This highly degraded land needs help!
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Before all else: observation!
Transmitting an understanding of regenerative grazing practices
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.
IN THE FIELD
During his three months study in the region in 2021 Oscar identified 5 areas in which to set up pilot projects during which the efficacy of regenerative grazing can be demonstrated. This number might still evolve, depending on opportunities. Oscar will reach out to community leaders in each of these areas to share his concerns regarding land degradation, explain how regenerative grazing can reverse those trends and ask them to help organise community gatherings in which he can develop these subjects in front of a larger audience. The aim at these community gatherings is to demonstrate the negative effects of continuous grazing by using pedagogical exemples, and to bring the audience to conclude by themselves that the only practical way to halt and reverse the degradation of their grasslands is to adopt regenerative grazing practices. In most case this will require the regrouping of all the herds grazing in a given area and to move them according to a well though out grazing plan. Even though most of the Maasai with whom such discussions have been held show a real interest in this new grazing approach, convincing them to actually adopt them will probably be the greatest challenge we will face. It will take time and patience, at least at first and until some tangible results are obtained.
2023 and after
The increased forage production we will obtain within the pilot projects in 2022 are meant to inspire others to adopt similar regenerative grazing practices. Each newcomer wishing to adopt these practices will be accompanied and the movement should accelerate and expand over time with a kind of snowball effect as more and more people become aware of the benefits of these grazing practices. In time there will be no reason to limit the movement to the Mara alone and we will endeavour to widen it to all of Maasai land, including in Tanzania, to other areas of Kenya and of East Africa, and why not the world. After all, this is meant to be a grassroots movement!
It might also be worthwhile to note here that participation in the movement is totally voluntary. Aside from one or two locals who will act as a mix of translators, facilitators and ambassadors and who will be compensated the Mara Grassroots Movement will not provide financial incentives to join the movement. Healthier and more resilient ecosystems, more water, more forage for livestock and for wildlife and therefore increased revenues, those are the rewards participants will be able to reap.
WORKING WITH SCHOOLS
Education is an important aspect of our work in the region, to raise awareness about the potential of regenerative grazing and encourage their progressive integration in Maasai culture. We are already in touch with the director of one school who stands ready to help reach out to other schools. Pedagogical tools will be used in class and in the field to explain and illustrate the basic principles of grass and grassland ecology and the benefits of regenerative grazing.
REACHING OUT TO OTHER STAKEHOLDERS
Oscar is already in contact with dozens of local actors, be they conservancy managers, rangers, the representatives of other organisations, and land and stock owners. He will, each time opportunities arise, continue to reach out to these stakeholders to further raise awareness and convince them that the livestock that is all too often seen as a part of the problem is in fact a key part of the solution.
Progress report — spring 2022
- Made 18 approximately 2-hour presentations: 16 at community gatherings and 2 at high schools, reaching over 500 students.
- Had 5 separate formal meetings with the managers of 4 conservancies.
- Had 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 50,000 ksh). Regenerative grazing will start as soon as this boma is acquired.
First presentation at a community gathering, March 30th 2022
Meeting with community elders, May 11th, 2022
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 internet connection!
A pattern would then typically emerge with the audience becoming excited by 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 €500 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 really be a game changer.
In the field
Close to 5,000km clocked in on the piki piki
Financials for the spring 2022 campaign (euros):
|Equipment purchases (motorbike, telephone,…)||1083|
|Local transportation (bus, petrol…)||337|
|Living expenses (lodging, food…)||511|
Excluding the one time purchase of a piki piki and a phone, costs for the spring 2022 campaign were held at a strict minimum. Unfortunately, although sufficient funds from our generous donors remain for Oscar to spend an additional 3 months in the Mara at minimal costs to continue his work during the fall 2022 rainy season, there are not enough funds to help with the purchase of the bomas that in most communities would be of tremendous help in getting additional pilot projects off the ground. Please contact us if you think you or anybody you know could help in that respect.
© MGM 2022
Mara Grassroots Movement
7 rue de la Dame Jouanne
77760 LARCHANT France
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