On Launching a Global Grassroots Movement to Heal the Grasslands by Daniela Ibarra-Howell

a horse and man walk across a pasture.

 

come from a culture of grass and meat, from a land of gauchos and horses, cows and sheep, asados and siestas, and yerba mate ceremonies and sobremesas that enable community. Born and raised in the big city of Buenos Aires, I yearned for those long summers on our family’s ranches, observing the complex, dynamic, deep rooted web of interrelationships in nature. When I sensed human-induced disturbance of this web, I cringed deep in my soul. I empathize with those who would prefer to leave “nature” alone. But humanity and nature are integral and intertwined. Our management decisions have impacts—both positive and negative—that transcend our place and time, and we can barely understand their rippling effects. Even leaving nature alone is a human management decision and, in some cases, a greatly misinformed one.

 

I chose a life path that would take me to live and work in grasslands. Loss of grasslands due to flawed policies and human management has contributed to climate change, the increased severity and frequency of fires, floods and droughts, the decline and extinction of myriad of life forms, famine, human migration, and worldwide poverty. Thirty-five years ago, I chose to dedicate my life to changing this reality and helping replace it with a more hopeful one.

 

Addressing desertification in my beloved Patagonia, I was engulfed in questions. The answers were missing, or didn’t make sense, compelling an adventure-filled journey of discovery. A stop on that journey was New Zealand, where I did my graduate studies and met my life partner, Jim. After hearing my same concerns and frustrations while analyzing the country’s policies for their degrading tussock grasslands, Jim handed me the first edition of Allan Savory’s textbook, Holistic Resource Management.

 

“I think this will help you,” he said, not knowing how deeply this gift would shape my life.

 

As I turned the pages, the answers I was seeking were revealed with piercing common sense. I ended up moving to the U.S. and marrying Jim in 1994. I also met Allan Savory—who would become a lifelong mentor, friend, and partner in mission—and was thrown into the school of hard knocks head-on. We moved to a 35,000-acre ranch in the desertifying grasslands of New Mexico, which served as a learning site for Savory’s non-profit organization at the time, and became our home and school for the next two years. During that time at the High Lonesome, and in the years that followed of working and studying with Allan in the U.S. and Africa, Jim and I learned many humbling lessons, gained invaluable skills, experienced a profound shift in worldview, and found unwavering confidence in the power of Holistic Management. It lasted a lifetime.

 

A Masai herder and his cattle stand on a pasture with wildlife on the background.

Masai herder with his cattle in Enonkishu Conservancy, Savory Network Mara Training Center, Kenya. Photo by Bobby Gill

 

For the next 17 years, we would run our very intentional and diversified business venture, allowing us to live a life of purpose raising livestock on Jim’s family ranch in western Colorado while teaching, consulting, and traveling during the off-season. We built lasting connections with the most capable ranching and Holistic Management communities around the world. It became obvious to me that, despite the inevitable scepticism of naysayers, the Holistic Management framework (along with its planning and monitoring processes) never failed to create abundance for the land and its people, despite marked disparity in cultures, environments, and economic circumstances. Human failure to implement and stick to them did.

 

The Holistic Management of grasslands and livestock recognizes, respects, plans around, and enables complexity. It has helped thousands of caring grassland stewards do what we love doing in intentional, strategic, and disciplined ways: restore the inherent vitality of land; boost soil fertility, productivity, and profit; and manifest resilience in the whole system. In this light, our presence on the land leads to abundance, which in turn enables meaningful and viable livelihoods and deepens our commitment to its health.  It is not easy, takes lots of hard work, is littered with countless moments of frustration and doubt, requires the mastery of a great variety of skill sets, and demands an unwavering resolve in the face of a multitude of variables outside our control. But, through persistence and tenacity, it works. The importance of community, mentors, and support systems cannot be understated. This realization later informed the design of our work at the Savory Institute.

 

Fast forward to 2009. Allan Savory, his wife Jody, and a few of their lifelong friends met at our ranch under the Colorado skies. Concerned by the state of the world—and with climate change beginning to rear its ugly head into public consciousness—we set out to massively scale and accelerate the adoption of Allan’s life work. We wanted to achieve a tangible and coordinated realization of Holistic Management in the world’s grasslands so that we could help millions of ranchers and pastoralists, just as Jim and I had been helped by these principles. After what seemed like endless brainstorming sessions, innumerable phone calls, exhilarating strategic planning meetings, and a few infusions of capital, the Savory Institute was born.

 

While the core of the Savory strategy has been to equip, foster, and nurture passionate individuals with a keen entrepreneurial spirit to speed up the work of the existing network of long-time educators and practitioners, its core essence has been to simply embrace the beauty and uniqueness of what is local and contextually relevant. We have also promoted its adapted replication through fearless leadership, business savvy, innovation, and intentional communion. Our goal: 100 locally owned, led, and managed hubs around the world by 2025 demonstrating, educating, supporting, and coordinating the adoption of Holistic Management in their regions.

 

 Community of pastoralists in Senegal, working with Savory Institute, Network Hubs, and Heifer International to address desertification and improve their wellbeing and resilience. Photo by Byron Shelton.

 

The design of our strategy was informed by the insights clearly laid out in Allan’s book: Nature and all complex systems function in wholes and patterns (holism); relationships are mutualistic and synergistic; death and decay are inevitable and necessary aspects of life; the flows of energy are captured best when cycles are effective; distributed and complex systems are resilient; things evolve; and so on. The creative process was highly iterative. Our holistic context guided our decisions. Business plans were put in place, operationalized, and quickly altered to meet the unsparing feedback of reality. Tools and programs were developed, usually on a shoestring, to meet the perceived needs of the movement. But perceptions differed across the network, so we listened ever more deeply, and tried again with new insights and more humans supporting the creative process. Just as in ranching, fostering abundance in human groups is not easy and requires plenty of hard work, intentionality, humility, perseverance, love, and dedication by all.

 

With all its growing pains and learning curves, this emergent global community is choosing to spend time in the exploration of how to better collaborate and jointly shape change. The quality and authenticity of these relationships have forged the robust backbone of this community—the entrepreneurial infrastructure through which knowledge, tools, innovation, investment, and assets flow to all corners of the world. The soundness of the Holistic Management processes and practices is promoted and evolved in this collaboration, then strengthened through peer-to-peer modeling and support, as well as ultimately through skillful land management. There are no formulas. In each region, in each community, on each farm, ranch, or landscape, and within each human group, the challenges and the opportunities differ, and resourcefulness and ingenuity unveil unique expressions of this work. The fundamental principles of mutualism, mentorship, community, and continued learning remain guiding stars.

 

Healing the land is more a human design challenge than a technical one, and its expansion can only happen through investment at the local level—not a big, top-down initiative. Instead, countless smaller, grassroots gems activate new models of regenerative agriculture. What we practice at a small scale sets the pattern for the whole system. The beauty of the local gets reflected at the global level.

 

A man herding cattle as they walk through a field with bare soil. 

 

A burgeoning global network of over 50 hubs are currently at work supporting thousands of land managers healing over 10 million hectares of grasslands, and counting. Across the globe, in tiny nodes, livestock are properly managed to a holistic plan; soil microbes are being fed; nutrients are cycling into better and richer food; human and animal health are being positively impacted; long-gone species are coming back; carbon is being drawn down by plants into the soil; and water is being soaked up, supporting life and recharging creeks and rivers. Community passion is being reignited, younger generations are re-engaging, money and resources are being invested in the local economies, abundance and wealth in all its forms is emerging. If we zoom out into the large network, the sum of these local initiatives is clearly contributing to addressing the current global crises.

 

But the challenges humanity faces require that we move even faster. We believe the market forces can help accelerate this trend and momentum. The network is now positioned to make a strong contribution to the marketplace as world and business leaders look for actionable strategies to meet their corporate social responsibility, sustainability, and climate commitments—and as we become increasingly educated, curious, and demanding when it comes to understanding the impact and quality of the products we buy and the brands we support. The Savory Land to Market program, born in partnership with EPIC Provisions, is operationalizing this opportunity, increasing our joint impact.  The program allows companies that are producing animal-based food and fibers to get data-backed, third-party verification that the inputs going into their products are having a positive impact on the land. Its potential integrated return on investment—measured in multiple currencies of value—could be truly mind-blowing.

 

I am fulfilled and inspired by our global work, knowing that we are achieving our purpose and mission through agile and professional initiatives, inclusion, and intelligent collaboration. Deep in my heart, I know this community of doers is irrevocably altering the course of climate change and the fate of the grasslands. It is shaping a new narrative of ranching, pastoralism, and livestock and—through fierce action and leadership—forging a path that is congruent with the challenge of our times. 

 

Daniela Ibarra-Howell is a wife, mother, agronomist, world explorer, holistic manager, and mentor. She is the CEO of the Savory Institute and has led her team in the design and implementation of a revolutionary entrepreneurial, global impact strategy for large-scale regeneration of grasslands through Holistic Management in order to tackle global desertification, food and water insecurity, and climate change. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband, Jim, and daughters Savanna and Mia.

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