02 Sep 2019 Story Ecosystems

From slim pickings to greener pastures

Photo by UNEP / Lisa Murray

Walking backwards, Georgina unspools a thick white ribbon in a rectangle about half the size of a soccer pitch, before planting fence posts into the thick grass and stringing up an electric fence in Ecuador’s mountainous Pichincha province.

The fence in place, she ushers her 13 prized cows into the lush, green meadow—a now daily routine for the 46-year-old rancher.

She has only managed her pasture this way for eight months, but the improvement in the health of both her cattle and the grass they rely on has been profound since she began restricting grazing areas.

This is in contrast to less than a year ago, when the sparse, dry pasture had slashed her cattle’s productivity, forcing the family to sell part of their herd and rent additional land to feed those that remained.

“We have had to make a lot of sacrifices. It shouldn’t be this way,” she says, wiping away a tear as she recalls how the family struggled to pay her children’s school and university fees.

But since replicating sustainable land management practices piloted by the Multiplying Environmental and Carbon Benefits in High Andean Ecosystems project, the family’s situation has started to improve.

“We’ve seen an improvement in our pasture and we’ve learned the importance of looking at the whole ecosystem—maintaining the trees, and conserving the water,” Georgina says, showing off the rich pasture that now fills her fields.

Georgina and her daughter install a portable electric fence to control where her cattle can graze.
Photo by UNEP / Lisa Murray

Ranching meets restoration

Set amidst a mosaic of farmland and cloud forest, Georgina’s ranch is one of many areas in the Tropical Andes suffering from a long history of unsustainable farming practices, extensive cattle grazing, soil erosion, water contamination and deforestation.

Running 4,100 km down the north-western edge of South America, the Tropical Andean mountains harbour extraordinary biological diversity, provide crucial ecosystem services and are an important, yet fragile store of carbon.

Through the project, Georgina was introduced to Juan Carlos, whose cattle farm operated as a research and pilot site to demonstrate how sustainable land management can improve productivity, avoid deforestation, restore degraded soils and reduce pressure on nearby water sources.

Local changes, global benefits

As part of the pilot project, Juan Carlos has experimented with an improved rotational grazing system, fertilized his pasture with manure and organic fertilizer from a biogas unit, restored a degraded area of pasture with native trees, and installed a new livestock watering system—stopping his cattle from trampling riparian forest and contaminating local water sources.

“The quality of the topsoil has improved, it’s much deeper than before and the colour has changed from a light brown to a darker colour,” Juan Carlos says, massaging a handful of moist, black earth in his palm. “The grass is much thicker and richer in colour too.”

These sustainable land management practices also increase soil carbon storage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with Juan Carlos able to sequester an additional 16.74 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per hectare every four years—more than three years’ worth of emissions from an average passenger vehicle.

Juan Carlos is quick to point out that sustainable land management has done more than help increase production—with each of his cattle doubling their daily milk yield—but has also reduced pressure on the surrounding environment, enabling him to designate areas for restoration and allowing wildlife to return by increasing landscape connectivity.

Juan Carlos shows off the soil improvement that new sustainable land management practices have enabled on his farm.
Photo by UNEP / Lisa Murray

From pilot to policy

Georgina’s husband was one of 50 farmers in Pichincha who started replicating these innovative methods after joining in learning visits organized across the province.

“We were sceptical at first, but my husband was amazed at what Juan Carlos was doing—how green and healthy the grass was—we’ve never seen anything like it,” Georgina says.

With proven, replicable practices in place, the next step has been to integrate these practices into policy—working with local authorities to feed lessons learned from the project into Ecuador’s National Restoration Plan.

Having seen the benefits himself, Juan Carlos is excited about the potential for even more farmers to take up the new techniques he has been a part of sharing.

“With this knowledge, instead of degrading farms, cutting down trees and extracting resources from the forest, farmers can implement more sustainable practices, and improve productivity.”


Led by the UN Environment Programme, in collaboration with the Consortium for the Sustainable Development of the Andean EcoRegion (CONDESAN) and national partners, the Multiplying Environmental and Carbon Benefits in High Andean Ecosystems project is a four-year, Global Environment Facility-funded initiative working across Ecuador and Peru to pilot sustainable land management, sustainable forest management and restoration practices. To date, the project has helped to bring over 54,000 ha under local conservation and sustainable management agreements, restoring the High Andean ecosystem while improving livelihoods for local families.

Multiplying Environmental and Carbon Benefits in High Andean Ecosystems is just one of more than 80 projects the UN Environment Programme has implemented with the backing of the Global Environment Facility in support of the UN Convention to Combat Degradation and Desertification and other efforts to bring a halt to the threat of land degradation globally. Focusing on the theme “Investing in Land, Unlocking Opportunities”, the 14th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Degradation and Desertification is taking place in Delhi, India from 2 to 14 September 2019.

This story was originally published in Voices from the land: Restoring soils and enriching livesDownload the book here.

For more information on Multiplying Environmental and Carbon Benefits in High Andean Ecosystems and the UN Environment Programme’s work in Land Degradation, contact [email protected].