Are pastoralists and their livestock to blame for climate change? | Land Portal

This blog post is part of the series What to Read

As humanity grapples with understanding the causes and consequences of the mounting climate crisis, there can be a tendency to oversimplify issues in a bid to identify solutions. Such oversimplifications have stemmed from a broad-brush analysis which identifies all livestock production and animal products as key drivers of climate change.

This What to Read digest seeks to show a deeper understanding of pastoral livestock systems and how, given context-specific conditions, they can actually respond to climate change threats while lowering the risk of conflicts over natural resources.

The FAO Pastoralist Knowledge hub reveals that there are several hundred million pastoralists worldwide. The exact numbers vary according to how pastoral systems are defined. Multiple sources, including research commissioned by the World Bank and the Encyclopedia of Food Security and Sustainability indicate that in sub-Saharan Africa alone, over 120 million people obtain their livelihood from livestock production, and up to 41 million depend solely on livestock production, while up to 94 million depend partially but significantly on this production system. 

Much research and writing about pastoralism tends to be specialised and inaccessible to the general reader. So we went in search of more accessible and open access texts which provide an overview of this important topic. This led us to the recent work by the Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience (PASTRES) research programme. The Land Portal digest normally features materials from different sources. However in this digest, we have chosen to focus on the outputs of a particular programme which aims to provide answers to important questions.

Overall the PASTRES researchers caution how the failure to differentiate livestock systems as we craft responses to climate change can generate overly simplistic and homogenising narratives about the implications of livestock and animal products. Such mainstream narratives obscure a much more complex reality, as they blur crucial distinctions between high impact industrial livestock systems and relatively low impact extensive livestock production that often contribute to the livelihoods and nutrition of millions of people in marginal landscapes. 

We hope you enjoy the publications and videos we selected for you. They help to overcome misconceptions and encourage us to learn from pastoral knowledge systems to better manage fast changing and fragile landscapes impacted by climate change.

Sign up here to receive this digest in your mailbox



Are livestock always bad for the planet? Rethinking the protein transition and climate change debate

By Elizabeth Houser and Ian Scoones, 2021

The preface to this 67-page report notes how urgent climate challenges have triggered calls for radical, widespread changes in what we eat, pushing for the drastic reduction, if not elimination of animal-source foods from our diets. The report argues that these high-profile debates are based on patchy evidence and crucially fail to differentiate between varied landscapes, environments and production methods. This has resulted in relatively low impact, extensive livestock production, such as pastoral systems being lumped in with industrial systems in the conversation about the future of food.

As a result, inappropriate policies may be developed based on assumptions about livestock emissions, derived from studies of intensive, contained, industrial systems which are extrapolated to apply to extensive livestock production. The report warns how such a misreading could do great damage to livelihoods, landscapes and the life chances of people reliant on extensive livestock production, including pastoralism. 


Read the full publication




Livestock, climate and the politics of resources: A primer

By Ian Scoones, 2022

In this primer, prepared in the run-up to COP-15, Ian Scoones, professor at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, sets out the evidence that pastoralism should be better understood as a “highly productive, modern system, and an extraordinarily well-tuned ‘infrastructure’ for making the most of variable settings”. Scoones provides an accessible and global review of diverse pastoral livelihoods in settings ranging from Africa to the Arctic. The primer identifies the different pressures facing pastoralists worldwide and examines the lessons we can learn from them about coping with uncertainty in the context of rapid climate change.

The primer argues that:

  • Over half the world’s land is rangeland, where non-pastoral livelihoods and food production are often impossible. 
  • Millions of people in hugely diverse groups around the world engage in pastoralism. 
  • As climate change and other forms of uncertainty intensify, pastoralists have unique knowledge and skills to respond flexibly and effectively in such turbulent conditions. 
  • Mobility is central to pastoral practices and a key part of pastoralists' responses to variability. 
  • Pastoralists produce high-quality, nutritious animal products, which supply high-density protein and micronutrients to diverse populations through local sales and wider trade networks.
  • Livestock grazing and browsing can enhance biodiversity and these practices can far exceed the benefits of ‘protecting’ these ecosystems through exclusionary conservation.
  • In contrast to intensive systems, extensive and mobile livestock production can be climate neutral or even climate positive.
  • The social, cultural and environmental values of pastoralism remain unrecognised by markets and policy makers.

Read the full publication




Pastoralism and biodiversity briefings produced for COP-15


The primer featured above is augmented by six up-to-date briefings prepared by the PASTRES team to inform the debates at COP-15.


The benefits of pastoralism for biodiversity and the climate 

This brief makes the case that extensively grazed, especially mobile, pastoral systems do not automatically cause ‘desertification’, as is sometimes assumed; but can enhance biodiversity and offer a low-carbon alternative to industrialised systems. Pastoral systems can show neutral or positive carbon balances, especially for mobile systems that distribute manure/urine and incorporate it, adding to carbon cycling. The brief notes that standard approaches to assessing climate impacts from livestock overlook this, as the data reflect industrial livestock systems. This failure to differentiate between different livestock systems distorts the debate and associated policy responses, creating a single and misleading story.

Read the full publication



Why tree planting in rangelands can be bad for biodiversity 

The brief asserts that the longstanding obsession with tree planting as a route to addressing climate and biodiversity challenges must be rethought. It notes that current well-meaning advocacy of reforestation is often rooted in colonial discourse. This promotes tree planting and rewilding schemes, frequently linked to carbon markets, which are misleadingly presented as central to addressing the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. In fact the solutions proposed may deepen the problems. For example, the planting of fast-growing exotic trees, planted in rangelands are shadowed by numerous environmental impacts. 

Pastoralists in East Africa testify to problems with the invasive shrub Prosopis julifloraxii, originally introduced by aid programmes to provide fuelwood. In South Africa this species has been categorised as an invasive alien. There is a national programme to eradicate this and other fast-growing exotics which negatively impact on water resources, increase fire risk and eliminate existing grassland ecosystem biodiversity.

Read the full publication




Enhancing biodiversity through livestock keeping

This brief provides eight examples of how pastoralism and conservation can work together, showing how important pastoral systems of livestock keeping can be to meeting biodiversity conservation goals.

Read the full publication


Going up in smoke: how livestock keeping can reduce wildfires

This brief explores how the decline in pastoralism can increase the risk of devastating fires. It argues that to reduce the risk of fire, it is much more effective to use animals to reduce the fire load through grazing, than investing in expensive firebreaks, or risking the lives of forest guards and firefighters. The brief identifies the need for policies to support a viable pastoralism as essential in the battle against wildfire risk.

Read the full publication


Rewilding and ecosystem restoration: what is natural? 

This brief argues that in developing plans for rewilding and ecosystem restoration, a more sophisticated debate is required, where different visions of what is ‘natural’, what is ‘wild’ and what forms of restoration are needed are more closely interrogated. This process must include the voices and experience of pastoralists and other land users who have created valuable landscapes through use by people and their animals over many years.

Read the full publication


Collaborative conservation: pastoralists as conservationists 

The brief examines how old colonial ‘fortress conservation’ is experiencing a resurgence as both public and private conservation organisations argue for expanding protected areas, now with large backing from climate finance through offsetting projects. As a result, pastoralists are frequently excluded from grazing lands in the name of conservation, with their livestock impounded and people arrested. As part of the COP-15 deal, the brief proposes that it would be much better to put 30% of the world’s land surface under the control of local people, aiming for collaborative conservation approaches that simultaneously support livelihoods and biodiversity.

Read the full publication








What to Watch


Online course

For those who want to take a deep dive to develop their understanding of pastoralism across the globe, the PASTRES programme has created an online self-study short course entitled Pastoralism and Uncertainty. This comprises 13 sessions, each featuring a 30-40 minute video lecture, together with a companion set of questions and a list of essential readings. This comprehensive resource was developed to train the PASTRES PhD student cohort in 2019.





Against all odds

This 14-minute video was made back in 2011 by Oxfam East Africa. It may be dated but its content and insights remain relevant in 2023.



Climate change turns heat on Africa’s pastoralists

This 6-minute clip produced by the Morning Call on Africa News in 2019 features African voices and experiences on pastoralism. It examines possible policy responses to better support pastoralist communities and harness their knowledge.


For more information:


Comparta esta página