Home Food for Thought Livestock farmers and the veld deserve our support

Livestock farmers and the veld deserve our support

Several global governments have agreed that 2026 should be dedicated to celebrating veld and pastoralists

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Dr. Igshaan Samuels, rangeland ecologist at the Agricultural Research Council

The veld and farmers are important for the country’s economy and social-cultural landscape. However, both are under threat and at risk from many factors such as climate change, Covid-19, economic instability, crime and gender discrimination. Dr. Igshaan Samuels, rangeland ecologist at the Agricultural Research Council, supports the proposal to declare 2026 International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists.

About 70% of South Africa’s land surface could be regarded as veld, i.e. indigenous vegetation that is largely used by livestock and game for forage. Veld is composed of numerous plant growth forms such as grasses, trees, shrubs and herbs and a combination of these are found in each of the nine biomes in our country.

While these biomes are some of the most biodiverse ecological units in the world, they hold vast conservation, tourism and land use value. This includes the use of the vegetation as forage for the roughly 13 million cattle, 2 million goats and 20 million sheep, as well as more than 40 species of game. It is also important for the ostrich industry and for those who keep horses and donkeys. 

It is thus clear that veld for livestock is important for our agricultural industry since no other type of farming is well suited in these areas due to water and topographic limitations. While some marginal veld has been converted for industrial crops, the technology and other resources to do this are extremely expensive. Thus, veld as a forage resource is the cheapest means to convert solar energy into animal proteins for humans.  

Culture that includes the keeping and slaughtering of livestock is important for a large part of the country’s population.

Extensive livestock farmers who use the veld for their animals are also important role players in the livestock industry. They have been farming for centuries on veld in South Africa occupying largely the savanna, grasslands and Karoo regions of the country.  Livestock farmers in South Africa are a very diverse group. Among others, they include the mixed livestock famers on communal land in Namaqualand, commercial sheep farmers on private farms, mohair goat farmers in the Eastern Cape, cattle farmers in rural villages, the ostrich farmers in the Little Karoo and game farmers – particularly in the savanna. 

While many farm with livestock and game for income through sales, hunting and tourism, others keep livestock for cultural rituals or as emergency cash reserves for times of need, such as the payment of school fees. All these are important not only for the economy, through employment. Culture that includes the keeping and slaughtering of livestock is important to a large part of the country’s population. Therefore, we need to respect farmers for what they do, and the economy is not the sole reason for keeping livestock. 

ALSO READ: Walking the ancient livestock paths of Namaqualand

Pastoralists and rangeland need protection

Thus, veld and farmers are important for the country’s economy and social-cultural landscape. However, both are under threat and at risk to many factors such as climate change, land degradation, political marginalisation, Covid-19, economic instability, crime, gender discrimination and misinformation campaigns about the climate impact of keeping livestock. However, the hazards and barriers South African livestock farmers and veld face are worldwide phenomena. 

Around the world, veld (also known as rangeland) occupy about 50% of the earth’s land surface and is home to about 500 million extensive livestock farmers, internationally known as pastoralists. Furthermore, billions of other people benefit from veld resources that include water, medicinal plants, fuelwood, etc.

Oom Koos Paulse, experienced herder, with some of the livestock at the winter stock post at Jaarskloof in the Leliefontein Communal Area. Photo: Clement Cupido.
Oom Koos Paulse, experienced herder, with some of the livestock at the winter stock post at Jaarskloof in the Leliefontein Communal Area. Photo: Clement Cupido

There is thus a need to support our pastoralists and protect our rangeland at a local, national and global scale. The government of Mongolia tabled a proposal in 2019 to declare 2026 the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists. This proposal has so far been supported by about 20 other national governments and more than 100 organisations around the world. The Food and Agriculture Organisation has already endorsed the proposal and in September 2021, the United Nations General Assembly will formally vote on whether 2026 will indeed be declared as this. The South African government and some organisations in the country have also expressed support for the declaration.  

So, what are the benefits of an International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists for veld and livestock farmers in South Africa? 

  1. The profiles of veld and livestock farmers would be raised. They would be given more recognition for their valuable contributions to the economy, food security, employment, conservation, climate change adaptation, cultures and poverty alleviation. 
  2. Farmer networks could be expanded across national borders, thus giving South African livestock farmers a platform at a global scale. 
  3. It could improve collaboration between livestock farmers and scientists to help pastoralists innovate and adapt to change so that their wellbeing is ensured. 
  4. The International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists could assist in integrating pastoral needs into global level policies to improve veld and livelihoods of livestock farmers. 
  5. There would also be more focus on the need to restore degraded veld habitats including wetlands and ecological infrastructure such as watering points. 

These are the reasons why we need to support our farmers and veld in South Africa and the world. Billions of people depend on them.  

More information on the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists can be found at: https://iyrp.info/

ALSO READ: Shepherding nature back into the future

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Dr Igshaan Samuels
Dr Igshaan Samuels
Dr Igshaan Samuels, PhD is a rangeland ecologist employed by the Agricultural Research Council in South Africa since 2008. His research focuses on indigenous pastoral systems in the dryland regions of Southern Africa where he studies the impacts of land use, livestock management and climate change on rangeland biodiversity and ecosystem function. Furthermore, he also focuses on how indigenous and western scientific knowledge could be weaved to improve our understanding of climate change and its impact on complex pastoral systems so as to inform decision making and policy around adaptive land use. He serves on the board of Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute and Avontuur Sustainable Agriculture in South Africa and he is the vice-president of the Grassland Society of Southern Africa and serves on the editorial team of the African Journal of Range and Forage Sciences and the journal Pastoralism - Research, Policy and Practice.
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