world population).” And, Reid continues, “the most common way to turn sunlight into food in the African savannas (and deserts) is to keep domesticated animals, in mobile herds on commonly owned land, that transform hard-to-digest plant matter into easy-to-digest animal tissue and fluids: meat, milk and blood”. Unfortunately, grazing practices that often fail to take grass and grassland ecology into consideration accentuate desertification trends and all their associated problems.
We have seen elsewhere that to reduce the number of herbivores that utilise a degraded area is likely to accentuate those degradations because it disrupts the herbivore-savanna symbiosis. Instead, the proper approach requires the adoption of regenerative grazing practices. This can only be achieved with the full understanding and cooperation of the pastoralists involved. We have also seen that in addition to fighting desertification and therefore also poverty, such grazing practices can sequester enormous quantities of carbon in the form of soil organic matter. The adoption of regenerative grazing practices on the vast areas throughout the world where pastoralism prevails is thus primordial in the fight against global warming and it is urgent to encourage their widespread adoption. In view of the numbers documented by Reid and mentioned above, this effort would seem totally achievable on a global scale: there would be nothing daunting for the world economy to accompany a mere 4% of the world population, often amongst the poorest, in the adoption of regenerative grazing practices. What is missing today is a global realisation that this win-win solution exists. So, what are we waiting for, let’s pass the word and get on with it!
Too much bare soil, even in the Masai Mara National Reserve
How does this translate for us and our work in the Masai Mara? Pastoralism and tourism are the two principal economic pillars of the Mara and both depend heavily on the productivity and thus the health of the savanna. In spite of this it is clear that the needs of the savanna are largely ignored by most of the region’s stakeholders. The Maasai pastoralists, even though they are mostly aware of the land degradations, lack access to the information and knowledge necessary to reverse the negative trends; the conservancies (which lease large tracks of land from the Maasai) and the Masai Mara National Reserve which together cover vast areas of the Mara, generate most of their profits from tourism and are often more wildlife than grass specialists; the same applies to many of the area’s NGOs that seem mostly involved in the conservation of charismatic animals such as predators and elephants; even the Maasai Mara University, the only University in the region, offers diplomas on wildlife and tourism but does not appear to offer courses in grassland ecology and management. In fact, many of these stakeholders see the Maasai and their livestock as part of the problem contributing to land degradation. This is understandable in light of the historic role poorly managed livestock may have played in these processes but this unfortunately does not predispose these parties to see this same livestock today as the only viable tool at our disposal to regenerate the grasslands.
The Mara Grassroots Movement aims to turn this around and to raise awareness in the region with regards to the importance the good management of the grasslands has for the ecological and economic health of the region. We use a three pronged approach to reach our objectives: in the field, working and living closely with the Maasai communities, the land and livestock owners and the herders; with as many schools, teachers and pupils in the region as we can reach; and with all other regional stakeholders such as conservancy managers and NGO representatives each time opportunities arise.
Progress report — spring 2022
- 18 approximately 2-hour presentations: 16 at community gatherings and 2 at high schools, reaching over 500 students.
- 5 separate formal meetings with the managers of 4 conservancies.
- Separate formal meetings with 9 influential community members.
- Approximately 20 families controlling about 10,000 acres and 500 cows in Intimi, Ngosuani are currently (summer 2022) collecting money to buy a movable boma (corral) in which to bed the cows at night (budget of approximately 70,000 ksh). Regenerative grazing should start as soon as this boma is acquired.
First presentation at a community gathering, March 30th 2022
Meeting with community elders, May 11th, 2022
Day by day
Oscar was active in the field in Kenya for close to three months during the spring 2022 campaign. It was clear that the causes of desertification and their remedy remain largely misunderstood. Oscar therefore utilised each community gathering he attended as well as each of his meetings with managers and community elders to present and develop this subject.
Community gatherings were almost systematically held outside, under the shade of a tree, with attendees freely and pleasantly participating in the exchanges in a rather open and democratic way. During such presentation Oscar would first ask the audience whether they agreed that the grasslands of the Mara were healthier than in the past. The response was systematically negative, with participants unanimously agreeing that the grasslands were degraded and less healthy than in the past.
The vast majority of participants would then, correctly, attribute this land degradation to overgrazing. Where the presentations really became interesting was when Oscar would proceed to illustrate what the causes of overgrazing really were. Most attendees, probably more than 80%, incorrectly presumed that overgrazing occurred when there were too many animals. Drawing from the Masais own experiences Oscar would then use simplified and amusing scenarios to demonstrate that because animals graze selectively overgrazing is not so much a function of animal numbers as it is a function of time and that it occurs when animals, whatever their numbers, are kept in one area for too long or when they are brought back too soon, before the grasses have time to recover.
Ephemeral office with a decent 4G internet connection!
A pattern would then typically emerge with the audience processing this new information: “Of course cows have a much better sense of smell than we do, they can smell a lion 30 meters away when we certainly can’t! Of course this allows them to choose the plants they prefer when they eat, we have actually seen it happen a thousand times, we just never connected the dots! Of course this will cause the more desirable plants to disappear if cows are left in one area for too long! Of course!”
Getting this far and to then convince each audience that to reverse the degradation of their land they had to stop grazing their herds individually in a continuous fashion and instead combine them and graze the much larger resulting herd according to a strict grazing plan proved to be the easy parts. The real challenge, getting a community to then actually implement this new approach, still lay ahead!
The best way to heal this higly degraded land in Ngosuani is to overnight a concentrated herd on it using a movable boma (corral): the boma protects the animals from predators and the resulting concentrated dung, urine and hoof action kickstarts biological processes again.
Aitong high school, June 2nd, 2022
This last point proved to be the most problematic. The initial investments of around €600 to acquire a movable boma and a little adjoining hut for the night herders simply proved to be too high for most communities which then had no choice but to momentarily abandon the project. As it is, progress with 3 communities in highly degraded areas, including one on a conservancy, has stalled due to this financial issue. Finding additional funding for these bomas would trully be a game changer.
Summary and conclusion:
- During each presentation it was obvious that attendees were aware that their lands continued to degrade but that they felt powerless to remedy it.
- Once the basic tenants of grassland ecology were explained attendees also easily understood what the causes of this degradation were and how to reverse them.
- The major hurdle keeping communities from adopting regenerative grazing practices proved to be financial, with most of these impoverished communities unable to acquire the necessary movable bomas (corrals).
- Finding funding to help in the acquisition of these bomas would be a game changer.
- Excluding the one time purchase of a piki piki and a phone, costs for the spring 2022 campaign were held at a strict minimum.
In the field
Progress report — fall 2022
- 17 presentations ranging from 30 minutes to 1 hour at community gatherings, in front of the approximately 35 Mara Predator Project ambassadors, and at a Narok county seminar on development.
- 13 meetings with the managers of 5 conservancies (of which 3 new ones and covering a total exceeding 100,000 hectares for the year); with the Narok county minister of agriculture and her team as well as with members of the office of the governor and of the office of the minister for the environment; with the CEO of a French startup developing in the carbon credit market; and with the Narok representative of SNV, a large Dutch ONG active in Kenya.
- separate formal meetings with 14 influential community members.
- 2 conservancies on the cusp of moving towards regenerative grazing practices with the help of MGM.
- several communities still in full debate, with the participation of MGM, regarding the adoption of regenerative grazing practices. This is taking more time than anticipated, but this is the price for reaching a consensus in this rather egalitarian society.
- raised €3527 for the purchase of mobile bomas through a crowdfunding campaign.
- A first mobile boma prototype was build, with sufficient funds remaining to build 2 or 3 more.
Welding of one of the corners for the first mobile boma
The first mobile boma!
with the Mara Predator Project ambassadors, november 17th. These ambassadors promote coexistence with predators within their communities throughout the Mara, and, from this presentation on, regenerative grazing practices.
Day by day
Oscar was active in the field in Kenya for close to three months again during the fall 2022 campaign. Most of his activities were similar to those in the spring: lobbying, presentations, reaching out to conservancy managers and other important stakeholders.
Unfortunately, a setback occurred within the Intimi community that was set to implement our program in the fall: a member was mauled by an elephant during the summer and the funds that the community had raised towards the purchase of a mobile boma where used for his hospital bills. MGM was not yet ready to jump in with additional funds and the momentum was lost. Thanks to our crowdfunding campaign MGM now has the funds to purchase a boma and it is to be hoped that we can pick up the thread again in 2023.
Oscar also drew lessons from his experiences. Even though the interest of most communities for regenerative grazing was obvious, mobilisation and implementation proves more challenging. Even though MGM was conceived as a grassroots movement, Oscar concluded that backing from the top was also necessary. He therefore contacted county officials, including the minister of agriculture and her team as well as members of the office of the governor and of the minister of tourism. These contacts were positive and Oscar intends to build on them in 2023. It will have to be seen if this translate into meaningful action and results on the ground.
On Samuel Yiaile’s land, near Ngosuani. Samuel is actively promoting the use of regenerative grazing practices within his community.
More than 9,000km clocked in on the piki piki!
Oscar also conceived a mobile boma and had a prototype built with the funds raised through a crowdfunding campaign. Due to inflation and changes to the original design the costs were higher than the original estimate (a little over 100,000kes compared to approximately 75,000). The building also took longer than scheduled (more than 6 weeks), due to delays in the delivery of some of the materials. As a result it was not possible to utilise the boma before Oscar’s departure in December. It is possible that one of the communities Oscar has been working with utilises it before Oscar’s return in April 2023, but if not it will be ready for use as soon as he returns. Lessons will be learned from this experience and it will be possible to build 2 or 3 additional bomas with the funds raised through the crowdfunding campaign.
Oscar also spent a few days at Elangata Enterit, in the east of Narok county to make a presentation. Precipitation there is reduced compared to the Mara and the land is highly degraded. After an 8 months drought herders were coppicing trees to feed their goats. Still, just two days after a rain, the first tiny grass blades were already poking through the soil surface. Unfortunately, many of those blades, barely a few millimiters long, had also already lost their pointy tips, indicating that they had already been grazed! The large number of goats present in the area was undoubtedly the cause: the sight and smell of these new leaves pulled them in like magnets, causing them to slowly kill these grasses by giving them no chance for further growth and recovery. Oscar is now in contact with members of the community and of the county government to try to develop a more sustainable grazing plan for the region.
The adults in the region explained that, as children, a mere 20 and 30 years ago, they were able to play hide and seek in the tall grasses and that there was water in the river in the two photos below 9 months a year compared to just a few days after each rain now. Now, the lack of infiltration due to the lack of vegetation no longer feeds the aquifers, and the rains just rush downhill to the river over the bare soils and are lost to the ecosystem forever.
Elangata Enterit, in eastern Narok county: the conditions are so harsh that herders are coppicing the trees to feed their goats.
A slight rain after an 8 months drought is enough for grass to start growing again. However, these plants will not be able to grow fully and regenerate if livestock is not managed properly.
Dry riverbed in Elangata Enterit, and 2 days later after a rain (next photo): these bare soil do not retain the water which rushes downhill directly into the river.
This water is lost forever to the ecosystem and the remaining plants now have to survive with even less water than before. Desertification accelerates.
Prospects for 2023
Oscar will be back in the Mara in early April. The outlook seems rather good, with two large conservancies on the cusp of adopting regenerative grazing practices with the help of MGM, and with several communities progressing towards those same objectives. Oscar further hopes that the contacts he is developing within the county government will bear fruits. The first mobile boma should also be put in place in April and additional bomas built as soon as the lessons from this first one are drawn.
Financial highlights, 2022
|Equipment purchases (motorbike, telephone,…)||1083||7|
|Local transportation (bus, petrol…)||337||229|
|Living expenses (lodging, food…)||511||712|
|Construction of a mobile boma (financed separately)||807|
© MGM 2023
Mara Grassroots Movement
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