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Three key issues in rural policy are often discussed in isolation from one another: smallholder livestock production systems, the socio-economic impacts of climate change, and redistributive land reform.

Across Southern Africa, all three are key to developing policies and programmes that enhance the sustainability of livestock-oriented rural livelihood strategies. Yet the complex and variable manner in which these three key issues intersect with each other in the region is a relatively neglected research area. Our current study aims to explore existing practices of dealing with climate change in post-land reform settings, to discover how land beneficiaries are managing their livestock amid climate change and what we can learn from them – and how policy makers should build on these to promote resilient smallholder livestock systems.

Livestock in climate change debates

Our climate is changing rapidly and contemporary food systems are increasingly viewed as both villain (driving change) and victim (food supplies are at risk). Livestock are significant contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with livestock production contributing an estimated 14.5% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions, directly or indirectly, 40% from beef cattle and 20% from dairy cattle. A growing anti-livestock discourse, which obscures the politics of who wins or loses, has been taken up by campaign organisations, environmental activists, politicians, rich philanthropists, and development practitioners. Bill Gates, a prominent international donor in African agriculture, believes that “if [cattle] were a country, they would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses”.  These narratives are having significant policy impacts yet do not differentiate between the Global North and Global South, between intensive and extensive livestock farming, or between corporate, large-scale commercial, and smallholder production systems. 

Calls for radical shifts in livestock production and diets globally to mitigate climate change could damage the livelihoods of many millions of pastoralists who bear the costs of climate change and who are often among the poorest in the world. Such anti-livestock discourses ignore the diversity of livestock production systems across the world. The prevalent view that livestock is the major culprit of climate change globally is, as is so often the case, informed by studies of intensive livestock systems from the global North. As Houzer and Scoones (2021) put it, we need to ask “Which livestock, where?” 

While extensive livestock systems contribute to GHG emissions – though far less than intensive systems – in these contexts of South Africa they also play vital roles in environmental services, including carbon sequestration, improving biodiversity, and enhancing landscapes. Livestock products are also vital for nutrition in poor communities. Globally, extensive livestock production is central to millions of people’s livelihoods in over 100 countries, involving production from over a billion animals, with extensive rangelands occupying between 25% and 40% of the earth’s surface.

Why livestock are important in land reforms

Over the last three or four decades, Zimbabwe and South Africa have been undertaking ambitious programmes of redistributive land reform. As former ‘settler colonies’, where white settlers appropriated large areas of the most fertile land, the aims of redistributive land reform have been to provide redress for colonial or apartheid injustices, eradicate poverty and promote economic growth. 

  • Zimbabwe’s ‘Fast Track Land Reform Programme’ (FTLRP) of 2000 transferred around 8 million hectares from white-owned commercial farms to around 145 000 smallholders and 16 500 medium-scale farmers. Patterns of livestock ownership, use, and management, with implications for how livestock production, disease management, and marketing have all shifted as a result. – and while the total cattle herd has declined substantially, about 91% of cattle are now owned by smallholder farmers. 
  • In South Africa, less than 10% of farmland has been transferred through restitution and redistribution, and many settled restitution claims have not been fully implemented. Smallholder extensive livestock production has emerged as one of the dominant land uses on redistributed land. In these settings, livestock, particularly cattle, have multiple functions, including provision of agricultural inputs (e.g., manure and draught power), storing of wealth, milk, meat, social status, and income among others. Livestock is thus of particular importance to the millions of people who reside in these dry settings, located as they generally are in low-potential regions where crop farming is not feasible.

A variety of ‘community-based’ land tenure systems underpin the rangelands and other resources transferred through land reform. These facilitate livestock mobility in heterogeneous landscapes composed of resource patches that vary greatly in their importance for livestock over both space and time and help to sustain large numbers of animals through ‘opportunistic’ grazing strategies, potentially making these more adaptive than individual holdings.

Significance of the study

  1. Smallholder livestock production systems are key components of rural livelihood strategies across Southern Africa and are likely to remain so. Appropriate policies and support programmes could increase the outputs and benefits of these systems for large numbers of the rural poor.
  2. The resilience of smallholder livestock systems resulting from high levels of herd mobility on common property rangelands may prove to be a crucial feature as climate change proceeds, and help to buffer its impacts – and should be understood as part of climate justice and ‘just transitions’,
  3. Redistributive land reform in the region necessarily involves large areas of rangelands, and extensive livestock production is a dominant form of land use in many areas where land reform is taking place. If land reform is to succeed in reducing inequality and improving livelihoods, then extensive livestock production by smallholders must be supported to be as resilient as possible amid climate variability and shocks. 

We hope this work will contribute to thinking on land reform, livestock and climate change policy in South Africa and Zimbabwe, and across Africa more generally, and influence the deliberations of policy makers. 

Case studies from Zimbabwe and South Africa

The research focuses on three regions that have been subject to redistributive land reform over the past few decades, and are located in sites where livestock production is an important component of the local economy. Two are in semi-arid agro-ecological zones, and one in an area marginal for crop production. 

  • In Zimbabwe, our research is in Matobo district in southern Matabeleland, where previously white-owned large commercial ranches have been subdivided and transferred to smallholder farmers and medium-scale commercial producers, both of whom focus mainly on cattle production – and builds on Tapiwa Chatikobo’s PhD research 
  • In South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, we focus on Inkosi Langalibalele Local Municipality in the Midlands region, where the government has transferred around land to groups of cattle and goat farmers through both land restitution and land redistribution
  • In South Africa’s region of Namaqualand in the Northern Cape province, our study addresses the ‘market-oriented’ smallholder farmers who have secured substantial land in communal areas through the government’s land reform and farm goats and sheep on extensive rangelands. 

All three regions have low rainfall and, without irrigation, are unsuitable for cropping. Here, livestock production is the mainstay of rural local economies and, we believe, the ‘coping mechanisms’ and wider land-use and livelihood strategies adopted by the cattle, goat, and sheep farmers in these environments may provide important lessons for climate change policy responses.

Project team

Tapiwa Chatikobo

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Prof Ben Cousins

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 Prof Ian Scoones

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Ruth Hall

Prof Ruth Hall

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This project is supported by the SA Research Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies funded by the Department of Science and Innovation and the National Research Foundation