How to reclaim deserts and reverse climate change
The following is a very interesting talk about how to reclaim deserts and reverse climate change. It is taken from a TED talk by Allan Savory called “how to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change”. I found it extremely illuminating and well worth sharing, so for brevity sake, if you haven’t time to watch the video, I have done a transcription – see below.
Transcription of the talk:
The most massive Tsunami, perfect storm is bearing down upon us. This perfect storm is mounting a grim reality, an increasingly grim reality, and we are facing that reality with the full belief that we can solve our problems with technology and that’s understandable. Now this perfect storm that we are facing is the result of our rising population, rising towards 10 billion people; land that is turning to desert and of course climate change. Now there is no question about it at all, we will only solve the problem of replacing fossil fuels with technology. But fossil fuels: carbon, coal, and gas are by no means the only things causing climate change.
Burning 1 hectare of grassland gives off more damaging pollutants then 6000 cars. And we are burning in Africa, every single year, more than 1 billion hectares of grasslands.
Desertification is a fancy word for land that is turning to desert, and it happens only when we create too much bare ground. There is no other cause. And I intend to focus on most of the world’s land that is turning to desert, and I have a very simple message that offers more hope than you can imagine.
We have environments where humidity is guaranteed throughout the year. From those it is almost impossible to create vast areas of bare ground, no matter what you do, nature covers it up so quickly, and we have environments where we have months of humidity, followed by months of dryness, and that is where desertification is occurring.
Where are deserts occurring?
Fortunately, with space technology, we can look at it from space, and when we do, we can see the proportions fairly well. Generally what you see in green is not desertifying, and what you see in brown is, and these are by far the greatest areas of the Earth; about two thirds of the Earth’s land is desertifying.
I took this picture in the Tihama desert while 25mm, that’s an inch of rain was falling.
Think of it in terms of drums of water, each containing 200 litres. Over 1000 drums of water fell on every hectare of that land that day, and the next day the land looked like this:
where had that water gone?
Some of it ran off as flooding, but most of the water that soaked into the soil simply evaporated out again. Exactly as it does in your garden, if you leave the garden uncovered.
Now because the fate of water and carbon are tied to soil organic matter, when we damage soils, it gives off carbon, and carbon goes back into the atmosphere.
Are you are told over and over, repeatedly, that desertification is only occurring in arid and semi-arid areas of the world, and that tall grasslands, like this one, in high rainfall are of no consequence.
If you look at grasslands and look down into them, you’ll find that most of the soil in that grassland, is bare and covered with the crust of algae, leading to increased run-off and evaporation.
That is the cancer of desertification that we do not recognise, till its terminal form.
What actually causes desertification?
Now we know that desertification is caused by livestock, mostly cattle sheep and goats, overgrazing the plants, leaving the soil bare, and giving off the methane. Almost everybody knows this, from Nobel Laureates to golf caddies, or was taught it, as I was.
Now the environments like you see here, thus environments in Africa, where I grew up. And I loved wildlife, and I grew up hating livestock, because of the damage they were doing. And then my university education as an ecologist, reinforced my beliefs.
Well, I have news for you. We were once just as certain that the world was flat! We were wrong then and we are wrong again. And I want to invite you now to come along on my journey of re-education and discovery.
When I was a young man, a young biologist in Africa, I was involved in setting aside marvellous areas as future national parks. Now, no sooner…. this was the 1950s……. no sooner did we remove the hunting drumming people, to protect the animals, than the land became began to deteriorate, as you see here in a park that we formed.
Now no livestock were involved. But suspecting that we had too many now, I did the research and proved we had too many, and I recommended that we would have two reduce their numbers and bring them down to a level that the land could sustain. Now that was a terrible decision to have to make and it was political dynamite, quite frankly. So our government formed a team of experts to evaluate my research. They did and they agreed with me, and over the following years we shot 40,000 elephants to try to stop the damage, and it got worse not better.
Loving elephants as I do, that was the saddest and greatest blunder of my life, and I will carry that to my grave.
One good thing did come out of it, it made me absolutely determined to devote my life to finding solutions.
When I came to the United States, I got a shock to find national parks, like this one, desertifying as badly as anything in Africa. And there had been no livestock on this land for 70 years.
And I found that American scientists had no explanation for this, except that it is arid and natural. So I then began looking at all the research plots that I could, for the whole of the western United States, where cattle had been removed to prove that it would stop desertification. But I found the opposite.
As we see on this research station, where this grassland that was green in 1961 by 2002 had changed to that situation
And the authors of the position paper on climate change, from which I obtained these pictures attribute this change to “unknown processes”.
Clearly we have never understood what is causing desertification, which has destroyed many civilisations and now threatens us globally. We have never understood it.
Take one square metre of soil and make it bare, like this is down here, (pointing to the stage floor) and I promise you, you will find it much colder at dawn, and much hotter at midday, than that same piece of ground if it is just covered with plant litter. You have changed the microclimate.
Now by the time you are doing that, and increasing greatly the percentage of bare ground on more than half the world’s land, you are changing macro climate.
But we have just simply not understood why it began to happen 10,000 years ago, and why has it accelerated lately. We have no understanding of that.
What we have failed to understand is, that in the seasonal humidity environments of the world, the soil and vegetation developed with very large herds of grazing animals
and that these grazing animals developed with ferocious pack hunting predators.
Now the main defence against pack hunting predators was to get into herds, and the larger the herd, the safer the individuals.
Now large herds urinate all over their own food, so they have to keep moving. And it was that movement that prevented the overgrazing of plants, while the periodic trampling ensured good cover of soil, as we see where a herd has passed.
This picture is a typical seasonal grassland. It has just come through four months of rain, and it is just about to go into eight months of dry season. And watch the change as it goes into the long dry season.
Now all of that grass you see above ground has to decay biologically before the next growing season, because if it doesn’t, the grassland and the soil begin to die.
If it does not decay biologically, it shifts to oxidation which is a very slow process, and this smothers and kills grasses, leading to a shift to woody vegetation and bare soil, releasing carbon.
To prevent that, we have traditionally used fire.
But fire, also leaves the soil bare releasing carbon.
And worse than that, burning 1 hectare of grassland gives off more damaging pollutants then 6000 cars. And we are burning in Africa, every single year, more than 1 billion hectares of grasslands.
And almost nobody is talking about it. We justify the burning, as scientists, because it does remove the dead material, and it allows plants to grow.
Now looking at this grassland of ours that has gone dry, what could we do to keep that healthy? And bear in mind, we are talking about most of the world’s grasslands now.
Okay. We cannot reduce animal numbers and rest it more, without causing desertification and climate change.
We cannot burn it without causing desertification and climate change. What are we going to do?
There is only one option. I repeat to you, only one option left to climatologists and scientists, and that is to do the unthinkable: to use livestock, bunched and moving, as a proxy for former herds and predators and mimic nature. There is no other alternative left to mankind.
So let’s do that. So on this bit of grassland, we’ll do it, but just on the foreground.
We’ll impact it very heavily with cattle to mimic nature.
And we’ve done so, and look at that.
All of that grass now is covering the soil, as dung, urine, and litter or mulch. And as every one of the gardeners amongst you would understand, that soil is now ready to absorb and hold the rain, to store carbon and breakdown methane.
And we did that without using fire to damage the soil, and the plants are now free to grow.
When I first realised that we had no option as scientists, to use much vilified livestock, to address climate change and desertification, I was faced with a real dilemma: how are we to do it?
We’d had 10,000 years of extremely knowledgeable pastoralists, bunching and moving their animals, but they had created the great man-made deserts of the world. Then we’d had a hundred years of modern range science, and that had accelerated the desertification. As we first discovered in Africa, and then confirmed in the United States, as you can see in this picture of land managed by the federal government.
Clearly more was needed than bunching and moving the animalsHumans over thousands of years had never been able to deal with nature’s complexity, but we as biologists and ecologists had never tackled anything as complicated as this.
So rather than reinvent the wheel, I began studying other professions to see what I could find. I found there were planning techniques that I could take and adapt to our biological needs, and from those I developed, what we call “holistic management and planned grazing” , a planning process and a way to address all of nature’s complexity: our social, environmental, and economic complexity.
Today we have young women like this one teaching villages in Africa, how to put their animals together into larger herds, and plan their grazing to mimic nature.
And where we have them hold their animals overnight / we run them in a predator friendly manner, because we have a lot of lions and so on, and where they do this and hold them overnight to prepare the crop fields, we’re getting very great increases in crop yields, as well.
Let’s look at some results
This is land close to land we manage in Zimbabwe, which has just come through four very good months of rains, and is now going into the long dry season. As you can see almost all of that rain has evaporated from the soil surface.
The river is dry, despite the rains just having ended. And we have 150,000 people on almost permanent food aid.
Now let’s go to our land nearby, on the same day, with the same rainfall and look at that. Our river is flowing, is healthy and clean. The production of grass, shrubs, trees, wildlife – everything is now more productive, and we have virtually no fear of dry years.
And we did that by increasing the cattle and goats 400%, planning the grazing to mimic nature, by integrating them with all the elephants, buffalo, giraffe and other animals that we have.
But before we began our land looked like that
This site was bare and eroding for over 30 years, regardless of what rain we got.
Okay. Watch the marked tree and see the change as we used livestock to mimic nature.
Look at the change just using livestock to mimic nature. There are fallen trees in that now, because the better land is now attracting elephants etc.
This land in Mexico was in terrible condition. I’ve had to mark the hill because the change is so profound.
I began helping a family in the Carew desert in the 1970s to turn the desert that you see on the right there back to grassland, and thankfully now their grandchildren are on the land with hope for the future.
And look at the amazing change in this one, where that gully has completely healed, using nothing but livestock mimicking nature. And now we have a third generation of that family on that land with their flag still flying.
The vast lands of Patagonia turning to desert as you see here. The man in the middle is an Argentinean researcher,, has documented the steady decline of that land over the years, as they kept reducing the sheep numbers.
They put 25,000 sheep in one flock, really mimicking nature, okay.
And they have documented 50% increase in the production of the land in the first year.
We now have, in the violent horn of Africa, pastoralists planning their grazing to mimic nature and openly saying, it is the only hope they have of saving their families and saving their culture – 95% of that land can only feed people from animals.
I believe I have shown you how we can work with nature at very low cost to reverse all this.
We are already doing so on about 15 million hectares, on five continents, and people who understand far more about carbon than I do, calculate, for illustrative purposes, if we do what I’m showing you here, we can take enough carbon out of the atmosphere, and safely store it in the grassland soils, for thousands of years, and if we just do that on about half the world’s grasslands that I’ve shown you, we can take us back to pre-and industrial levels, while feeding people.
I can think of almost nothing that offers more hope for our planet, for your children and their children, and all of humanity. Thank you.