By Amita Ramachandran
The wildebeest is an iconic feature of the African savannah. The large animals dot the vast, grassy landscape, grazing like wild cattle. Their grayish-brown coat is striped by a black mane, and a shaggy white beard frames its box-shaped head. Neither rare, nor particularly animated, these creatures are not the typical focal point of a Kenyan safari, except once a year when over a million are thought to begin an epic migration. In fact, wildebeest migrate year-round, and this movement makes them a keystone species in the East African grasslands. Their grazing patterns prevent forest fires and allow diverse flora and fauna to thrive throughout their path. They also mitigate climate change.
Nature is gaining recognition for being a powerful, cost-effective climate solution. Research shows that nature-based solutions (NBS) - conservation, restoration and/or land management practices that sequester carbon and/or avoid emissions - can be responsible for up to 37% of the emissions reductions needed by 2030.1 NBS also provide many co-benefits including ecosystem services, biodiversity protection, improved human health, and much more.
But a narrow interpretation of nature has led to partial and sometimes harmful solutions. NBS has become synonymous with trees and forests, a bias that is reflected in the scientific evidence base.2 Most policies and pledges focus solely on restoration and afforestation, sometimes in areas not suited to forest cover, other times using non-native species. Climate-focused tree plantation projects have been accused of land grabbing, displacing indigenous populations, destroying virgin forests, and disrupting ecosystems by introducing alien species.
Last summer, thanks to the Roy Family Fellowship, I worked with an early-stage start-up building an alternative nature-based solution. EarthAcre uses cutting-edge technology to help indigenous communities in East African grasslands monetize their conservation, restoration, and carbon sequestration initiatives on the carbon market. Over six weeks in Kenya, I traveled across multiple grassland ecosystems, meeting pastoralist communities who are conserving their land, sustaining indigenous management practices, and protecting wildlife.
I learned that grasslands are a critical landscape for climate action, covering up to 40% of the earth’s landmass, and storing up to one third of the world’s terrestrial carbon stocks. Though the tree-less expanses appear barren, the shallow grasses store carbon out of sight in their extensive root system.
Wildlife, especially wildebeest, play a critical role in managing these carbon sinks. In the mid-twentieth century when wildebeest populations had plummeted, overgrown ground vegetation became fuel for wildfires that turned grasslands into net emitters of carbon dioxide. Efforts to restore the wildebeest population transformed the landscape. Feedback loops between plants and animals impact carbon sequestration and storage.3 By keeping grasses low, wildebeest reduce the frequency and intensity of wildfires. In addition, wildebeest dung transfers carbon back into the soils, restoring the degraded land, and feeding carbon into the more permanent and stable root system.
Indigenous governance makes this cycle possible. In landscapes managed by indigenous communities, wildlife graze naturally and landowners complement wildlife movements with managed grazing plans for cattle. But with limited income sources and rising costs, conversion of grasslands for farming is increasingly common, disturbing the soil, releasing carbon, and fencing out wildlife. By monetizing the carbon sequestered on indigenous lands, EarthAcre can align incentives for communities to maintain practices passed down through generations, protect wildlife and sequester carbon. If the carbon market can compensate landowners better than the alternatives, the carbon sequestered in grasslands can be stable and permanent.
Taking a more expansive view of nature-based solutions not only allows us to capture nature’s many benefits, but also the many pathways it offers to solve our most urgent problems. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to explore this sector with the support of multidisciplinary experts across Harvard. I learned so much from this opportunity, especially that to value the complexity of nature’s benefits, solutions must account for the complexity of natural systems. Natural spaces inspired me to work on climate change, and always replenish me to do more. I’m grateful to the Harvard Kennedy School for supporting careers in the protection of these spaces and these species.
 Griscom, Bronson W, Justin Adams, Joseph Fargione et al. “Natural Climate Solutions.” PNAS. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, October 16, 2017. https://www.pnas.org/doi/pdf/10.1073/pnas.1710465114.
 Chausson, Alexandre et al. “Mapping the Effectiveness of Nature-Based Solutions for Climate Change Adaptation.” Global Change Biology, September 9, 2020. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gcb.15310.
 Schmitz, O. J., Wilmers, C. C., Leroux, S. J., Doughty, C. E., Atwood, T. B., Galetti, M., Davies, A. B., & Goetz, S. J. (2018). Animals and the zoogeochemistry of the carbon cycle. In Science (Vol. 362, Issue 6419). American Association for the Advancement of Science. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar3213; Sitters, J., Kimuyu, D. M., Young, T. P., Claeys, P., & Olde Venterink, H. (2020). Negative effects of cattle on soil carbon and nutrient pools reversed by megaherbivores. Nature Sustainability, 3(5), 360–366. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0490-0
Amita Ramachandran is a second-year Master in Public Policy candidate at Harvard Kennedy School. Amita was the chief operating officer and founding team member of the India Climate Collaborative, India’s largest collaborative platform, which brings philanthropy and business together to fight climate change. She was motivated to take on this role after extensive experience in rural India, where the effects of climate change are becoming impossible to ignore. In the past, she has worked in microfinance and micro-entrepreneurship in India and in the United States. Amita graduated from Macalester College with a Bachelor of Arts in economics and a concentration in international development.