Many migratory birds begin their odyssey in the North American prairies, ending in the wintering sites of the Pampas grasslands. Also called the ‘Southern Cone’, these grasslands naturally extend across the entire territory of Uruguay, and parts of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Despite being of global importance for biodiversity, around 60% of their area has been replaced with other land uses. The Southern Cone Grasslands Alliance (‘the Alliance’) was created in 2006, with the objective of promoting the conservation of natural grasslands and their associated biodiversity, right across the Pampas region. It does this by working with cattle ranchers, encouraging them to manage their pastures in ways that continue to support biodiversity, and also by demonstrating, promoting, certifying and marketing environmentally friendly beef. At the start of 2016, 450 Alliance farm members were included in the scheme, managing over 520 000ha. The Alliance was set up with support from BirdLife International and its four National Partners (Aves Uruguay, Aves Argentinas, SAVE Brasil and Guyra Paraguay).
This case study shows how biodiversity can be mainstreamed into land use, beef production, public policy and consumer consciousness. This is in line with Article 6(b) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which requires that parties “Integrate, as far as possible and as appropriate, the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity into relevant sectoral or cross-sectoral plans, programmes and policies.” The governments in the Southern Cone countries have welcomed the Alliance, aware that its technically sound tools could help deliver on environment-related commitments, including the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and Aichi Targets. The NBSAP submitted by Uruguay in 2016 provides an example of this: its National Target 7d is related to Aichi Target 7, and states that “By 2020, 80% of the area for livestock production will promote the aplication of guidelines for the conservation of natural grasslands.”
Further options for ways in which the Alliance’s work could be reflected in NBSAPs are as follows:
- Good grasslands management supports Aichi Target 7 on sustainable management of areas under agriculture, Target 12 on threatened species, and 14 on ecosystem services.
- With less than 2% of the natural extent of Pampas grasslands is in protected areas, progress towards Aichi Target 11 on area-based conservation will hinge on engaging landowners, so that they consider biodiversity in their decision making.
- The use of the Indicator of Natural Grasslands Conservation (ICP, described below) is in line with Aichi Target on incentives for conservation and sustainable use.
The biodiversity of the Pampas grasslands includes more than 550 species of native grasses, over one hundred mammals, and between 450 and 550 species of birds (60 of which are strictly dependent on grasslands, and 12 of which are globally threatened). There are more than twenty areas that are internationally recognised as important for migratory birds. The grassland landscape has changed hugely over the last century, driven by a growing cattle industry, a dramatic expansion of cropping (particularly soy-bean) and plantation forestry. Around 60 million hectares of the original native grasslands have been replaced. Inevitably, this has affected biodiversity and ecosystem services; for example, Pampas deer once roamed in their millions but are now absent from large areas of the region, while overgrazing destroyed habitat for many bird species. Reversing these changes – or reducing their negative impacts – is an enormous challenge.
The Grasslands Alliance implemented a programme of coordinated actions in each of the four countries involved, working with farmers, governments, academia and NGOs. Ongoing efforts to mainstream biodiversity into land use policy, beef production and consumption include the following:
- Demonstrating by example: pilot sites and individual farms demonstrate that good grassland management practices can achieve the win-win scenario of increased meat production and biodiversity conservation.
- Certification and creating market value: a certification protocol distinguishes â€˜grasslands beefâ€™, produced through sustainable grassland management and marketed with the appealing bird logo of the scheme.
- Beef marketing: certified beef was first made available domestically in Argentina in late 2012 and was first exported to Europe in early 2014. In Brazil, two major supermarkets are very interested in certified beef, which is expected to be available during 2016. In Uruguay, industries are ready to process certified meat from an increasing number of farms keen to enter the market.
- Assessing conservation on farms: several governments worked together to develop an objective Indicator of Natural Grasslands Conservation (ICP), used to assess the contribution that a particular farm is delivering to the regional grassland ecosystem, and to support fiscal incentives, described below.
- Communication: being a member of the Alliance enables farmers and institutions to keep in touch, accessing best practice guidelines and information about ongoing programmes. Traditional annual gatherings of ranchers in the four countries provide a platform to recognise and reward good grassland management. A Communications Plan is supported by a website, social networks and periodic e-bulletins. A GIS database houses information to enhance action, monitoring and reporting (the stage of each farm in terms of membership, certification, ICP score and biodiversity monitoring).
- Raising consumer awareness: tasting events emphasised the distinctive flavour, texture and quality of grass-fed beef, and campaigns enthuse consumers about their role in protecting natural grasslands by buying environmentally friendly meat.
A central challenge was the limited understanding of the value of natural grasslands among farmers and the wider public. Public policy (including tax regimes) often encouraged unsustainable practices. This meant that communications and advocacy were fundamental to generate the political will, farmer interest, and consumer awareness necessary for success.
The Alliance sees farmers as the solution to the challenges facing the grasslands, rather than the cause. Ranchers envision being seen as champions for conservation, but are also assured they will not be left to deliver conservation benefits on their own. It was crucial to provide the right combination of academic research, local knowledge, and clear evidence from farms to demonstrate that sustainable beef production would be profitable for farmers as well as benefitting birds. Overtime, ranchers have become increasingly receptive to guidance on improving their businesses.
More needs to be done among all sectors: convincing more ranchers to take part in the scheme; raising the profile of certified beef among the public; and advocacy among governments for further changes to fiscal incentives, to recognise the value of the Pampas ecosystems. In addition, research is needed on the role and importance of native species for grasslands ecosystems; this knowledge should then be transferred to local farmers.
As of the start of 2016, there were over 450 Alliance farm members, covering more than 520 000ha. The current number of farm members (and related land area) by country are: Argentina 86 (216 000ha), Brazil 110 (110 000ha), Uruguay 235 (140 000ha) and Paraguay 20 (51 000ha). Approximately 325 000ha have been certified; some of these certified farmers are delivering ‘grasslands beef’, while others are ready to do so as the market builds up. In terms of impacts on biodiversity, the scientific foundation of certification provides assurance that certified farms have at least 50% of their total land area in ‘good condition’ as natural grasslands, supporting wildlife, particularly bird species, in addition to cattle. Initial research in nine farms by the Alliance and universities showed encouraging results for the relationship between bird biodiversity and improved grassland management practices. The study has been expanded to 40 Uruguayan farms (with versus without good management practices), and the next steps are to apply the results in the other Southern Cone countries.
- Paraguay adopted the ICP as the official means to implement their national law of Payment for Environmental services: the ICP is used to provide ecosystem service certificates to grassland farmers, which in turn, can trade them with companies that are producing environmental impacts elsewhere (i.e. to achieve a net positive impact for biodiversity overall).
- Brazil made a crucial step towards policies that encourage good management of grasslands, by issuing a decree recognising the ICP as the official instrument to determine public incentives to ranchers that preserve grasslands.
- The Alliance is in discussions with the government in Argentina, including around the options for reduced taxes on farms that preserve natural grasslands.
- In Uruguay, the Ministry of Agriculture has recognised the ICP as a means to evaluate several schemes for on-farm grassland management projects.