According to the Global Land Outlook report by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, food systems are responsible for 80% of the world’s deforestation and 29% of greenhouse gas emissions. In agricultural land-use, 80% is used to raise livestock, including pasture-fed organic livestock. Reducing livestock production, thus, is considered the logical first step towards protecting nature.

Land-use is seen as core to the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss. After the failure of the decade-old plan by the United Nations to stop catastrophic biodiversity loss under the Aichi Targets, a new global biodiversity framework is set to be adapted at COP15, the Biodiversity Conference that began on December 7.

High on the agenda is the protection and restoration of natural environments through strategies such as tree-planting, rewilding, and conservation. But what will these strategies mean for livestock keepers and their interactions with the land and the environment?

Land restoration schemes, livestock keepers

The Indian livestock sector is not implicated as gravely in the debates on land loss as the industrial systems in the West. But extensive and mobile livestock keepers or pastoralists have long been suffering the consequences of neglect and misunderstanding that pitches them as “backward”, “unproductive” and “ecologically damaging”.

Biodiversity conservation and restoration schemes have often been in conflict with local pastoral communities while serving state and corporate interests instead.

Different visions of landscapes and their uses compete in past and current debates, reflecting the values and understanding of ecosystems.

In the environmental history of India, for example, colonial rulers imposed a specific vision of forests. This was done through fortress conservation that enclosed certain areas and excluded local resource users from accessing their habitats, and by manipulating landscapes so that they were conducive to exploitation either through hunting or logging.

Cows eat grass silage at a farm in Harpole, near Northampton in Britain in August. Credit: Reuters.

Pastoralists, like many other indigenous groups in India, suffered the consequences of the government’s conservation schemes. These follow a familiar pattern, from the eviction of the Rabari pastoralists from the Gir National Park in Gujarat, or the restrictions in access to the seasonal pastures of the Raika in Kumbhalgarh National Park in Rajasthan and the Van Gujjars in Rajaji National Park of Uttarakhand.

At the same time, the government seeks to put rich, biodiverse and culturally significant areas to other uses. A case in point is the 610-year-old Degrai Oran near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. The sacred grove site, grazed by 5,000 camels and 30,000 sheep from nearby villages, is now set to be razed for a solar power plant.

Across dryland regions of western India, for example, the tree Prosopis Juliflora, a fast-growing invasive species, has been planted under the pretext of arresting “desertification” – a concept that experts argue misunderstands dryland dynamics.

The shrub has had a damaging effect on the rich Banni grassland in Kachchh and the livelihood of its 30,000 pastoralists, as native varieties of grasses cannot grow due to the high amounts of water and nutrients consumed by Prosopis. The hardy livestock of the region cannot consume the shrub either. Native varieties, in contrast, thrive through the careful grazing of livestock by pastoralists, improving soil health and aiding in seed dispersal.

At the same time, the shrub can be used to make biofuel, offering the state’s forest department and its corporate allies profit-making opportunities. The Forest Department Working Plan 2009 for the grassland proposes “scientific management” of the “degraded” and “overgrazed” grassland. Part of the plan includes reserving a third of the grassland for the exploitation of Prosopis for commercial purposes. Such schemes commoditise and corporatise nature, undermine local ecosystems and are complicit in its degradation.

A colonial misunderstanding of open rangeland environments, such as grasslands and drylands, also led them to be considered degraded and misleadingly categorised as “wasteland”. The Wasteland Atlas by the Indian Space Research Organisation shows that 17% of land in India is considered wasteland today. Serving as lifelines for pastoralists, these areas have long been appropriated, including for “greening” initiatives.

In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India would restore 26 million hectares of wasteland by 2030. This is in line with the voluntary commitments India has made under the Paris Agreement as well as the 30 by 30 initiative that seeks to designate 30% of Earth’s land and ocean area as protected areas by 2030. It is part of the proposed Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework. Yet, such moves are not without their contradictions.

For example, the proposed afforestation of 200 square km of semi-arid parts of Haryana is to compensate for the loss of over eight million trees to infrastructure projects in the ecologically sensitive Great Nicobar Island. The afforested track will be given “protected forest” status and is aimed at arresting the “desertification” process in the area. What do such moves mean for pastoralists in India? Where is their voice?

Centering livestock keepers

A new set of briefings on livestock and biodiversity, produced in support of the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralism 2026, dispels misunderstandings about rangelands and pastoral interactions with their environments to help rethink biodiversity restoration schemes.

They show there is much to learn from pastoralists around the world in developing the agenda for action to be agreed upon at COP15 Biodiversity Conference. The briefings were produced by the Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience project, which this author is associated with.

Livestock grown through locally adapted, extensive and mobile systems have the potential to offer several benefits to the environment. The managed grazing of livestock by pastoralists reduces vegetation that is lost in controlling forest fires. Pastoralism improves biodiversity by facilitating seed dispersal and protecting rare species. It improves soil microbial health and fertility as well.

With their careful breeding of indigenous livestock, pastoralists ensure that a wide gene pool is maintained – that there is a diversity of genes available so that livestock is more adaptable to and thrives in changing environments. Genetically modified breeds do not have this capacity because they are designed to manifest a particular set of genes rather than have genetic variation.

A recent example of the success in recognising the importance of pastoralism comes from Himachal Pradesh where the Forest Department in November 26 put a moratorium on tree planting on the migratory routes and halting places of the Gaddi and Gujjar pastoralists in the Chamba circle.

The decision, based on maps and data prepared by the Centre for Pastoralism, recognises the right of pastoralists to grazing under various forest settlement schemes. It reiterates the need to include pastoralists in decisions that concern them.

Pastoralism offers a time-tested, low-impact alternative to livestock production that works in tandem with nature. Pastoralists have long served as custodians for their environments and their survival has depended on rangeland health.

They have a long-held, intimate knowledge of the ecosystems where they live, and can be vital allies in the efforts for biodiversity conservation. At COP15, acknowledging that biodiversity has always been maintained through an interaction with people, rather than in isolation, can lead to sound and just environmental protection initiatives.

Natasha Maru is a multidisciplinary social scientist and policy consultant working on pastoral development. She has recently finished a PhD with the PASTRES project, hosted by the Institute of Development Studies, UK, for which she worked with the Rabari pastoralists of western India.

This is the second of a two-part series on livestock and climate change. Read the first part here.