Exploring the ecosystem services of grasslands in South Africa and Mongolia (2011-2012)


Community MongoliaThe goal of preserving nature is often in conflict with economic development and the aspirations of the rural poor. Nowhere is this more striking than in native grasslands, which have been extensively converted until a mere fraction of their original extent remains. This is not surprising; grasslands flourish in places coveted by humans, primed for agriculture, plantations, and settlements that nearly always trump conservation efforts. There is much interest in identifying driving forces and success factors in community-based conservation projects that benefit both biodiversity and local livelihoods. At the same time also the concept of ecosystem service (ES) provision and the use of market-based instruments such as payments for ecosystem services (PES) are becoming increasingly popular. In both cases an important driving force seems to be international aid and funding. However, in both cases the role of scale and the presence or absence of key institutional-economic conditions needed to be in place to move towards a critical mass in conservation efforts at local, regional and perhaps even national scale are underexposed and under-investigated. In both cases there is a real lack of empirical evidence based on proper monitoring of the costs and effectiveness of such environmental conservation schemes. Proper and sound evaluation and assessment of such conservation efforts often require from a methodological point of view field experiments including control groups to validate and verify the findings.


The main objective of this study was to measure the environmental and socio-economic benefits associated with sustainable community-based grassland management, the ecosystem services this provides to local communities, and the corresponding impact on the vulnerability of rural livelihoods, for instance under climate change. The study involves two case studies in Umgano grassland conservation and poverty reduction project in KwaZulu-Natal Province (South Africa) and rangelands of Gobi desert (Mongolia).

Umgano grassland conservation and poverty reduction project (South Africa).

The Umgano grassland conservation and poverty reduction project in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa uses community-based spatial planning to balance the conversion of its lower-conservation value grasslands to a timber plantation, while conserving higher-value grasslands for heritage purposes and managed livestock grazing. Ten years after project launch, we measured the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of the project using Normalized Differential Vegetation Index remote sensing data and over 500 household interviews, as compared with similar non-conserved areas. Zoned management of the Umgano area had resulted in between 9% and 17% greater average peak production in the grassland areas compared to control sites. There was also a 21% gain in incomes for the roughly one hundred people employed by the forestry efforts, when compared to others in their village. Community-based spatial zoning is an overlooked tool for balancing conservation and development but may require, as we found in Umgano, certain critical factors including strong local leadership, an accountable financial management mechanism to distribute income, outside technical expertise for the zoning design, and community support.


Rangelands of Gobi desert (Mongolia).

We assessed a donor-funded grassland management project designed to create both conservation and livelihood benefits in the rangelands of Mongolia's Gobi desert. The project ran from 1995 to 2006, and we used remote sensing Normalized Differential Vegetation Index data from 1982 to 2009 to compare project grazing sites to matched control sites before and after the project's implementation. We found that the productivity of project grazing sites was on average within 1% of control sites for the 20 years before the project but generated 11% more biomass on average than the control areas from 2000 to 2009. To better understand the benefits of the improved grasslands to local people, we conducted 280 household interviews, 8 focus group discussions, and 31 key informant interviews across 6 districts. We found a 12% greater median annual income as well as a range of other socioeconomic benefits for project households compared to control households in the same areas. Overall, the project generated measurable benefits to both nature and people. The key factors underlying project achievements that may be replicable by other conservation projects include the community-driven approach of the project, knowledge exchanges within and between communities inside and outside the country, a project-supported local community organizer in each district, and strong community leadership.

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Both studies have been published in the renowned journal PLoS ONE, an online journal with an Impact Factor of 4.4. For more information about the studies, download the articles:

  • Leisher C, Brouwer R, Boucher TM, Vogelij R, Bainbridge WR, et al. (2011) Striking a Balance: Socioeconomic Development and Conservation in Grassland through Community-Based Zoning. PLoS ONE 6(12): e28807. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0028807
  • Leisher C, Hess S, Boucher TM, van Beukering P, Sanjayan M (2012) Measuring the Impacts of Community-based Grasslands Management in Mongolia's Gobi. PLoS ONE 7(2): e30991. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030991

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