From a young age we are taught the importance of forests. We learn that trees take up carbon dioxide and convert it into oxygen. Forests are depicted as essential ecosystems and rightly so. Their value – whether in terms of biodiversity or carbon storage – is clear even to the untrained eye. Conversely, when grasslands become the topic, a vague facial expression is a common response.
For most people, grasslands conjure up the image of wide-open savannahs teeming with wildlife, Kilimanjaro standing tall in the background, or perhaps the steppes in Eurasia with Genghis Khan’s descendants in sight. Americans call them prairies. And although we find these areas beautiful and they often give a sense of open space and peace, few people think of grasslands as an important ecosystem that needs to be fought for with the same emotions attached to forests.
Their ground cover is huge: some estimates suggest they cover between 20% and 30% of the global land surface and 80% of agriculturally productive land. A large proportion of this area is located in developing countries in the tropics. Here, they are particularly important to the livelihoods of some one billion poor people, many of whom rely on grasslands for grazing livestock, which in turn provide meat, fibre and leather.