Pastoralism Post I

26 Mar

According to the screen on the back of the seat in front of me, I am writing this a couple hundred miles south of Iceland, just about halfway between London and Toronto. I’m around five hours shy of my landing time in D.C., which should give me plenty of time to write this post, which is one I’ve been thinking about for a while. So go grab a cup of coffee, sit in a comfy chair, and get ready to sit for a little while, because this post is going to be loooooong.

Anyone close to me knows that throughout my graduate school career, there has been one topic that continues to capture my interest: pastoralism in Africa. To date, I have written three modest papers addressing different aspects of pastoralism, and have acquired a substantial body of research on the topic as a result. Last summer, for better or for worse, I pitched the idea of pursuing a consulting project framed around pastoralist populations to my graduate capstone group (our school’s version of a Master’s thesis). While we have had disappointments, our team is now consulting for a large international organization to provide recommendations for their programming in a particularly complex and fragile area of Uganda, largely populated by (take a guess!)… Pastoralists. This semester I’m working on a paper discussing pastoralist water resource management in African drylands. And today, I am returning from an international conference titled “The Future of Pastoralism in Africa”, which was hosted in the capital of Ethiopia. This explains why I am flying over the Atlantic.

What remains to be explained, however, is: why pastoralists? Why do I keep coming back to variations on this theme? Why do I care? What is the draw and where do I see as my role in these issues?

Fula pastoralists in Mali, photo by Betsie Frei

Pastoralists are, broadly speaking, those people and groups that rely on livestock (cattle, camels, and/or goats and sheep) for their livelihoods, and who’s lives are marked by a degree of mobility. Often the terms “nomad” and “pastoralist” are used interchangeably, but “pastoralist” refers to those groups whose social and economic livelihoods are centered around raising livestock, while “nomad” does not necessarily imply livestock herding. There are an estimated 268 million pastoralists globally, with most of these found in Africa. Some of the most well-known pastoralist groups include the Maasai in East Africa, and the Woodaabe and Tuaregs of West Africa, and groups spread across the continent.

While “pastoralist” is an adjective referring to people, “pastoralism” is a noun and refers to a livelihood system. A phrase like “livelihood system” might sound like a bit of development gobbley-goop, but it is an important to make the distinction between pastoralism as a livelihood strategy and pastoralism as a mode of production. Researchers of pastoralism and pastoralists themselves, generally regard pastoralism as a livelihood and an identity. This goes beyond merely raising and selling livestock as means for income, and includes an array of cultural, social, and ecological values. This understanding of pastoralism runs counter to decades of past and current attitudes towards to pastoralism, which regard pastoralism as irrational, backwards, and wasteful. Pastoralism is still often regarded as obsolete and illogical by development practitioners and governments, and pastoralist cultures are portrayed as inherently adverse to progress.

Regarding pastoralism as a pre-modern, un-productive way of life has influenced a great deal of national policies and development strategies, which up until very recently in most places have prioritized sedentarization as the only rational future for pastoralists. What this essentially means is that many governments, as well as NGOs and other development actors, have regarded pastoralism as opposed to development – that until pastoralists are no longer pastoralists (that is: settled in one place, dependent on farming or some other activity for income), they will not contribute to national development and remain “uncivilized”. This has lead to the political marginalization of many pastoralist groups, as their lifestyles, livelihoods, and values in many ways stand in opposition the values of modernization and “development”. How can these people, who are often moving from one place to another, including across national borders, and who seem to be irrationally obsessed with livestock, possibly be incorporated into the large-scale development schemes of their countries? Hasn’t mankind’s progression been a move from hunter-gatherer, to pastoralist herder, to farmer, to industrialist, to whatever we have now in developed countries? Why shouldn’t governments encourage pastoralists to move to the next stage of development? How in the world do you offer services, such as education and health care, to people who are always moving?

This unresolved tension between the promotion of pastoralists interests versus those of larger development interests can be viewed as a failure to understand and appreciate the specific role pastoralists play in unstable environments, especially in Africa.

Contrary to decades of policies and thinking that promoted sedentarization and assumed that herds threaten fragile dryland ecosystems, pastoralism is increasingly recognized as one of the most ecologically friendly forms of land use (Cotula, Toulmin and Hesse 2004).[1] It not only “makes little human impact on the environment and gives wild fauna the greatest opportunity to survive in the area”, but also has “a beneficial impact on many aspects of the Sahelian ecology” (Hammel 2001, 18).  African drylands have evolved alongside movement of herds, which play a role in the ecology by dropping seeds through dung, consuming residual fodder, and contributing to soil formation and retention (Millennium Assessment 2003).

In addition to its positive environmental impacts, mobile pastoralism is often recognized as “the only way humans can make productive use of most of the natural resources in the arid Sahelian savannah” (Hammel 2001, 19).  Nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralism is both “necessary and economically rational”, evidenced by the fact that it makes up 84 percent of the agricultural GDP in Niger, a country where nearly 20% of the population is pastoralist (Davies and Hatfield 2007, 93, 96). In Ethiopia, it is estimated that pastoralist products make up 44% of GDP. Pastoralism provides direct values: livestock sales, milk sales, hide/hair sales, and leather; as well as indirect values: inputs to agriculture (manure, traction transport), inputs to drylands, and forward and backward linkages.  In Mali, it has been estimated that, “transhumant pastoralist systems yield on average at least two times the amount of protein per hectare per year compared to both sedentary agropastoralists and ranchers in the US and Australia” (Bremen and de Wit, quoted by Davies: 96).  Further unmeasured values include employment, knowledge and skills, environmental management, and global climate control.

Loading camels in Southern Ethiopia, photo credit to Future Agricultures.

The point here is that pastoralism is an adaptation that allows people to efficiently utilize available resources.  Davies and Hatfield point out:

“It is sometimes assumed that pastoralists spend their time running away from one climatic event after another, but the opposite is often true: for example, rainfall in the drylands of the Sahel makes protein-rich vegetation available for a short period of time, and enables pastoralists to leave the comparatively disease-ridden and low-grade zones to access these other, ephemeral resources (92).”

Pastoralism is a way of life that allows populations to go “where the resources are, when they are available.”

A further adaptation of pastoralist production systems “is their capacity to establish and develop reciprocal and interdependent relations with neighboring sedentary communities” (Nori, Taylor and Sensi 2008, 7).  Pastoralism and sedentary crop production are “complementary production systems”, and grant favorable terms of trade to both parties.  Land and water has traditionally been appropriated and utilized according to customary land tenure arrangements (McCarthy, et al. 2004, 39).  These arrangements are the product of decades of interaction and negotiation between different pastoralist groups and sedentary farmers, where the key factor in both the arrangements and the groups has been flexibility and the ability to adapt.

Recognition of pastoralism as an important and logical livelihood strategy and use of marginal land is widespread, especially in academic literature.  However, with the exception of Mongolia, this knowledge has seldom influenced large-scale development plans and strategies in places where pastoralists are present.  When it has been recognized, it has most often been in terms of pastoralism as a production system.  Separating “pastoralism as a way of life from pastoralism as a way of production,” assumes that “individuals will be ‘emancipated’ through education from their traditional way of life as pastoralists, but will maintain the same productive role as herders” (Carr-Hill and Peart 2005, 40).  This assumption both minimizes pastoralism as an identity, and fails to take into account the concerns of pastoralists, who in the face of shrinking resources and social marginalization tend to frame their concerns in terms of “their own existence and cultural identity rather than an economic concern about the necessity of modernizing their production methods” (Krätli and Dyer, 2006, 16).

To summarize: pastoralism is a logical livelihood and production strategy in many parts of Africa. There are, however, many problems, and the information above could sensibly lead one to believe that all there is to be done to allow pastoralists to thrive is to leave them be. This is, unfortunately, unrealistic. Pastoralists live in the same rapidly-changing world as the rest of us, and are impacted by local crises (droughts, etc) as well as international crises (market changes, the War on Terror, etc). Pastoralists do not exist in isolation to the broader problems in many African countries: resource management, climatic events, lack of clean water, disease, hunger, conflict… “Pure” pastoralism has become less common, as pastoralists supplement livestock with other ways of earning a living, in the face of shrinking pastures, privatization of land, population growth, and restrictions on their mobility. Yet even when pastoralists drop out of a pastoralist lifestyle, many continue to identify themselves as pastoralists, and income earned from supplemental activities will often be invested in restocking herds.

What initially drew me to studying pastoralism was my time in Benin, where I saw firsthand the political marginalization of Fulani pastoralists. What has continued to draw me back has been the complexity of it all. As if trying to figure out “development” weren’t complicated enough, trying to conceptualize realistic futures for pastoralists, in which they are able to pursue their own goals and also contribute to national economies and politics, is exponentially more complicated. Pastoralists, while often marginalized, often contribute to the marginalization of other groups. While the victims of conflict in some cases, they are perpetrators of conflict in others. How does this challenge our tendency, as Western development pracitioners, to work within oppressed/oppressor frameworks? Pastoralist livelihoods also challenge me to reconsider what it is that “development” is aiming to do: What do we mean when we say all children should be in school? Must pastoralist children stop being pastoralists in order to learn to read and write? Surely the U.S.’s industrial model for meat production is not the ideal: what can it learn from pastoralist models, and how might future markets for meat be influenced by pastoralism in Africa? How imaginative are we willing to be?

Pastoralist boy in Karamoja, Uganda. Photo by Lokange Ekamais.

The conference I just left concluded that there are many different futures for pastoralism: some pastoralists will drop out of pastoralist lifestyles, many will supplement pastoralism in new and unexpected ways. Some will be able to tap into international markets for meat and secondary products, others will not. The resiliency of pastoralists and their ability to adapt will be key. Working out what policies and programming will best serve the interests of pastoralists AND other groups is mind-bogglingly difficult, yet necessary. Implementing those policies is even more difficult. It is up to pastoralists, sedentary Africans, and African governments to direct the future for pastoralism in such a way that benefits are encouraged and problems are mitigated. As an outsider, I look forward to finding ways to support that process.

Note: Portions of this post are taken and edited from the paper “Pastoralism and Development in Niger”, that I wrote in December 2009. I apologize if it is too wonky and/or too long!

For more information visit:

SOS Sahel

Future Agricultures

The Feinstein International Center at Tufts University.

[1] Zimbabwean-born wildlife biologist Allan Savoy, engineered a model of land management (tested in the West Africa Pastoral Programme) after unlocking the “key” to why “unmanaged” grasslands of the African savannah were able to support enormous wild herds throughout droughts, without compromising biodiversity, whereas grasslands grazed by domestic stock under human management tended to degrade.  He found four “keys”, which have been applied to land use in the Sahara and Sahel regions:

“1. The health of ‘brittle’ environments, characterized by low humidity, a prolonged dry season, and erratic precipitation, depends on animals to recycle the carbon sequestered in plants.  In brittle environments, rest leads to stagnation of the plant community and loss of soil cover and fertility.

2. Large ungulates, wild or domestic, are the most efficient recyclers of plant material, both through trampling and digestion, and are thus NECESSARY to maintaining diversity, productivity, and stability in brittle areas.

3. Overgrazing and overtrampling are principally functions of time, not numbers.  Dense herds of great size that move frequently and allow plants to recover before regrazing them recycle nutrients without weakening plants.  Even single animals that do not move overgraze the most palatable plants in the areas where they linger.

4. On the enormous unfenced ranges of pre-colonial Africa (and similar brittle environments elsewhere), pack-hunting predators assured beneficial herd behavior, and nomadic herders generally developed similar patterns that have undoubtedly slowed the desertification process.  Limited lands, however, demand management that is “holistic” to the extent that it responds to ever-shifting conditions of weather, economics, culture, and environmental conditions. “ Sam Bingham, “Managing Wholes,” A Short History of the West African Pilot Pastoral Program 1993-2002, 2004 йил 12-4, (accessed 2009 9-11).


3 Responses to “Pastoralism Post I”

  1. Susie Frei March 26, 2011 at 1:23 pm #

    WOW. I loved reading your post. Interesting, passionate, complex yet readable. Pure-Betsie!

  2. emfrei March 29, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    Very informative, readable, and passionate. I propose you write a book.

  3. Karl Smerecnik June 19, 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    Fascinating! Thanks for sharing information about this topic, i.e. your passion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: