This year’s Buckminster Fuller Prize winner, Operation Hope, has seen the transformation  of 6,500 acres of parched and degraded grasslands in Zimbabwe into healthy pastures despite extended periods of drought. The story behind Operation Hope is an inspiring one with real insights on how complexity science concepts can help transform development practices on the ground.

First, the background to the project, described by one of the BF judges:

A quarter of the land area of Earth is turning into desert. Three quarters of the planet’s savannas and grasslands are degrading. And because the main activity on rangelands is grazing livestock, on which 70 percent of the world’s poorest people depend, grassland deterioration therefore causes widespread poverty.

Significant resources have been spent on trying to understand and reverse desertification, but with few successes. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the transformation achieved by Operation Hope from depleted to flourishing grassland, was that it was achieved by dramatically increasing the number of herd animals on the land. It has challenged the dominant and widespread theory that desertification is caused by overgrazing.


The animal-treated field on the right hand side and the conventionally managed field beside it.
Image courtesy of the Buckminster Fuller Institute

Behind Operation Hope is an approach called “holistic management,” derived from five decades of work by Allan Savory, who tried to develop a practical theory of semi-arid grassland ecologies to understand and improve range land practices. Key guiding principles of holistic management are listed below – regular Aid on the Edge readers will recognise many of these because they are firmly grounded in ideas of complexity science and systems thinking:

  • When actions are guided by complex realities, rather than by rational and abstract concepts, goals must change continuously
  • Conversations are more important than plans. In a healthy community, discussion of its overarching goals never ends.
  • A healthy community does not aspire to create the perfect plan and then implement it; rather, the idea is to grow and develop goals over time. Each and every managed system — people, land, money — is unique… just as one cannot step into the same river twice because it is flowing, holistic management does not allow for replication.
  • ‘Letting things go where they will’ implies accepting that things will unfold in unexpected ways, and there is a need to be flexible to that, taking up unforeseen opportunities as they arise and being prepared to abandon unrealistic aspirations along the route
  • Means rather than the ends: “You might even say that the means are the ends. Whatever you think your goal is, the true goal is to have a process for making decisions on an ongoing basis… Any so-called goal is merely one step along [a] path.”

How does all of this apply in the context of natural resource management programmes, and in particular the counter-intuitive notion that desertification could be reversed through more herds of animals, rather than less?

Moving across the land in large herds, the herbivores trample and compact soils in much the way that a gardener does to encourage plant growth — while also fertilizing the soil with concentrated levels of nutrient-rich animal wastes.

This approach aligns itself with nature a comprehensive way; it increases plant growth, improves rural livelihoods through additional livestock, and increases wildlife populations across the landscape. Grasses depended on herbivores to help them with their decay process. When large herbivores… disappear, grasses begin to decay far more slowly through oxidation.

When millions of tons of vegetation are left standing, dying upright, the result is to block light from reaching growth buds; the next year, the entire plant dies. The death of grass leads to bare ground, and desert spreads.

Savory tried to explain why the “unmanaged” grassland of pre-colonial era had supported enormous herds of wild ungulates and recovered from even severe droughts without loss of biodiversity while land grazed by domestic stock under human management degraded rapidly. He hypothesised that on enormous unfenced ranges, existing land use patterns and pack-hunting predators assured beneficial herd behavior. By contrast:

limited lands demand management that is “holistic” to the extent that it respond to ever-shifting conditions of weather, economics, culture, and environmental conditions.

Here is a great Flickr Slideshow on how Operation Hope worked in practice.

For most of the 50 years that Savory has battled to make the scientific case for his approach, he has had to contend with intense opposition from mainstream range science researchers. One observer, Jonathan Teller-Elsberg, has suggested that the reason for the long resistance to Savory’s approach is simple:

Mainstream natural resource management systems were in essence designed to avoid or bypass complexity. They coined the term “best management practice” — but this was a misnomer. What may be the right thing to do on a farm this year may not be next year, let alone on a different farm. Although their motive was good, complexity—social, environmental and economic—is the implacable reality for management and thus cannot be bypassed or avoided. It has to be embraced through holistic planning processes.”

One of the most significant obstacles Savory encountered is the pronounced tendency to make conscious decisions — planning and design, for example — in a linear way. The implications for aid organisations are spelled out in stark fashion:

We have created complex global organizations that are programmed according to the same linear thinking. We manage these organizations by designing missions, or visions, that give the collective entity something to aim for in its linear journey forwards. We have been successful with developments of technology — but have failed over and over again to deal with complexity in nature and human society. The trouble stems from our attempts to control a world that is holistic, and fundamentally non-linear, in its makeup. This rational, control-seeking approach makes it almost impossible to deal with such wicked problems as biodiversity loss, desertification, and climate change.

The limits of linear, reductionist management are seen to be especially true for land:

Land — whether rangeland or cropland — cannot be managed like the production line in a car factory. Land alone is no more manageable than is the hydrogen or oxygen alone in water. Traditional scientists would never understand nature until we understood that nature functioned in wholes and patterns of great complexity, unlike the mechanistic world view in which nature is viewed as a complicated machine with interconnecting parts.

After decades of rejecting the idea underlying Operation Hope, that increased livestock could reverse desertification, a growing number of scientists now accept that the results claimed by Savory are supported by rigorous data, and that they therefore deserve to drive land use, agriculture, and ultimately new kinds of development policy.

Savory’s acceptance by the mainstream is part of a profound shift in scientific thinking. He is no longer alone in realizing that transfers of energy and nutrients are innate to the growing understanding of ecosystem ecology, that has emerged from biological studies of plants, animals, terrestrial, aquatic, and marine ecosystems. As a result, Savory’s work has far wider implications than desertification alone. His approach contains the elements of a whole new approach to agriculture. As he has argued on the Savory Institute website:

The Green Revolution was based on high input, industrial agriculture. It involved massive inputs of petro-chemicals and herbicides, monoculture cropping, and confinement animal feeding operations. It increased global food production tremendously, but it has also tended severely to degrade its ecological and socio-cultural capital base in the process. The Green Revolution has not been characterized by ecological or social integrity—quite the contrary. Horrific soil erosion, dead zones at the mouths of rivers, severely depleted levels of biodiversity, impoverished rural communities, soil fertility loss, and oxidation of soil organic matter have been exacerbated by the Green Revolution. We posit the necessity of a new ‘Brown Revolution’, based on the regeneration of covered, organically rich, biologically thriving soil, and brought to fruition via millions of human beings returning to the land and the production of food.” (emphasis added)

International agencies may have been slow to pick up on these ideas, but the idea of a Brown Revolution focused on improving soil is catching on. Savory has recently received a $4.2m grant from USAID to replicate his work in several other African countries. What’s more, Howard Buffet, son of the famous investor Warren, gave a speech at this months World Food Prize symposium in which he argued that a “Brown Revolution” in soil cultivation was vital for the future of African agriculture. To quote directly from his keynote:

Food security is complicated, agriculture is complicated. Simply distributing seeds and fertilizer, if that’s the plan, will fail long term.”

Given Buffett’s potential to take over his father’s company, and the strong philanthropic links between the Buffetts and the Gates Foundation, we might be hearing much more about a Brown Revolution, and the ideas underlying Operation Hope, in the future.

You can see a talk by Allan Savory on holistic management here

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Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. […] Land is not Linear: Towards the Brown Revolution. Ben Ramalingam describes the work of Operation Hope on agricultural production in Zimbabwe, and links the organization’s work to complexity science. […]

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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.

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Agriculture, Innovation, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Public Policy, Resilience, Self organisation, Strategy