How ancient pastoral communities across Africa are facing the new challenges to their way of life

| 11th January 2018
Dr Paul Farmer from Partners in Health is working with Masaai warriors in Kenya. 

Dr Paul Farmer from Partners in Health is working with Masaai warriors in Kenya. 

Pastoralist communities have lived in the most challenging environments in Africa for more than 6,000 years. But a dangerous mix of stereotyping, changing governance and climate change is now threatening their way of life. CURTIS ABRAHAM investigates

Perhaps the greatest challenge for pastoralists today is the socio-economic and political marginalisation they continue to experience.

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 and political development of their communities. 

Violent conflicts between nomadic herders from northern Nigeria and sedentary
farming communities in the central and southern zones have escalated in recent years and are spreading southward, threatening the country’s security and stability.

Nutritional value

These clashes are becoming as potentially dangerous as the Boko Haram insurgency in the north east, with an estimated death toll of approximately 2,500 people in 2016.

In Kenya - on the other side of the continent - during the past year there has been a series of high profile armed invasions on ranches and farms in the northern Laikipia region by Pokot and Samburu pastoralists.

There is disagreement about whether the land invasions are related to the recent drought, which was declared back in February 2017. Some observers argue the invasions are instead 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.

In spite of these challenges, 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. 

The development of pastoralism in Africa about 6,000 years ago was one of humankind’s 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.

Livestock herders

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. 

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.  

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.

Pastoral drylands

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

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). 

Misguided development

“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 marginalisation, 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.

Governance system

In 1995, however, Dr. Ian Scoones of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the UK, published Living with Uncertainty in which 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. 

Similarly, the contributions pastoralist systems make to African economies are considerable. Livestock is said to contribute 10 percent to 30 percent of the agricultural Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and from five percent to 12 percent of the total GDP of most countries on the continent. 

Perhaps the greatest challenge for pastoralists today is the socio-economic and political marginalisation they continue to experience. 

The destruction of their traditional systems of land management is a good example. This was developed over centuries and encouraged the sustainable, shared use of common resources among the community.

However, with the emergence of the nation-state came a change in the governance system from tribally held land ownership to open access - government ownership has led to a decline in rangelands and their resources.

Land grabbers

But pastoralists are not simply helpless victims to socio-economic marginalisation. In East Africa and the Horn they have started taking matters into their own hands. By using a combination of local and western technology, they are making innovative changes in order to tackle some of the very important issues confronting them today. 

“There is a lot of innovation going on, but it is not recorded and often not shared,” says Dr. Ian Scoones. 

Even in the face of the present 'land grabs' in sub-Saharan Africa by foreign countries and companies, innovative adaptations to change is underway.

For example, huge fertile tracts of land in Kenya’s Tana Delta, a critical source of dry season pasture and water during severe dry periods for Orma herders, have been set aside for large industrial-scale farming by the Kenyan government for export crops, biofuels and minerals.

However, the Orma are marking corridors to save their land from land grabbers, in essence grabbing the corridors for themselves as a grazing/land protection strategy.

This Author

Curtis Abraham is a freelance writer and researcher on African development, science, the environment, biomedical/health and African social/cultural history. He has lived and worked in sub-Saharan Africa for over two decades but is originally from Springfield Gardens, Queens, New York.

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