Society

How age-old land use systems can give teeth to climate change fight

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A Black rhinocerous attempts to get away from an approaching helicopter at a conservancy in Laikipia county. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • During pre-colonial times, the Maasai occupied a large swathe of land stretching from Laikipia along the Great Rift Valley into northern Tanzania.
  • A nomadic pastoralist people, the Maasai did not have a concept of land tenure in the Western notion of the term.
  • In their mind, land was not defined by linear boundaries or individual ownership but, by “the cattle upon a thousand hills.”

During pre-colonial times, the Maasai occupied a large swathe of land stretching from Laikipia along the Great Rift Valley into northern Tanzania. A nomadic pastoralist people, the Maasai did not have a concept of land tenure in the Western notion of the term. In their mind, land was not defined by linear boundaries or individual ownership but, by “the cattle upon a thousand hills.” They moved their cows, sheep, and goats within the vast territory from season to season to give the land a chance to regenerate and to find fresh water. It is no surprise that the Maasai were present at all the water towers in Kenya namely, Mt Kenya, the Aberdares, Mau, Cherangany, and Mt Elgon.

At each location they would build a homestead known as a manyatta and cattle would be corralled in a boma at night, grazing in the wide open plains and valleys during the day. The cattle created manure by stomping on a mixture of cow dung, grass and soil putting nutrients back into the soil.

Elsewhere in America, again before the White man arrived, millions of bison roamed the Great Plains and much of eastern United States and Mexico. They would arrive in large numbers at a location and stomp the ground and move on to fresh pasture, returning only when it was time to graze again.

Recent research in the United States has suggested that widespread implementation of regenerative practices worldwide could have a significant impact, storing as much as eight billion tonnes of carbon per year over the long-term, or nearly as much as current annual emissions from burning of fossil fuels.

There are no clear-cut definitions of the terms, but regenerative farming techniques include minimal or no tilling of the land, rotating crops, planting crops to cover and benefit the soil after the main crop is harvested, and greater use of compost rather than chemical fertilisers.

Regenerative grazing means closely managing where and for how long animals forage, unlike the more conventional approach in which animals are left to graze the same pasture more or less continuously. Ranchers rely more on their animals’ manure to keep their pastures healthy.

These practices are spreading among farmers and ranchers in the United States, spurred by concerns about what industrialised farming and meat production have done to the land and about agriculture’s contribution to global warming. In the United States, agriculture accounts for about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Writing in The New York Times this week, Henry Fountain talks about Adan Isaacs, a farmer in Canadian, Texas, surrounded by cattle in old pasture that had been overgrazed for years and now looking like a jumble of weeds.

“Most people would want to get out here and start spraying it with herbicides,” he said. “My family used to do that, but it doesn’t work.”

Instead, Isaacs, a fourth-generation rancher on this rolling land in the northeast corner of the Texas Panhandle, will put his animals to work on the pasture, using portable electrified fencing to confine them to a small area at a time so that they can’t help but trample on some of the weeds as they graze, mixing it with cow dung in the process.

That adds organic matter to the soil and exposes it to oxygen, which help grasses and other desirable plants to take over. Eventually, through careful management of grazing, the pasture will be healthy again.

“These cows are my land management tools”, Isaacs said. “It’s a lot easier to work with nature than against it.”

His goal is to turn these 5,000 acres into something closer to the lush mixed-prairie that thrived throughout this part of the Southern Great Plains and served as grazing lands for millions of bison hundreds of years ago.

Improving his land will benefit his business, through better grazing for his animals, less soil and nutrient erosion, and improvement of water retention in a region where rainfall averages about 18 inches a year.

But the healthier ranchland can also aid the planet by sequestering more carbon in the form of roots and other plant tissues that use carbon dioxide from the air for their growth. Storing this organic matter in the soil will keep the carbon from re-entering the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane, two major contributors to global warming and the resultant climate change.

With the Biden administration proposing to pay farmers to store carbon, soil sequestration has gained favour as a tool to fight climate change. The administration has cited agriculture as a “linchpin” in its strategy to combat global warming. Done on a large enough scale, proponents say it can play a significant role in reducing climate change.

Focusing on carbon sequestration through soil also risks drawing attention from other important ways to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint, including improving productivity, reducing de-forestation, and shifting food consumption to more climate-friendly diets.

While research on this subject is not fully developed there is merit in what has so far been developed and history has proved that it works even her in Kenya.

We need to invest in more research and adoption of these time-tested methods in order to restore nature.