By Marcela Torres and Jake Cohen
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The strong wind blows and ripples the tall grass that extends like a blanket for miles and miles until it fades in the horizon. Is this Argentina? Or China? Actually, it could be either of these countries. China’s grasslands in the northern Hulunbeir region and Argentina’s grasslands in the southern Patagonia region have a lot more in common than most people may think.
So much so that a delegation representing the Hulunbeir Environmental Protection Bureau from Inner Mongolia, China visited the Conservancy’s Patagonian Grasslands of Argentina Conservation Project Team and its partner, Argentina’s Livestock Technology Institute (INTA) last April. The aim was to strengthen the working relationships with the official livestock agencies in both countries and contribute to a future exchange between government agencies on grasslands production and conservation.
The visit was coordinated by the Conservancy’s offices in Argentina and China within the framework of the Hulunbeir Grasslands Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Management Project that was carried out in China. The protection of huge expanses of grasslands is a priority for the Conservancy’s work in both countries, where they face increasing threats, such as overgrazing and desertification.
Why Save Grasslands?
Grasslands absorb and store large amounts of carbon and their conservation can mitigate some negative impacts of climate change. They also grow grass to feed cattle and sustain the livelihoods of millions of people all over the world.
Carlos Fernandez, the Conservancy’s Southern Andes Conservation Strategies Manager, based in Bariloche, Argentina, played a key role in this exchange. According to him, “It was interesting to share experiences and hear from participants that both regions have so many similarities, such as their big grassland expanses, arid lands, strong winds and intensive sheep and goat livestock.”
Sustainable Grazing in Patagonia
The Patagonian grasslands have been grazed by sheep for over a century, mainly to produce wool for export. Although highly profitable, this key economic activity has taken its toll on the environment in southern Argentina. Intensive grazing and flock sizes too large for ranchers’ lands are some of the main threats. Add the rugged region’s dry climate, strong winds and cold winters to the mix, and the result is a rapid desertification process.
While Argentina’s grasslands cover an expanse almost the size of Alaska, only a small portion of it is protected. The Nature Conservancy is working with ranchers, government officials, landowners and other organizations to preserve an area of Argentine grasslands as large as Florida.
Collaborating with local and international partners, the Conservancy is providing the tools, technology and science to help sheep ranchers in Patagonia apply best practices in sustainable grazing, to avoid the loss of this habitat for both nature and humans.
We’re working to apply that same approach in China, especially in Inner Mongolia’s Hulunbeir region, where we’re supporting the provincial government to achieve long-lasting conservation.
Hulunbeir contains China’s largest remaining collection of grasslands. They shelter an important collection of iconic species, including the Mongolian gazelle, cranes and several endangered animals. But overgrazing and development have hastened desertification, which in turn is threatening Hulunbeir’s fragile grasslands and the wildlife that depend on them.
The Conservancy has been helping local environmental agencies in Hulunbeir restore the grasslands and preserve their biodiversity by offering scientific expertise gleaned from grasslands projects around the world. By linking projects in Argentina and China through learning exchanges, we’re strengthening international projects and saving important portions of the world’s most imperiled major habitats.
“We were very happy to facilitate the exchange between Argentina and China,” says Xinhai Li, who worked on the Conservancy’s Blueprint project. “I think the trip did a wonderful job of promoting the importance of protecting grasslands and all the species they shelter. Helping people to understand the importance of China’s grasslands is crucial to protecting the full spectrum of natural China.”