Simon Keily observes the rangeland in Wajir County, Northern Kenya. Simon trains pastoralists in East Africa in the techniques of holistic planned grazing which aims to recover grassland in areas of semi-arid desert. As such the training has potentially far-reaching ramifications for sustainability, climate change and the fortunes of pastoralist communities worldwide.
Sharcott Farm, an organic blueberry farm tucked away safely in a valley in Exmoor National Park, is perhaps an unlikely location to discuss the process of reversing desertification in East Africa but it is the UK home of Simon Keily, a British-Kenyan who trains nomadic pastoralists in the techniques of holistically managed grazing in East Africa. After a brisk walk up a potholed track, arched by ash, beech and rowan, more in keeping with road conditions in East Africa than sleepy Somerset, I meet Simon, tall, wiry and bearded with the rangy gait of a Maasai warrior.
“In our traditional (Western) way of looking at things, we tend to focus on parts. One of the key tenets of holistic management is that nature works in wholes”. He begins as I ask him about his work.
Holistic planned grazing, I learn, has evolved in sync with holistic management, which is the brainchild of Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean farmer who observed that the standard narratives explaining the change from grassland to desert were not necessarily correct.
Simon explains that “a third to a half of the land on earth is arid to semi-arid grassland and is generally agreed that most of it is either already desert or turning into desert”
Kenya is no different, where former grasslands are gradually being replaced by bare, barren land, suitable to only the hardy nomadic pastoralists of whom the Samburu, Maasai and Somali tribes are perhaps familiar to Western readers. In terms of environmental sustainability, the problems of desertification are manifold:
“First of all, when it rains, the bareness allows water to run across the surface unimpeded, and away rapidly into rivers, causing flash flooding, erosion and other damage to life. This is then followed by absence of water in the landscape soon after the rain that brought it. This is already a major impedance to life in these areas, and devalues what little rain does fall. In addition, the run-off is exacerbated by inability of rain to enter the soil because the surface is so hard. This is again due to early stages of bareness, when the heavy tropical raindrops strike the newly naked soil heavily, breaking its healthy crumb structure down into fine particles that settle tight and dry into a hard layer, sealing the surface of the soil like concrete, and cutting off ingress of both air and water essential for healthy life below the surface. This is a major brake on the cycle of life, which is rapidly starved to a halt, as up to 75% of the life-mass, essential in the cycle of healthy grassland, is below the surface, and this now either goes dormant or – in time – dies. This constitutes a major loss of incorporated soil carbon, and more with erosion. Finally, the sun beating directly on these hard surfaces heats them up rapidly, and a great deal of heat radiates back through the day, and often into the early hours of the morning. This 20hours a day of radiation must logically have a significant effect on temperatures over such a large area of the land surface, which, in such areas of Kenya for example, is typically without rain for 9 months of the year. Such high temperatures combined with lack of local moisture do not encourage clouds to cool and drop their rain in these areas, thus adding to the downward spiral of death in bare lands”.
The implications for climate change and sustainability for local communities are obvious: more heat and carbon dioxide is emitted, fewer plants absorb the carbon dioxide, the water cycle diminishes, and starvation below and above ground takes hold, with life itself becoming more scarce, ultimately impacting human beings there.
In a tragedy of the commons scenario, desertification was traditionally thought to be caused by too many animals, and this came to be confused with, and synonymous to, “overgrazing”. Ostensibly, the solution was simple: destocking, which means reducing the number of animals on the land, or taking them away altogether for indefinite periods, or even permanently in some conservation regimes, with the idea of letting the land recover. However, as Allan Savory observed in Zimbabwe, the process of desertification actually intensified. Simon explains why this is the case:
“When [destocking] happens, grass goes unbitten by heavy herbivores, so you get plants growing and then when dry season comes, left standing with dead material on them. As a result of destocking the dead material does not get eaten or trampled by herds so that their nutrients return to the soil. This represents a halt, a break, in the nutrient cycle. With no moisture to sag them down to the soil, the leaves remain standing rigid above the soil. As each year passes with no stock, more material accumulates in this dead end. Breakdown is by oxidation over a long period, followed eventually by wind-shatter and the nutrients are literally blown away. Furthermore, a grass plant has its growing points low. And they do that because they have evolved in response to getting bitten by herds. When the grass has grown and the dry season comes and the dead material stands there, after the rainy season, the new shoots don’t get enough light, and grow weakly, depleting root reserves until eventually even the roots die. This type of loss is the second cause of bare land, along with uncontrolled grazing. Uncontrolled grazing leads to selective, random biting by cattle, sheep and goats, and multiplies both types of loss several times over in a negative synergy, as unbitten plants age and become less palatable, while the flushing re-growth on recently bitten ones simply attracts the biters back to the same plants again. ”
Simon explains that the Maasai Mara and Serengeti national park area, with their seasonal growths of lush grassland and teeming with life, represents an example where high population of animals (there thought to be 1.5 million Wildebeest in the area) does not cause desertification via “overgrazing”. Rather, the seasonal migrations of Zebra and Wildebeest naturally allow the grass to recover, while the large numbers trample down and mulch old material as well as encourage and fertilize new growth by impacting the soil with their hooves, allowing rainwater in, and defecating en masse. Simon adds:
“The health of this system – and its large numbers of animals grazing densely – point up the mistake in the notion of overgrazing being synonymous with quantity of animals. Overgrazing, properly defined is: ‘the depletion of a grass plant’s root reserves that occurs when a plant is bitten again before it has fully recovered from the previous loss of leaf and root reserves’ – even once. This is the only useful definition of overgrazing, and when used rigorously is the key that enables a regime that helps bring grassland back to health. Overgrazing once is damaging, but relentless repeats of this lead to death. This is what happens in poorly managed grazing regimes, which sadly are the tragedy of the commons. With the moving rainfall pattern of Mara-Serengeti, and encouraged by the dense defecation regime, the wild herds move on and stay away long enough for full recovery – lots of animals, no overgrazing!”
Much like permaculture, holistic grazing is a methodical, inclusive approach to mimicking and reproducing the “many hands of the ecosystem”. Indeed, holistic planned grazing is:
“[A] process of managing the grazing such that you respect and use the ecosystem processes, as well as focusing on the grass roots and plants recovery. You monitor grass growth rate and you time densely bunched herds. There’s a phase [of grass growth] where if you don’t eat too much of the grass, its got enough leaf left to take off again quickly. It’s a system to ensure that you plan your moves around the grazing so that you only return to the grass that has been eaten before, when the grass is truly, fully, recovered”.
Before discovering the holistic approach, pastoralist cattle have increasingly come to move indiscriminately around the rangeland, targeting only the flushest new growth, and not moving around in dense bunches like the Zebra or Wildebeest. In Kenya, the herders, not helped by their political and spatial marginalisation by successive governments, have been unwittingly destroying the environment they depend upon for survival.
Simon reminds me that they are not the only ones – misunderstanding the brittle rangeland grass ecosystem, and the role of the heavy herbivore in it, has led to “tremendous losses around the world, including North America, where the loss of bison and replacement with crop production led to the dustbowls of the early twentieth century, and more recently, sand-dunes invading towns in Texas which have been abandoned due to the ecosystem crash caused by lack of awareness of these factors”.
As a consequence, in his work in East Africa, Simon’s role is to “bring an understanding of the grassland ecosystem processes, as well as the integral importance of social and cultural health and livelihood to the tribal people in their environment”. The tribes Simon has worked with include the Maasai, Samburu, Dasanech, Hamar in Ethiophia, Turkana, Borana, and Somalis as well as commercial ranches. The minimum land area of any of the single interventions among these was ~22,000 acres (9,200 Ha), the largest 958,400 acres (391,200 Ha).
In this role, Simon has worked with Veterinaires Sans Frontieres, FAO, Mercy Corps, Laikipia Wildlife Form, Africa Wildlife Foundation and various large commercial ranches. He says his “classroom and blackboard are the land, the tools are the animals, the ecosystems and the herders are the enactors”. Put simply, he teaches bunched grazing, partly a process of shepherding but also understanding the delineation of land areas designed to give areas of grass time to recover but also ensuring that the soil is significantly broken up, allowing rainwater to penetrate, and fertilized by their manure, allowing the grass seed to germinate.
There are some significant examples of the benefits that can be created by holistic planned grazing in Kenya. For example, in Laikipia County, the uptake of holistic thinking led the separate Maasai community ranches, together with commercial ranches, to start seeing themselves as parts of a greater whole, and an unprecedented co-operation arose, resulting in the formation of an integrated grazing plan across 2 county divisions, involving 22 such ranches, sharing grass with a coordinated grazing strategy.
However, holistic planned grazing has been met with some criticism in the mainstream media. George Monbiot, the famed environmental journalist, has criticised holistic grazing for being “implausible” and not backed up by scientific evidence. In the article, Monbiot’s main criticism assumes that Allan Savory is calling for an increase in cattle, which, given the environmental problems associated with beef and dairy production could be deeply unsustainable. I ask Simon his thoughts on Monbiot’s criticisms.
“First of all, Mr Monbiot’s response sounds like a common reactive opinion-statement we see a lot of. It is rooted in quite old thinking, and when threatened it triggers without considered analysis. It’s not a matter of ‘Savory wants an increase in cattle’; if we are going to cover the land, not only is that good for pastoralists who are a highly threatened community, but their land is highly threatened. Most of the richest remaining grassland wildlife is in pastoralist owned land, and it is still there only because of the pastoralists’ centuries-long attunement to their environment, so strong and robust, it has survived into the 21st century with little change, despite being ‘cheek by cheek’ with the most modern developments in Africa. Recovering the land would restore a lot of security for those people, the water systems, the ecosystems and we think it would have a massive impact on climate change. So… when you improve that land, which is not as productive as it used to be and is desertifying, you are going to get more grass, so you will need more animals to maintain the health of that grass. This is a demonstrated fact, both on Savory’s ranch in Zimbabwe, and in my experience in Laikipia and other areas of Northern Kenya and the Mara ecosystem. Monbiot is entitled to declare opinions, but frankly to say it is implausible from such a shallow inquiry is an insult to real experience and commitment, whatever his theories may be.”
Despite Monbiot protesting otherwise, there are examples of robust scientific research that explains the multifaceted environmental benefits of holistic planned grazing systems. Findings include significant levels of soil carbon sequestration in holistic planned grazing systems and holistic planned grazing has been shown to improve the levels of soil-water content. It has also been scientifically shown to improve grass density, soil bulk density, standing crop biomass, and soil organic matter. This is not to mention the mass of anecdotal and first-hand experiences of holistic planned grazing improving the condition of grasslands. Examples go beyond East Africa and crop up around the world. For example, Patrick Holden, the Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, wrote an open letter to Monbiot explaining how a planned grazing system has improved the sustainability of his Welsh dairy farm.
Nevertheless, Simon explains that there can be significant problems when scientifically testing holistic planned grazing systems. The first problem is that life can be extremely harsh on the pastoralist communities Simon has worked with – hyena and lion attacks on herders and cattle can happen and raiders armed with AK47s are relatively frequent. He muses that “unfortunately the niceties of kneeling on the ground with tape measures, clipboards and pencils to record the changes as they happen tends to get bypassed”. Another problem is methodological, in that “a ‘test’ site has virtually no hope of measuring something which takes place at landscape scale in a complex system”.
I see Simon’s point. Holistic grazing takes place on a vast scale, spread across thousands upon thousands of acres. Managed ecological change happens over many years and can be responsive to many variables including weather, geography, politics, culture and economics, which reductionist forms of scientific data collection might miss.
For scientific data to be collected accurately, Simon explains that you need to:
“Repeat a transect detail-record at least once a year later in the same season/growth states, and really you need to do it over 3-4 years, wet/dry, wet/dry each year, and you need to do it in several places, and have controls for each too”.
Past scientific efforts in Kenya have been sporadic at best including a researcher who first came in the wrong season and then returning the following year and completing transects, discovered afterward that they had all along been done in an area not selected for holistic grazing. The grazing plan the researcher was meant to be recording was then disrupted as raiders killed two herders involved in the plan, triggering a conflict no-go zone.
Nevertheless, in Kenya, “those who have observed pastoralism at first hand are generally deeply impressed with both the environment it has preserved, and the productivity achieved by these people in such harsh conditions”.
Finally, I muse that it would be great if we could sit back and watch wild herds of Zebras and Wildebeest do the work for us, and that it is sad that it seems as though we must use cattle. Simon, though, to his credit, deserves the final word:
“Actually, they end up following after the cattle, moving on from land where they have been sedentary, and enjoying the improvements! They are factored in to the grazing plan too – by design, with their own forage allocation. We work to a goal of a happily abundant and rich ecosystem – at the communities’ request. And tourists soon follow… It’s an upward spiral.”