United Nations
Environment Programme

Towards Sustainable Pastoralism

We need to safeguard the environmental benefits of pastoralism by incentivizing environmental stewardship.

Rangelands are places of great beauty and inspiration that cover more than a third of all land on the planet, and most of this land is managed by pastoralists.

Pastoralists are both livestock herders and environmental stewards. Sustainable pastoralism, which is centred on organized herd movements, contributes to food and water security, supports resilient livelihoods and national economies, and provides environmental services including carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, and protection of land and ecosystems.

Demand for livestock products is growing globally, and the livestock sector is increasingly regarded as an environmental threat. The rising global demand for livestock products (meat, milk, fat, fibre, hides) and at the same time, the continuing degradation of rangeland ecosystems in drylands areas, and the increasing environmental degradation caused by intensive production, underlines the urgency for achieving a transformation in production and consumption patterns in the livestock sector. 

This transformation requires not only minimizing the environmental hazards of livestock, but also safeguarding the environmental benefits of pastoralism. This means investing in the dual roles of pastoralism by improving market access and incentivizing environmental stewardship, for example through certification, fair trade, or payments for ecosystem services.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides an opportunity to work globally towards this transformation because it recognizes the importance of supporting smallholder and pastoral systems while also increasing productivity in the agriculture sector and protecting biological diversity, managing waste, and reducing greenhouse gases.

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) due to be held in Nairobi, Kenya, from 23-27 May 2016, provides a timely opportunity for Ministers of Environment and other stakeholders to discuss the direction that this debate should take, and provide guidance on concrete actions to be taken by UNEP and other champions of environmental sustainability, within a global partnership.

Pastoralism – extensive livestock production in the rangelands – is practised in 75 per cent of the world’s countries by an estimated 500 million people, encompassing nomadic communities, transhumant herders, agro-pastoralists, ranchers and others. In both developing and developed countries, pastoralists are very often indigenous peoples, who tend to be minority populations in their countries and sometimes significantly under-represented in decision-making processes.

Pastoralism provides a highly efficient way of managing drylands and high-altitude ecosystems. In essence, pastoralists adapt their social and herding systems according to seasonal or spatial weather variability and the availability of fertile grasslands and rangelands. It has been estimated that pastoralism is practised on approximately 25 per cent of the global land area, providing on average 10 per cent of the world’s meat production.

Where pastoralism is practised in accordance with traditional practices, and where indigenous knowledge and institutions are strong, the environmental outcomes are positive: biological diversity is enhanced and ecosystem integrity and resilience are maintained. However, where local institutions are undermined, and mobility and knowledge are constrained, pastoral environments are easily degraded. Pastoralists are increasingly under threat from legal, economic, social and political obstacles.

Reindeer pastoralism

Reindeer are the only semi-domesticated animals that naturally belong to the north. There are about 24 different indigenous reindeer-herding peoples in the world and around 2.5 million semi-domesticated reindeer on the Arctic tundra and sub-Arctic taiga. Taiga reindeer husbandry represents a specific and ancient form of reindeer husbandry that is still practised today in the transition belt of subarctic evergreen forest and alpine tundra between the Arctic tundra and the drier Inner Asian steppes. It represents the southernmost extreme of reindeer husbandry in the world. Here, reindeer pastoralism has provided a sustainable way to use the land and manage the environment. Traditional knowledge about local biodiversity has been the foundation for the herders’ livelihoods and culture.

However today, taiga reindeer husbandry – like many other pastoral livelihoods – is affected by climate change, land degradation and changes in biodiversity. The pastoral cultures, and the ecosystems on which they depend, are stressed by land degradation and loss of biodiversity due to increased infrastructure development, resource exploitation and other forms of human activities that create barriers to livestock mobility and pasture use.

The Nomadic Herders initiative 

Focusing on taiga reindeer-herding communities in sub-Arctic Asia, the Nomadic Herders initiative addresses traditional knowledge, adaptation to climate change and protection of the environment. The initiative started in 2010 with funding from Norway and has now become a UNEP/Arctic Council international-coordinated indigenous peoples’ project in Sakha-Yakutia, Eastern Siberia, and northern Mongolia. The project provides a unique example of how UNEP and the Arctic Council are supporting both environmental issues and indigenous peoples at the community level. The project also has linkages to Sámi reindeer herding and institutions in Fennoscandia; one of its aims is to replicate the project in other reindeer-herding communities in the North.

Jointly with herders, local partners and national authorities, the project studies the impacts of land-use change and climate change on reindeer pastoralists, and further assesses the herders’ adaptation options and opportunities. The objectives of the project are to improve the development and resilience of reindeer pasture ecosystems; strengthen the sustainability of the pastoralist livelihoods; and increase the capacity of the pastoral communities to adapt to land-use change and climate change.