What’s the best way to protect the world’s dwindling grasslands from conversion to agriculture or parking lots?

Get the people who live on them to buy into their protection, according to a new analysis of a Gobi Desert project by Nature Conservancy scientists and colleagues.

The study — published in the online journal PLoS ONE — looked at whether a Gobi Desert grasslands conservation project (led jointly by the governments of Mongolia and Germany) had any measurable benefits not just for biodiversity, but human well-being as well. Like a recent Conservancy-led study from South Africa, the researchers found that both projects increased household incomes and grasslands biodiversity — by more than 10% in the case of the Gobi project.

The key to success? Empowerment of the local communities to manage their own resources.

The Gobi project utilized community-led efforts to improve grazing management practices, develop alternative livelihoods and strengthen cooperation among local communities, governments and resource managers.

“No one has a greater incentive to manage natural resources sustainably than the local people who depend most on them,” says Craig Leisher, senior advisor on poverty and conservation for The Nature Conservancy.

But there’s still a catch in Mongolia: climate change, which is making summers and winters there harsher and putting pastoralist livelihoods on a razor-thin margin. Even with better pastures and healthier livestock, the community suffered devastating financial losses during the 2009-2010 dzud (a winter with colder temperatures and much more snow than normal).

Still, says Leisher, the study offers principles that could help the more than 25 countries worldwide with substantial herding and ranching activity.

(Image: A young herder leading his camel to new pastures, Mongolia. Credit: Tim Boucher/TNC)

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  1. This could be an interesting story. Would love to hear how the Gobi project actually improved grazing efforts, developed alt. livelihoods, etc. The title promises to tell us the key to protecting grasslands and we got a few generalizations.

  2. Hi, George — Bob Lalasz here, director of science communications for the Conservancy. That information can be found in the study, which is open-source. Our “Nature Brains” feature is designed to give you a quick entree into new published research by Conservancy scientists — not to redo the work of the paper. It’s an excellent study, so I recommend that you look it over for those details you’re seeking.

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