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The past, present and future of Southern Africa’s grasslands were discussed during three keynote addresses of the 58th annual congress of the Grassland Society of Southern Africa (GSSA), held at the Omaramba Resort and Conference Centre near Rustenburg in North West last week.

The past: Review of 1923 drought report

Prof Kevin Kirkman of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Life Sciences reviewed the Union of South Africa’s Drought Investigation Commission Report of 1923 during his keynote address.

“During the review process it became clear that some issues have remained over the past decade, such as stocking rate. Generally, farmers still tend to determine their stocking rate based on average or above average rainfall years, which means they will overstock during dry periods because they haven’t provided for dry seasons,” Prof Kirkman said, adding that many of the larger farming units that were subdivided amongst families had become uneconomical. “This forced many farmers to overstock their land.”

However, some things have become better over time. “Today fire is no longer seen as such an incredible challenge as it were in 1923. The same with drought. While this still has a significant impact, mortality is generally lower than years ago.”

Prof Kirkman said it was also interesting to see how the report shaped legislation and policy. “Even today, forests still take prevalence over grasslands when it comes to fire legislation for instance.

“In 1923 there was a skewed view that the entirety of South Africa had to be forest, based on the strong European influence at the time. Therefore, there was a strong effort to afforest South Africa, because Europe was also struggling with deforestation at the time.”

Prof Kirkman said while the report did have a positive impact in some ways, it also had a devastating impact in others. Therefore, it was important that scientists should learn from these mistakes and rather trust their research than conventional thinking. “The old prevailing thoughts on three camp systems and the idea that fire is the enemy remain ingrained in people’s minds and therefore it is important to share the latest research and convey the message to landowners through popular platforms.”

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The current situation: Woody encroachment concerns

Dr Elias Symeonakis, a lecturer from the Manchester Metropolitan University, who specialises in land degradation and desertification over sub-Saharan Africa and Mediterranean environments, spoke about bush encroachment and the importance of grasslands across the globe – two key factors in in terms of reaching the United Nationss Sustainable Development Goals (particularly SDG 15.3 which focusses on land degradation neutrality).

“Currently 40% of the world’s landmass are covered by grasslands and 44% of all food production (for animal-based diets) takes place on these grasslands,” Dr Symeonakis said, adding that half of all livestock are kept on veld. “This is where you will also encounter the largest diversity of mammals on earth.”

However, despite grasslands’ undeniable importance, these regions are also the places where the poorest humans on earth live. “The gross domestic product of people living in grassland areas is half of those living in non-grassland areas.” Dr Symeonakis said by default this means that grasslands are not appreciated as much, because the income generation in these areas were lower than in other regions of the world.

People need to realise how important these regions are for human survival and that the impact of desertification also needs addressing. “Around 75% of South Africa was already degraded by 2015, so the country faces a massive challenge,” Dr Symeonakis said, adding that it is important to actively fight against degradation, such as bush encroachment. “We need to keep in mind that not all bushes are equal. Species should rather be assessed on ground level, taking the local environment into consideration.”

Therefore, savanna areas should be accurately mapped, as well as managed in a way that allow for the selection of woody plants for optimal land improvement.

The future: 2026, International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists

Igshaan Samuels, a specialist scientist at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and global co-chair of the United Nations (UN) declared International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists (IYRP), shared the latest developments for this key milestone, which will take place in 2026.

“The process of declaring 2026 as the IYRP already started in 2008 when Mongolia made the suggestion to the United Nations,” Samuels said. The proposal had to be circulated to all UN member countries. “Currently we have 104 countries, including South Africa, that supports the IYRP, and 415 pastoralists (communal and commercial farmers) are already supporting this movement.”

The IYRP’s aim is to increase the global understanding of the importance of rangeland and farmers for food security, economy, and the environmental and cultural heritage, Samuels said. “We need to break myths and misunderstandings and fill knowledge gaps through communication and research. We need informed, science-based policy and legislation for current and future generations.”

Some of the challenges and threats to grasslands that Samuels highlighted include:

  • Conflict between pastoralism and large-scale renewable energy and green hydrogen projects.
  • Collaboration conservation and conflicts between pastoralists and conservationists.
  • Afforestation in rangelands.

“With a better understanding it will soon become clear that these conflicts aren’t necessary, and people also need to be educated to understand that naturals vegetation should not be replaced by forests.” – Susan Marais, Plaas Media