10 Dec 2015

Americas’ Conservation Cowboys

Unlikely bedfellows from across the Americas meet every year at the Ranchers’ Gathering to share ideas and expertise on how to save natural grasslands from agricultural intensification. Photo: Alianza del Pastizal (Grasslands Alliance)
Unlikely bedfellows from across the Americas meet every year at the Ranchers’ Gathering to share ideas and expertise on how to save natural grasslands from agricultural intensification. Photo: Alianza del Pastizal (Grasslands Alliance)
By Bethan John

In November, 460 farmers, conservationists, government officials and academics got together for the ninth Ranchers’ Gathering in the city of Santana do Livramento, on the border between Brazil and Uruguay.

Organised by the Southern Cone Grasslands Alliance – a BirdLife initiative lead by Partners Aves ArgentinasAves UruguaySAVE Brasil and Guyra Paraguay – this annual meeting provides a chance for a diverse group of people to share challenges and practical solutions to saving the rich biodiversity of the Americas’ grasslands. 

Photo: Alianza del Pastizal (Grasslands Alliance)From the prairies in the North to the pampas in the South, grasslands are being destroyed by rampant agricultural intensification. Farmers face huge financial pressure to convert their native grasslands into crops to make more money over the short-term, or to sell their land to industrial-scale agricultural giants. 

Less than 2% of the grasslands in the Southern Cone of South America have any protected area status, despite the ecosystem being of global importance for biodiversity conservation and home to over 400 species of birds. 

With a similar story in North America, where less than 20% of native grasslands remain intact, it is no surprise that birds dependent on grasslands represent the largest group of avian species on the decline in the Americas.

The Alliance aims to work with farmers to prove that traditional practices can be productive, profitable and biodiversity friendly.

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In the Southern Cone, 95% of the grasslands are privately owned and used for agricultural production, so it is essential that these farming practices are as environmentally sensitive as possible. 


The three main themes that were discuss in this year’s meeting were: ‘Towards a Hemispheric approach to Grasslands Conservation’, ‘Cattle Pasture and Grassland Management’, and ‘Quality of Meat from Grasslands.’

In one presentation, Professor Carlos Nabinger of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sulin Brazil stated that it is possible to obtain yields of 300 kilograms of meat per hectare on natural grasslands when applying good management practices. According to Nabinger, you can increase revenue from the ranch through processing technologies while preserving natural resources.

Photo: Alianza del Pastizal (Grasslands Alliance)Another presentation by Cristina Morales from Guyra Paraguay (BirdLife in Paraguay) discussed the topic “Efficiency of the Paraguayan livestock: an opportunity to mitigate the effects of global climate change.” In her speech she said that by improving the efficiency of livestock production in areas that are already producing, the Government can achieve their goal of 600,000 tons of production without deforesting the Paraguayan Chaco.

The array of informative presentations by conservationists, producers and academics gave a thorough insight into the practical ways that traditional cattle ranching can be profitable and environmentally sensitive, so that rich native grasslands are not converted into monoculture crops. 

Cristian Artuso, from Bird Studies Canada (BirdLife in Canada), was one of the delegates at the meeting and said: “Those of us striving for meaningful conservation in North America’s grasslands could learn a lot from Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil and their remarkable collaboration that offers great hope for South America’s resident grassland threatened species, as well as over-wintering migrants Bobolink Dolichonyx oryzivorus, Upland Sandpiper Bartramia longicauda, Buff-breasted Sandpiper Calidris subruficollis, American Golden Plover Pluvialis dominica and others.” 

Cristian added:

“This Alliance is an amazing conservation initiative that is doing the BirdLife International Partnership proud.”

The Alliance is recognised across the Americas for finding solutions to complex environmental, economic and social issues. The chance to learn from the Alliance and its on-the-ground experience is what attracted hundreds of people to the Ranchers’ Gathering in November. 

Photo: Alianza del Pastizal (Grasslands Alliance)There is a sense of hopeful anticipation that the success in the Southern Cone will sweep into the savannas of Bolivia, across the llanos plains of Colombia, up through Mexico’s grasslands, until they reach the prairies of the US and Canada. It is ambitious. But millions of birds – from endemics to migrants – depend on it. 

The BirdLife Partnership in the Americas wants to drive this hemispheric approach to grasslands conservation, as part of their global commitment to protecting migratory birds and flyways. 

It depends on their Partners across the Americas working together, while finding conservation champions across sectors – from farmers to governments, corporations to academics. They must break down barriers and build trust, while encouraging a diversity of voices who will find new and insightful solutions. They need to make grasslands productive and profitable, while ensuring they are preserved and protected. 

The Southern Cone Grasslands Alliance is the trailblazer, showing what can be achieved. There are many challenges to be overcome, but the birds of the Americas need conservation cowboys more than ever.

>> Read more about the Grasslands Alliance project in this World Birdwatch Article (PDF)

Click here read more about the Grasslands Project in this World Birdwatch Article (PDF)

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Thanks to Bobolink Foundation, Aage V Jensen Charity Foundation, US Fish and Wildlife Service – Neotropical Migratory Birds Conservation Act, and US Forest Service – International Programs who contributed to the Ranchers’ Gathering.