Rangelands are the most widespread land-use in non-tropical dry areas. In Central and West Asia and North Africa rangelands provide income for the poorest and most marginal communities. Unless immediate action is taken, however, their capacity to support livelihoods and vital ecosystems is predicted to rapidly decrease in the near future.
A combination of environmental and human factors is contributing to this worrying scenario. Already low potential – their soils tend to be shallow and rocky – rangelands are also adversely affected by frequent droughts, contributing to widespread degradation and desertification. These problems are being compounded by the effects of climate change.
Overgrazing and cultivation are also contributing to a loss of rangeland biodiversity and leading to the accelerating spread of hardy but non-palatable species. Twenty years ago rangelands provided 60-80% of the feed consumed by livestock; but today this figure has declines to 10-20%.
The problems facing rangelands are being compounded by the fact that research tends to ignore the plight of rangelands: since the 1980s low returns on investments have caused national and international organizations to neglect rangeland rehabilitation. The rangelands of Central Asia, for example, have not received any assistance since the demise of Soviet Rule, confining many communities to poverty and marginalization.
Despite the constraints facing these regions, appropriate rangeland management could generate significant benefits, improving the quality of life for both local communities and wider society. Rangelands have the potential to mitigate the effects of climate change through carbon sequestration, purifying water via bioremediation, and storing genetic diversity within the flora/fauna of these environments. Rangeland watersheds are also important for clean and abundant water supplies, and these regions offer additional opportunities for recreational activities, including hiking and camping.
Finally, the wide range of environmental conditions found in rangelands – precipitation, elevation, steepness, or aspect – and the different pastoral production systems that exist in these regions offer new opportunities for enhancing livelihood diversification. Diversification offers a means of reducing the risk of failure and thereby potentially improving the livelihoods of smallholders.