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Curtis Abraham

Masaai herder, Kenya

Pastoralism is an ancient but viable mode of mobile livestock production that makes extensive use of grazing lands in the lowlands of the Great Rift in eastern Africa and the Horn as well as in parts of the West African Sahel and in southern Africa. But from the colonial era up to today, pastoralists have been the subject of unfair stereotypes, prejudices and myths that have greatly hindered the socio-economic development of their communities. Nevertheless, pastoralism and pastoralists make considerable contributions to the GDP of many countries on the continent; not only with livestock and livestock products such as meat and milk but also through eco-tourism and ethno-tourism. Their greatest challenge is to overcome the socio-economic and political marginalization they continue to face from national governments and the international community.

Pastoralists have been or are involved in some of the worst armed conflicts on the African continent. In Nigeria, for example, violent conflicts between nomadic herders from northern Nigeria and sedentaryfarming communities in the central and southern zones have escalated in recent years and are spreading southward, threatening the country’s security and stability. With an estimated death toll of approximately 2,500 people in 2016, these clashes are becoming as potentially dangerous as the Boko Haram insurgency in the north east.

On the other side of the continent in Kenya, in recent years there has been a series of high profile armed invasions on ranches and farms in the country’s northern Laikipia region by Pokot and Samburu pastoralists. And although the recent drought, which was declared back in February 2017, is said to have been the cause (desperate herders in search of pasture and water), the land invasions evidently have nothing to do with the drought. Instead observers say that these are planned actions by prominent pastoralist elites, mega-rich herd-lords (‘cattle barons’) who have employed many impoverished pastoralists and who have filled the vacuum left by the breakdown in traditional authority.

Yet pastoralism continues to be a viable way of life for an estimated 50-70 million people in Africa who continue to live on the continent’s arid and semi-arid regions.

However, pastoralists in Africa are grappling with various challenges that are threatening their very existence. These problems range from population explosion and associated pressures, decreasing mobility, overgrazing ,land grabs, water scarcity, food shortages/high food prices, livestock theft, armed conflicts and global climate change that are leading to prolonged droughts, intense floods and desertification, all plague herding peoples today.

The development of pastoralism in Africa about 6000 years ago was one of humankind’s most brilliant innovations. Grasses and shrubs have little to no nutritional value for humans. But through the domestication of cattle, these were converted into nutritious milk, meat and blood.

At the heart of a pastoralists’ universe is “strategic mobility”. This is not simply aimless wandering across barren landscapes but journeys that are carefully calculated in search of pasture and water for their herds of cattle, camels, donkeys, sheep and goats. Where pastoralism has the upper hand on farming is that this mobility, with the exception of drought, allows herders to exploit environmental variations.

Stylized zebra stripped zebu cow from the Karamoja region,Northeast Uganda.

However, long held stereotypes, prejudices and myths about pastoralism have impacted negatively on their socio-economic development. They have led to failed (and failing) policies meant to develop herding societies in Africa and elsewhere. For example, it’s still widely believed that livestock herders are primitive and inefficient users of natural resources, and that overgrazing is often seen as the main cause of land degradation and desertification.

But analysis from the early 1990s shows that land degradation in dryland Africa has been overestimated. According to the authors of “Expansion and Contraction of the Sahara Desert From 1980 -1990” (Compton J. Tucker and colleagues), long-term satellite monitoring of biomass shows a cycle of contraction and expansion of the northern vegetation limits of the Sahel, and little has changed since 1970. Where degradation occurred it was usually due to long-term climatic trends and not livestock.

The conservation of Africa’s wildlife and habitats started during the colonial era with the establishment of animal sanctuaries, controlled hunting areas, game parks and reserves, nature reserves, protected forests and 'wildlife corridors'. Their underlying philosophy was that natural resources needed to be protected from traditional communities. But these conservation schemes have robbed many pastoralist groups of valuable land and water resources.

Post-independence African governments were no better. They hardly consulted or even communicated with indigenous peoples on the fate of their land and continued the colonial trend of confiscating pastoralists’ land.

But what they failed to understand is that pastoralists have from time immemorial depended on their environment for survival and, precisely for that reason, they have devised ways of sustainability.

Traditional herders are directly responsible for the biodiversity that has made large parts of their homelands worthy of conservation as national parks or wildlife reserves. Furthermore, the genetic reservoir of livestock breeds and cultivated plants that have originated in pastoral drylands are invaluable assets as scientist search for traits in wild breeds of flora and fauna able to withstand the vagrancies of global climate change (e. g. drought resistant/ drought tolerant).

“Pastoralists have historically helped maintain the rich range of biodiversity of pastoral lands which are filled with an impressive variety of animals and plants,” says Dr. Jonathan Davies, head of IUCN’s Drylands Programme based in Nairobi, Kenya “This ecological wealth has translated into a wide variety of protected areas and national parks being located within pastoral areas, such as the Serengeti-Mara region of East Africa.”

The creation of protected areas is changing attitudes and perceptions of herders towards wildlife For example; some irate pastoralists in east Africa often poison wild carnivores with deadly poisons such as carbofuran because they prey on cattle. Forced evictions for wildlife related activities such as game hunting has also led to the further impoverishment of some livestock herders in Eastern Africa.

Pastoralist regions are often undervalued or even ignored by national governments. In many cases, they suffer from historic marginalization, a lack of basic services such as roads, markets, clean water, schools and healthcare, and misguided development policies that continue to regard pastoralism as inefficient and even backward.

In 1995, however, Dr. Ian Scoones of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the UK, published LIVING WITH UNCERTAINTY where he demonstrated that pastoralism is not only viable, but is by far the best option for arid and semi-arid areas, and that African livestock systems can produce more energy, protein and cash per hectare than US and Australian ranches. In other words, in dryland environments, pastoralism tends to deliver better food security than crops and produces edible proteins more efficiently than intensive livestock systems.

Similarly, the contributions pastoralist systems make to national economies are considerable. Livestock is said to contribute 10% to 30% of the agricultural Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and from 5% to 12% of the total GDP of most African countries. For example, in Chad livestock made up over 1/3 of exports. Hides and skins make up over 10% of the export earnings of Burkina Faso, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Traditional herders today face a number of considerable challenges that threaten the viability of pastoralism in Africa. For example, climate change is making the pastoralist lifestyle increasingly precarious .Drought depletes all the resources on which pastoralists depend: water, pasture, livestock health, milk, meat, and crop yields.


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