Method That Turns Wastelands Green Wins 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge

Livestock might not be just the cause of desertification–they might also be the solution.


Today, the Buckminster Fuller Institute announced the winner of its 2010 Challenge: Allan Savory, who has spent the last 50 years refining and evangelizing for a method of reversing desertification that he calls “holistic management.” The African Center for Holistic Management International, an NGO he helped found, will take home a $100,000 grant.

The Buckminster Fuller Challenge is meant to award big, sweeping solutions to seemingly intractable problems. As the Institute’s executive director, Elizabeth Thompson, tells, “The approach was pioneered by Fuller. We’re looking for strategies that solve multiple problems at once, not just surgical implementations that don’t address the root problem.”

Savory’s work fits the bill. By combating desertification in Africa, he argues that families are able to once again earn a living from the land; that in turn reduces poverty and violence. “Allan is an absolute pioneer in ecological design,” says Thompson.

But Savory’s prescription seems shockingly simple–and it’s taken him 50 years of work to convince others that he’s not crazy. The core of Holistic Management is simply grazing local livestock in super dense herds that mimic the grazing patterns of big-game (which have since disappeared). Those livestock in turn till the soil with their hooves and fertilize it with their dung–thus preparing the land for new vegetation in a cycle that was evolved over millions of years.

Surprisingly, that flies in the face of modern wisdom about land management–the typical response is to rest land completely, and livestock are often named as the chief culprits in desertification. “We’ve been ridiculed for 50 years,” says Savory. But he argues that examples from around the world show that resting the land doesn’t prepare it for the return of vegetation–instead, it simply remains barren, with rain simply running off soil that stays cracked and dry. “But when you range animals correctly, the land starts returning,” he says. “The only thing that can do it is a heavy herbivore with a wet gut.”


Savory and his team start by educating farmers about how to move their herds, and how to plan their herding routes in a way that gives all the land adequate rest between intense grazing and trampling. The method has been deployed everywhere from the Northern Rockies, between Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, to Australia’s outback. But perhaps the biggest success has come in Zimbabwe, where Savory’s African Center for Holistic Management has transformed 6,500 acres of land. There, even though livestock herds have increased by 400%, open water and fish have been found a half mile above where water had ever been known during dry season.

As for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, this is the third time the award has been given, as part of a five year trial run funded by an anonymous donor. Thompson, the institute’s director, believes that each year, the solutions have gotten better. “I think the increased interest we see is based on people looking at the catastrophes all around us, and realizing that our solutions aren’t working,” she says. “That where I hope we’re making a contribution.”


About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.