Thinking infrastructurally about rangeland carrying capacity


The key problem in my view with the notion of “rangeland carrying capacity” is the assumption that it’s about livestock. The notion wants you to conjure up livestock shoulder-to-shoulder on a piece of land and then ask you: How could this not be a physical limit on the number of livestock per unit of land? You can’t pack anymore on it and that has to be a capacity constraint. Right?

Wrong. Livestock numbers on a piece of land are not a system. The number of pipes, rods and valves are not a nuclear power plant. Yes, livestock systems that provide continuous and important services (like meat, milk, wool. . .) also have limits. But these limits are set by managing physical constraints, be it LSU/ha or not. More, this management combines with managing other constraints like access to markets, remittances for household members abroad, nearby land encroachment, and much else.

Can herders make management mistakes? Of course. That is why pastoralists-to-pastoralists learning is so important.

From this perspective, it’s not “rangeland carrying capacity” we should be talking about, but “rangeland management capacity”. Or better yet, “rangeland management capacities,” as there is not just one major type of pastoralism, but many different pastoralist systems of production and provision of livestock-related services.


There are other rangeland-related points that need stressing as well, including:

1. No large critical infrastructures can run 24/7/365 at 100% capacity and be reliable, and pastoralist systems are no different. This means comparing pastoralist livestock systems to some kind of “optimized” grassland ranching or intensive dairy production is ludicrous if only because the latter is more likely to headed to disaster anyway.

2. Indigenous populations and their land rights are now taken by progressives as an essential part of democratic struggles (and not just in the Americas). But where are pastoralists holding livestock and claiming their land rights in the literature on this indigeneity?

3. Restocking schemes are routinely criticized for returning livestock to low-resource rangelands (as perceived by the experts). Yet government commodity buffer stocks (e.g., holding grain, wool or oil in order to stabilize the prices of those commodities) are routinely recommended by the experts, decade after decade, be the countries low-resource or not.

4. We hear about the need to move infrastructure change away from powerful actors towards more inclusive low-carbon futures. But where is the focus on pastoralists already practicing such futures? We hear about the methane contributions of livestock to global warming, but what about the reverse climate risks associated with curtailing pastoralism and in doing so its pro-biodiversity advantages?

5. When was the last time you heard pastoralist livestock exports from the arid and semi-arid rangelands of the world being praised for reducing, considerably, the global budget for virtual water trading from what it could have been?

And yet, that is exactly what pastoralism as a global infrastructure does.

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