If grasslands were a business, you wouldn’t find many people willing to invest.

Most of the world’s original grasslands have already been lost to urban development, timber or agriculture. Roughly 75% of those that remain have been degraded, and their future doesn’t look bright. Even though they provide livelihoods for 800 million people on the planet, grasslands are a seemingly dying breed.

“It’s not surprising,” says Craig Leisher, senior advisor on poverty and conservation for The Nature Conservancy. “Grasslands flourish in places that are coveted by humans for other purposes—agriculture, plantations and settlements—that nearly always trump conservation efforts.”

But a new study funded by The Nature Conservancy offers hope. A 10-year project in South Africa provides quantitative evidence that it is possible to save grasslands and improve the livelihoods of the people who depend on them.

“We all believe that conservation can benefit people, but actual empirical evidence is scant,” says Sanjayan, lead scientist for the Conservancy. “That’s why this study on the value of conservation of grasslands for people is so important and timely.”

The project is set in the 7,000-hectare (17,297 acres) Umgano Grasslands of South Africa, an impoverished community of 22,000 people with no connection to the national electricity grid and no formal drinking water supply. Livestock are the primary source of income here, as well as a sign of wealth and power.

Working with the local leadership, conservationists divided the area into three zones. The first (which was turned into a nature reserve) consisted of the highest conservation-value grasslands in the area. The latter two zones (one for timber and the other for managed livestock grazing) contained lower quality grasslands and were used for supporting the local economy.

The result 10 years after launch? Measurable socioeconomic gains, including:

  • 100 new jobs created by the timber plantation;
  • An annual timber revenue of $240,000, which is invested in the biodiversity zone and the community;
  • Creation of a community health clinic;
  • A 21% increase in salary for those employed by the timber plantation; and
  • Healthier grasses in the managed livestock zone as compared to similar grazing lands outside the area.

Could other grassland areas around the world—and the millions of people who depend on them—benefit from a similar approach? Yes, says Leisher.

“With a small bit of funding and access to technical expertise via a university or NGO,” he argues, “hundreds of grasslands communities could do the same.”

Sounds like an investment worth making after all.

(Image 1: Children walking home from school in the Umgano Grasslands. Image 2: Mayford, chairman of the local Umgano Trust. Image 3: the highland grasslands of Umgano. Source: Tim Boucher/TNC.)

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  1. What about grasslands in support of Nature, not just in support of more livestock grazing by an out-of-control human population? Some of The Nature Conservancy’s best work on grasslands was done the old fashioned way through acquisitions and restorations, as in the 1990’s at Kankakee Sands and Emiquon. TNC was never better than when it was being led by John Sawhill on the Last Great Places.

  2. 100 jobs for 22,000 people in an impoverished community is not enough to ward off large companies overtaking the land. Can you give me further insight on this?

  3. Ted, you seem to have forgotten that 1/3 of the available grassland was set aside for rehab & total conservation. This is a win-win situation w/ land dedicated for conservation with the support of the local people rather than against their wishes and against their perceived best interests.

  4. Debra

    The job dependency ratio for South Africa is 3.83 (altough probably much higher in rural areas) – so those 100 jobs are supporting at least 383 people. The jobs are also local – meaning they don’t have to travel long distances and stay away from their families for months at a time – not only does this save money, but it also keeps the family structure in tact.
    Add to that the timber revenue which goes back to the local community, and the introduction of a valuable indigenous cattle breed (Nguni cattle) – there is an terrific multiplier effect of the conservation project.

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