The Rangelands Atlas, published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on May 27, reveals that 54% of the world’s land surface consists of vast tracts of land covered by grass, shrubs or sparse, hardy vegetation – rangelands – that supports millions of pastoralists, hunter-gatherers, ranchers and large populations of wildlife.
The atlas is a first of its kind inventory compiled by a coalition of international environmental, conservation and agricultural organisations, cataloguing the contemporary character of the world’s rangelands, which include the Mongolian steppe, the savannas of Africa, the pampas of South America and the Great Plains of North America.
These so-called rangelands store large amounts of carbon, but the UNEP notes that most climate plans focus on forests and much less importance is given to rangelands.
This means these large planetary ecosystems, that support people and nature, are exposed to a variety of threats.
Currently, only 12% of rangelands are designated as protected areas, with much of the rest being threatened by escalating conversion, particularly for croplands, the UNEP reports.
The purpose of the atlas is also to bring attention to rangelands, bringing them into policy discussions about everything from confronting climate change, to reducing poverty, managing threats to biodiversity and freshwater, and developing sustainable food systems.
Until now, rangelands have rarely featured on international agendas, with only 10% of national climate plans (as part of the Paris Climate Agreement) including references to rangelands, compared with 70% of those plans including references to forests.
The UNEP states that rangelands are known to play a key role in storing carbon, providing habitat for diverse wildlife and nature and supporting the world’s largest rivers and wetlands.
However, the organisation also notes that a key reason they have been underappreciated is the lack of definitive data about their size and value.
The atlas finds that 70% of Mongolia comprises rangelands; while, in Chad, grazing livestock across remote tracts of parched rangelands accounts for 11% of its gross domestic product.
The Northern Great Plains in the US are one of the world’s four remaining intact temperate grasslands, supporting a menagerie of plants, birds and reptile species and providing home to several Native American nations.
But the atlas reveals that, as a result of threats, including large-scale industrial agriculture, these lands are being lost at a faster rate than the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
UNEP pastoralism, grasslands and rangelands representative Abdelkader Bensada notes that the maps will also contribute to the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021 - 2030), to help inform decisions around prioritising where restoration should take place in rangeland areas.
The atlas finds that, in the past three centuries, more than 60% of wildlands and woodlands have been converted – an area larger than North America – and an area about the size of Australia (7.45-million square kilometres) – to produce crops.
This land-use change, the UNEP says, contributes to the climate crisis, with the atlas also showing rangelands will also suffer from global warming.
As such, drastic effects are predicted in an area twice the size of Europe, with nature being dangerously destabilised and the ability to produce food, fuel and fibre being reduced, the organisation notes.
International Livestock Research Institute assistant director-general Shirley Tarawali says that if there is to be any chance of achieving climate, nature and food goals, the management and use of rangelands must be addressed at the highest levels.
“Our hope is that rangelands will be included at upcoming UN conferences on biodiversity, climate, land and food,” she says.
The institute collaborated on the creation of the Rangeland Atlas.
UN Food and Agriculture Organisation animal production and genetics unit head Badi Besbes says rangelands help keep carbon in the ground and offer necessary space for renewable energy like wind and solar, while hosting diverse ecosystems and endemic species.
“This makes them important for the three Rio Conventions and, ultimately, for achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. We must protect and restore rangelands while securing the livelihoods of millions of people, including pastoralists who are the custodians of these lands. The Atlas can guide all these endeavors,” he says.
In the second half of this year, government leaders will participate in yearly conferences for the three Rio Conventions, on climate change, biodiversity and desertification; along with the first ever UN Food Systems Summit.