Allan Savory is demonstrating how to reverse desertification of the world’s savannas and grasslands, thereby enhancing food and water security and improving human livelihoods, through a livestock and land management technique that restores degraded croplands and watersheds.
The New Idea
Mainstream science and traditional land management techniques have failed to deal with the complexity of desertification in Africa, often attributing it to the overstocking of livestock, communal land tenure, and overpopulation. Although much has been done to encourage people to destock, resettle, and move away from livestock-based livelihoods, desertification and environmental deterioration continue to worsen. Allan’s singular insight is that grasslands and herbivores evolved in step with one another; and that livestock, if properly managed and kept on the move, can be an important tool in the prevention and recovery of deforested land. While many see livestock as a barrier to adequately rested and healthy land, Allan has demonstrated that we can recover and prevent desertified land by changing the management of livestock so that it mimics the behavior of the once vast herds of grazing animals and predators of Africa’s savannahs.
Allan is proving that the way we treat our rangelands is critical to reversing desertification and combating climate change by bringing a unique understanding of how we can mimic the natural functioning of animals and rangelands to heal the land and lock carbon into soils. Unlike conventional techniques that promote the removal of cattle and the resting of land, Allan argues that, while livestock may be part of the problem, they can also be an important part of the solution. Grass needs to be grazed in order to be healthy, and animals stimulate plant growth and their waste provides nutrient-rich fertilizer for the soil. Additionally, they cycle dead plants back to the surface, which allows sunlight to reach the low-growing parts. When a predator comes onto the scene, the animals bunch together and flee as a herd, their hooves breaking up and aerating the soil. Then, on a new patch of land, the process starts again. In this way, all plants are nibbled on but none are overgrazed. This also prevents the land from over resting, which leads to accumulated dead plant material that blocks sunlight and hinders new growth. Allan’s Holistic Management framework includes land management techniques that allow livestock to mimic this natural, and much needed behavior of animals and results in increased land productivity, water availability, wildlife diversity, and improved livelihoods for those who depend on the land.
Allan has demonstrated time and again in Africa, Australia, and North America that properly managed livestock are essential to land restoration. With the right techniques, plant growth is lusher, the water table is higher, wildlife thrives and soil carbon increases. Thousands of land, livestock, and wildlife managers use his methodology and are demonstrating consistent results on over 30 million acres across four continents. Today, thousands of families, corporations, and businesses are successfully using Allan’s insight to radically improve the quality of their lives and regenerate the resource base that sustains them.
For many years, large areas of grasslands have been turning into barren deserts. This process, called desertification is happening at an alarming rate around the world. The majority of these non-humid grasslands are in Africa, which has the highest deforestation rate of all continents on the globe. Forest destruction and other forms of land degradation caused by human activities have transformed vast areas of Africa’s once grazeable and farmable land into barren landscapes. Many of Africa’s gravest problems stem directly from environmental degradation: soil erosion, decreased land productivity, increased droughts, floods, food insecurity, social breakdown, and increasing violence.
In the past, large herds of herbivores moved over the grasslands. These herds grazed, defecated, stomped and salivated as they moved around, building soil and deepening plant roots. Over time, the wild herds were replaced by small numbers of domestic, sedentary cattle. Without the constant activity of large numbers of properly managed livestock, the cycle of biological decay on the grasslands was interrupted and the once-rich soil turned into dry, exposed desert land, dramatically decreasing the ability of soil to absorb water. In addition to this, desertification plays a critical role in climate change. Dry, bare soil is unable to store carbon and releases it into the atmosphere. According to the United Nations, one-third of the earth’s land surface (10 billion acres/4 billion hectares) is threatened by desertification, the bulk of which is rangelands. These are similar to croplands in that if the soil is bare any time of the year, they will deteriorate and release previously stored carbon. Thus, the desertification of these lands will have considerable effect on carbon levels in our atmosphere.
Desertification is deeply connected to other environmental and social challenges, threatening to reverse the gains in sustainable development that we have seen in many parts of the world. It is a process that can inherently destabilize societies and deepen poverty. However, reductionist science and land management theory has failed to deal with this complexity and has long held that livestock contribute toward desertification. Standard land and livestock management’s response to desertification in semi-arid regions is to decrease the number (or entirely remove) cattle and allow the land to rest. This conventional approach fails to look at this problem holistically, and, instead, seeks isolated solutions for each of the symptoms of environmental deterioration without considering the natural functioning of these interlocking pieces and the role that livestock can play in this. For example, many well-intended tree planting projects that attempt to reverse desertification (for example, in Zimbabwe and Zambia) have failed to address the problem in a way that accounts for this interconnected system. Tree planting can only achieve short-term success in higher rainfall environments and where the soil is able to absorb water. In most affected areas of Africa and the world, rainfall is too low for trees to provide full soil cover and desertification has reduced the soil’s ability to absorb the rain. Allan is striving to shift mindsets and show that livestock, when properly managed and kept on the move, can be an essential element in reversing desertification and improving the soil’s ability to absorb water and lock in carbon.
At the core of Allan’s work is the Holistic Management framework, which is designed as a tool for planning ecologically regenerative, economically viable and socially sound land and livestock management of the world’s grasslands. Holistic Management helps land managers, farmers, ranchers, policymakers and others understand the relationship between large herds of wild herbivores and the grasslands and develop strategies for managing herds of domestic livestock to mimic those wild herds to restore balance to the land. Holistic Management is successful because it is a cost-effective and highly scalable land and livestock management technique that mimics ancient interactions between the land and the animals that lived upon it. This holistic approach improves the soil’s ability to absorb water and fundamentally increases the organic matter in the soil, which accelerates carbon sequestration and thus contributes toward the mitigation of global climate change.
Allan’s organization, the Savory Institute, promotes large-scale restoration of the world’s grasslands through Holistic Management. The Savory Institute’s land management arm focuses on healing land through properly managed livestock; and empowers others to do the same by providing strategic advice and training that teaches people to use the Holistic Management framework. Additionally, the Savory Institute works to remove barriers to the large-scale adoption and success of Holistic Management, which includes conducting research, informing policy, and creating market incentives for adoption and raising public awareness.
The centerpiece of Savory’s work is the 2,630-hectare Dimbangombe Ranch, home to his Africa Centre for Holistic Management (ACHM), in northwestern Zimbabwe near Victoria Falls. In the hot, dry, depleted landscape of this region, “the rains are not what they used to be” is a frequent refrain. But Dimbangombe looks as though the rain has uniquely favored it. It has lush, varied grasses, flowing rivers and streams, and thriving livestock—some four times the number of neighboring ranches. Thanks to the renewed flow of the Dimbangombe River, elephant herds no longer have to travel to pools but can water on the river. Women who used to walk as much as five kilometers daily for water, now have it available in their communities. Dimbangombe has become productive and vibrant while its neighbors, and similar environments around the globe, are turning to desert. Allan did this through the application of Holistic Management, which called for increased cattle numbers, rotational bunched grazing and a reduction in clearing fires.
The Dimbangombe experiment began in 1992, when Allan donated land he had purchased in the 1970s to develop the ranch as a nonprofit demonstration site. As the ranch grew, Allan and his colleagues ran cattle on the land, beginning with what they could afford. They also invited farmers in the neighboring community who had run out of feed to add their cattle to the herd. With the application of Allan’s strategies in Dimbangombe, improvements came year by year. Gradually, the grass thickened and the ground closed in, covered with plants. At the same time as ACHM’s demo site was thriving, Allan started training numerous groups from the US, Canada, Mexico, and Australia in these methodologies. Profound results from this learning site sparked interest in the community and this allowed ACHM to begin working with surrounding communal lands to spread the knowledge that human management of livestock is producing the collapse of grasslands and can, thus, also reverse this deterioration. Spreading this knowledge and grazing management practices throughout nearby communities and throughout pastoral and agro-pastoral settings required a significant investment in community mobilization, training, and adoption methodologies. The ACHM learning site is now also receiving visitors from the Cape to Ethiopia, and communities, citizen organizations (COs), governments, and pastoralists are requesting training.
Despite the proven success of his model, which includes several research trials undertaken for more than two decades, Allan still faces resistance from scientific institutions because his model defies status-quo scientific wisdom. Nonetheless, in recent years, more and more individual scientists have been witnessing the deep practical results that more than 50,000 farmers, ranchers, and thousands of communities across Africa have seen in the last forty years. These scientists are now speaking publicly about the efficacy of Allan’s model, thereby increasing acceptance of his insights among academic circles. Additionally, there is increased acknowledgement of his work thanks to prizes and recognition earned in the last seven years. To date, more than 30 million acres in the world (Africa, North America, and Australia) are managed using Allan’s model, and their managers form a network of practitioners and Holistic Management educators—ranging from family farmers to ranchers and scientists—that are spreading Allan’s ideas worldwide. Currently, Allan is building a new learning site in East Africa and, together with the new generations of practitioners that he has brought to his organization, he is planning to start the first application of his model in the dry lands of South America.
Allan grew up in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) with more than just a taste for the bush. He learned to ‘read’ the land and developed a passion for his country, its people and most importantly, its wildlife. After graduating from Natal University as a biologist Allan pursued a career as a researcher and game ranger in Northern Rhodesia. In the 1960s, while working on the interrelated problems of increasing poverty and disappearing wildlife, Allan made a major breakthrough in understanding why his country and the African continent was degrading and why the landscapes were rapidly desertifying.
Allan identified key insights critical to the regeneration of land, people, and individual and national prosperity. He went on to work as a resource management strategist on four continents, developing sustainable solutions to land management problems. His work and profile led him into the Rhodesian Parliament, where for seven years he was the leader of the combined opposition parties, before being exiled by the Ian Smith government in 1979. While in exile in the U.S., Allan realized that throughout history, desertification and loss of prosperity had always followed innate human decision-making processes. He co-founded the Centre for Holistic Management with his wife, Jody Butterfield, and went on to develop a universal application to land management that can be successfully applied no matter what the geographical location, economic situation or industry circumstance.
In 1992 Allan formed a second CO near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, donating a ranch that would serve as a learning site for people all over Africa.
In 2003 Allan won the Banksia International Award for the person doing the most for the environment on a global scale and in 2010 won the Buckminster Fuller Challenge Award for work that has “significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.” Currently, Allan’s Savory Institute is one of a dozen remaining groups in the Virgin Earth Challenge that emerged from an extensive review process of over 2,600 submissions, confirming the global reach of Allan’s long improved and successfully proven approach to reverse desertification in dry lands all over the world.