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Ecoagriculture Snapshot » Holistic Management of Rangelands in Dimbangombe, Zimbabwe
Ecoagriculture Snapshots, No. 13
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Study Location

Source: Allan Savory
Lands adjacent to the Dimbangombe ranch have bare soil and little forage to feed livestock or wildlife. Source: Allan Savory
Source: Allan Savory
But bare soils have become a thing of the past inside the Dimbangombe ranch due to Holistic Management. Source: Allan Savory

Source: Allan Savory
Planned grazing drastically improved livestock health within a year. Source: Allan Savory

he livestock sector is a major driver of climate change.  It produced nearly 15% of manmade greenhouse gas emissions in 2004.  Pasture needs for grazing livestock fuel massive habitat conversion and degradation, while concentrated feedlots release antibiotics, excessive nutrients, and hormones into the environment. 

However, livestock are also crucial to meeting the Millennium Development Goals, as 70% of the rural poor rely on some form of livestock for their livelihoods.  Our challenge is to maximize the promise and minimize the pitfalls of livestock and an ecoagricultural vision might just deliver that.

The Hwange communal lands in Zimbabwe are a promising example of a landscape management strategy that has livestock as an integral and necessary part.  Typical of rural life in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Hwange communities live amid desertification, drying rivers, AIDS, infectious diseases and the exodus of the youth.  The continuing loss in land quality, water and biodiversity that sustain agriculture, forestry, livestock, wildlife and tourism in the region has jeopardized their livelihoods. But using an innovative perspective towards livestock management, along with a holistic vision and partnerships, a parcel of the Hwange communal lands is being restored into an ecoagriculture landscape.

The Africa Centre of Holistic Management, a Zimbabwean non-profit near the Victoria Falls was established in 1992 with the goal of restoring Hwange communal lands.  It is a regional office of Holistic Management International, an international nonprofit organization based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.

In 1994, 6500 acres of land in the heart of Dimbangombe was donated by Allan Savory and his wife to the Africa Centre as a site for demonstration and training of Holistic Management.  Dimbangombe is a 20,000 acre land parcel within a single contiguous wildlife range that includes Hwange and Zambezi National Parks in Zimbabwe and the nearby wildlife reserves in Namibia, Botswana and Zambia.

The Africa Centre was aware of the importance of community involvement and built trust and relationships with the villagers through meetings and workshops.  All five chiefs of the community became members of the Board of Trustees.  They actively participate in the governance of the Africa Centre and bring a strong sense of community ownership to their activities.

The natural resource management is driven by a vision of a healthy ecosystem that includes wildlife, livestock and people and is informed by the evolutionary history of the grasslands and the grazers that roamed these lands.  Overgrazing causes land degradation in pastures. This has led some managers to conclude that grazing should be stopped to restore the grasslands.  But these grasslands have supported large herds of ungulates in the past.  Instead of blaming livestock in general, the Africa Centre realized the time length of grazing was more crucial than the number of animals grazing.

Livestock is herded routinely to prevent overgrazing.  This allows grasses enough time to regenerate and consequently, the grasslands can produce more forage to sustain more animals for many years.  The improvement was so immediate that starving animals turned into well-fed livestock within a year.

Disturbances are important for maintaining a healthy grassland ecosystem.  In the past, large herds of ungulates provided the requisite disturbances to maintain the grassland ecosystem in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Modern managers have tried to mimic this disturbance regime by using fire. But fire has several negative impacts like dehydration and erosion of soil, carbon release and air pollution. 

Taking a cue from the evolutionary history of the grasslands, the Africa Centre increased the herd size to 600 animals from 100 to better mimic the large ungulate herds of the past.  Not only has the grasslands been able to sustain the increased number of animals, but the combined hoof action, dung and urine have rejuvenated the soil by allowing aeration, water penetration, dormant seed germination and fertilization.  In two years, the landscape had more forage and ground cover.  Water retention had improved and the Dimbangombe River was flowing again.

Furthermore, by keeping the livestock in traditional lion-proof kraals, predators were able to roam freely in this expanded habitat without causing livestock losses to the villagers.

In 2000, the community saw the need for a community college to train the local youth on tourism and safari to capitalize on the new landscape based livelihood options.  In 2002, the Dimbangombe College of Wildlife, Agriculture and Conservation Management started offering vocational training programs.  In 2005, the college was accredited by the Ministry of Education and granted 13,000 acres of land.  The college plans to expand its training to NGO staff and other conservationists on holistic management of conservation programs and wildlife.

This pilot program has been well received by the community.  A few groups of villagers have tried the holistic management in their own lands and improved forage production.  However, their efforts hit a snag when the forage was poached. Still they are motivated to repeat the process. And with the facilities of the community college and commitment towards education and awareness, Africa Centre is hopeful of minimizing poaching in the future.

With only about 20,000 of the million acres of Hwange communal lands impacted so far, a lot still remains to be done.  The current political unrest in Zimbabwe is also limiting Africa Centre’s management.  Allan Savory, a trustee of the Africa Centre realistically notes, “This vision will not materialize overnight – we like to refer to this as a 100-year project – but the transformation is underway.”


March 2009


For more information see:
Neely, C.L. and J. Butterfield. 2004. Holistic management of African rangelands. Leisa Magazine 20(4): 26-28.

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