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Curtis Abraham





Climate change, it seems, has been blamed on almost every challenge of our daily lives and the complex world in which we live: from the rising numbers of “climate refugees” globally, to the migration of malaria-causing mosquitoes into formerly cooler climates, to mental health stress and even the collapse of past civilizations. Let’s face it, we live in an epoch where the climate emergency (and it is an emergency) is at the forefront of our collective thinking.


And yet, we continually need to turn our focus to some of the overt biases and longstanding injustices currently affecting large sections of humanity; man-made obstacles that lie outside the realm of worldwide climate variations, but whose presence or absence is key as to how nations and communities adapt, innovate and build resilience in the face of global warming. It’s a major concern that goes far beyond the issue of climate justice.


Marginalization is a life-changing bias for an entire community. Whether some societies flourish or fail vis-à-vis the climate crisis will depend on how well certain communities prevail over such discrinination. One of the most ostracized communities in modern times (as well as one of the most at risk to climate change) is the world’s pastoralists (mobile livestock herders) especially in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It’s estimated that 200 million to 500 million people globally practiced pastoralism, while 75% of all countries have pastoral communities [Chapter 5: Food Security; Mbow, C; Rosenzweig, C., Barioni, L.G.Benton, T.; et al (2019) IPCC SRCCL. Pp.439-442]. Their dryland habitats also remain one of the most vulnerable to the current climate crisis. It’s predicted that as global warming increases, grasslands and savannas will become drier and current water shortages will worsen thereby reducing the effectiveness (and eco-friendliness) of their herding activities (the development of pastoralism was itself a response to climate variations). 


But it’s the social, economic, and political marginalization and not climate change that continues to be largely responsible for the untold suffering faced by many of the world’s pastoralists. Starting from the European colonial era (mid-19th century) up to today, pastoralists have been the subject of unfair stereotypes, prejudices, myths and misunderstandings that have not only fuelled further marginalization thereby creating formidable obstacles to their socio-economic and political development, but they have also led to failed (and failing) national policies and aid projects meant to develop herding societies.


Actually, a large part of the historical ostracizing of pastoralists is the belief that their herding lifestyle has been responsible for the destruction of the environments in which they live. Unlike other communities who farm, fish, hunt, gather, and garden it’s still widely believed that mobile 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 scientific analysis from the early 1990s shows that land degradation in dryland Africa has been overestimated. 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 notion of desertification was key to French colonial thinking about the North African environment. For example, the environmental history of the Maghreb, basically the countries of northwest Africa bordering the Mediterranean, was constructed during the French colonial period which blamed the region’s pastoralists for the deforestation and desertification of what was erroneously believed to have been a fertile, forested landscape in antiquity. This myth helped to justify land grabs, changes in land tenure, forest takeovers, and the outlawing of traditional land use, all of which helped the colonial mission in the three Maghreb countries.)


Traditional herders are, in fact, directly responsible for the biodiversity that has made large parts of their homelands worthy of conservation as national parks or wildlife reserves (i.e. livestock are seed dispersers). Furthermore, the genetic reservoir of livestock breeds and cultivated plants that have originated in pastoral drylands are invaluable assets as scientists search for traits in wild breeds of flora and fauna able to withstand the vagrancies of global climate change (i.e. Drought-resistant/ D, oerought-tolerant). Additionally, pastoralism and pastoralists make considerable contributions to the GDP of many countries in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere; not only with livestock and livestock products such as meat and milk but also through eco-tourism and ethno-tourism.

Pastoralism is one of humanity’s great innovations. It originated in Southwest Asia (i.e. Turkey, Iran, Iraq region) sometime around 9000-6500 BC, but developed on the African continent from 6,000-7,000 years ago. Grasses and shrubs that have little to no nutritional value for humans were converted into nutritious milk, meat and blood through the domestication of cattle. In other words, mobile livestock herders are able to produce food where food crop production is not possible.

At the heart of a pastoralists’ universe is what experts call “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 allows herders to exploit environmental variations.

Today, however, when we see disturbing media images of Africans in the grip of famine and near famine conditions, droughts, floods, locust invasions, and so forth, more often than not, its primary victims are herding communities in the East Africa, the Horn of Africa, West Africa, countries of the Sahel, and in recent years, livestock herders of southern Africa (parts of Zambia and Zimbabwe are currently in the grip of a severe drought).


When we hear about Africa’s armed conflicts, nine times out of ten it involves pastoralist communities, and its trigger, more often than not, the fallout from generations of ostracism and neglect (the fact that several current African heads of state are themselves from pastoralists’ heritage: Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Salva Kiir of South Sudan, doesn’t make the plight of mobile livestock herders any easier, especially if they are herders other than those of the ruling head of state). For example, many current (and past) armed conflicts on the continent involve pastoralists: the M23 Tutsi-led insurgency in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the resurgence of genocidal violence in Sudan’s Darfur region herders are on both sides of the conflict (i.e. the Bedouin of the Rizeigat were part of the Janjaweed militia and the Zaghawa were among the resistance to the Janjaweed aggressors, etc.). Somalia’s al Shabaab extremists, South Sudan’s ongoing armed conflicts among its various herding groups, the Hema and Lendu conflicts in eastern R. Congo (the Hema are pastoralists inhabiting the lowlands while the Lendu cultivate the highlands).Past conflicts include the Rwanda genocide of 1994, the Sudan Civil Wars in Sudan that began in 1955 and ended in 2011, the “Shifta” war in Kenya, the Ogaden War, the Oromo Conflict, the Tuareg nomads of North Africa has had a history of revolt, rebellion and in recent times were involved in the 2012 war in Mali and the Second Libyan War 2014-2020).

Large-scale tree planting projects (“Green Wall” initiatives, or what experts call dryland afforestation initiatives) in Africa’s and Asia's grasslands, savanna and steppe, for example, are also robbing herders of lands where their pastoralism flourishes (sadly, such schemes are nourished by the false belief that planting in any type of trees in any type of ecosystem will always improve climates, water supplies, and biodiversity, while preventing soil erosion and lessening the effects of climate change). However, these initiatives are based on a misunderstanding of environmental processes such as desertification, which is the degradation of arid lands caused by local human mismanagement, and aridification or the loss of vegetation due to climate change (desertification occurs in patches, in areas of high and more persistent land pressure from grazing, farming and firewood collection. Therefore, the notion that the Sahara is gradually creeping southwards is simply a myth.)

These projects also falsely imply that drylands are uninhabited. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, they are almost always populated by herders who make good use of their drylands and, understandably, often resist the replacement of their fields or rangelands with tree plantations and fences.

In countries with pastoralist populations such as Mali, green wall projects have allowed local elites to profit from land grabs (of formerly public lands) creating further disenfranchisement of its herding populations. In Algeria, the Green Dam program (intended to create a 'barrier' of forest spanning the country from east to west in order to halt desertification) was used by the government to reduce and control pastoralism. In China, the Three Norths Shelterbelt Program has, in combination with other programs, removed pastoralists from their rangelands and employed them in tree-planting instead (meant to improve the ecological environment and increase the forest coverage in northwest, north and northeast China.)

Marginalization has also led to other difficulties that are threatening their very existence ranging from rapid population growth, decreasing mobility, overgrazing, land grabs, water scarcity, food shortages/high food prices, livestock theft, and competition for the natural resources on their lands.


Perhaps the greatest challenge that marginalization has wrought for pastoralists are the destruction of their traditional systems of land management. These indigenous systems were developed over centuries and encouraged the sustainable, shared use of common resources among the community. But the emergence of the nation-state led to a change in the governance system from tribally held land ownership to open access -government ownership has led to a decline in drylands and their resources.

When not being disenfranchised, some pastoralists have been able to make vital progress in adapting and innovating in response to the climate crisis as well as other key issues such as adopting new ways of dealing with pasture and water management, herding strategies, livestock health, conflict resolution/security issues and land fragmentation -due to land purchases by foreign countries and companies and so forth. These strides can be highlighted in the comment article.

One of the ways forward for ostracized pastoralists is for the powers that be to relax these political, economic and social constraints holding pastoralists back in what seems like the Dark Ages, which would, among other issues, enable them to build resilience by allow them to innovate and adapt to the challenges of the global climate crisis. Additionally, national governments, policymakers, the NGO community, international lending institutions, and others should stop trying to convert mobile livestock herders into full-time farmers where sustained agriculture is simply not possible due to environmental constraints and implement policies and projects that support their herding activities in the drylands.



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