Modern and mobile (1)

Nomadic pastoralism boosts African economies and protects livestock from drought. So why is it under threat? Ced Hesse explains.

Mobile-livestock keeping, or pastoralism, plays a critical role in the economic prosperity of Africa’s drylands. Across east and west Africa, an estimated 50 million livestock producers support their families, their communities, and a massive meat, skins and hides industry based on animals that are fed solely on natural dryland pastures. Where other land-use systems are failing in the face of global climate change, mobile-livestock keeping is generating huge national and regional economic benefits.

Today’s pastoralists download the latest market prices for cattle on their mobile phones, use cheap Chinese motorbikes to reach distant herds or lost camels and trek their livestock thousands of kilometres by foot, truck or ship to trade them nationally and internationally. Prevalent perceptions of pastoralists are that they are a minority, out of touch with the rest of the world and practicing an archaic and outmoded lifestyle. The reality is that pastoralists are fully integrated with wider global processes.

But moving is now becoming a serious problem. Grazing lands are being taken over for other uses and access to water and markets is increasingly difficult. With reduced mobility the economic profitability of livestock keeping is being critically undermined. Animals are producing less meat, less milk and are more susceptible to drought and disease. This is contributing to poverty, resource degradation and conflict.

New thinking, new policies and innovative practices for pastoralist mobility are beginning to take root in many parts of dryland Africa. The African Union and other regional institutions are recognising the huge benefits to be reaped from supporting livestock mobility. This is encouraging several governments to develop informed, progressive policies that reflect the needs of modern pastoralism.

Why move?

Essentially, pastoralists move to take their animals to places where they can find the best quality grazing. It is the scattering of different pastures over different places at different times that makes mobile-livestock keeping so productive in what is otherwise a difficult environment. To sedentary-livestock keepers, who rely on uniformity and economies of scale, randomly variable concentrations of nutrients on the range would be a serious constraint to productivity. But to pastoralists, who are mobile and maintain populations of selectively feeding animals, it represents a resource.

Modern ranching is often believed to be an improvement over traditional livestock management. But research in Ethiopia, Kenya, Botswana and Zimbabwe comparing the productivity of ranching against pastoralism all came to the same conclusion: pastoralism consistently outperforms ranching and to a quite significant degree. Whether measured in terms of meat production, generating energy (calories) or providing cash, pastoralism gives a higher return per hectare of land than ranching.

In east Africa, the intra-regional livestock trade is a major and growing industry, with an annual value in excess of US$65 million (444 million yuan). The profitability of this trade is dependent on livestock being mobile, particularly across borders. In many countries of the Sahel, livestock’s contribution to total agricultural GDP is above 40%. These figures are sizable, and yet they still fail to capture the full contribution of pastoral production systems to national economies. National accounts are based only on the value of final products such as meat and hides and leave out the many social, security and ecological benefits mobile-livestock production adds.

During periods of drought or disaster, mobility becomes absolutely essential for pastoralists, when they are forced to move in order to survive. Drought is a normal occurrence in drylands, and is a key reason why mobile-livestock keeping, rather than crops, is the production strategy of choice.


Pastoralists are increasingly constrained. Farms frequently block access to their grazing areas; national border controls hinder their trade patterns; and the areas they traditionally preserve for times of drought are now national parks or agricultural schemes. In other areas national government policies actively encourage pastoralists to settle and be “modern”. These policies are often driven by unfounded perceptions that pastoralism is economically inefficient and environmentally destructive. Alternative land uses, including large-scale agriculture and national parks, are believed to bring in more national revenues and to have less environmental impact. But this is not evidence based.

Farming is one of the biggest challenges to pastoral mobility. The slow but inexorable advance of family farms, combined in places with the establishment of large-scale commercial farming, is swallowing up vast areas of grazing lands. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has called for a moratorium on the expansion of large mechanised farms in Sudan’s central semi-arid regions, sounding a warning that it was a “future flashpoint” for conflict between farmers and pastoralists. Northern Sudan’s huge commercial farms have been blamed for fuelling conflict and for environmental degradation and human rights abuses.

Particularly in east Africa, the loss of land to national parks, game reserves, hunting blocks and conservation severely restricts pastoral mobility as much of this land either consists of critical dry- or wet-season grazing or cuts across seasonal migration routes. The creation of Uganda’s Kidepo Valley National Park in the 1960s, on the border with Sudan and Kenya, severely restricts the movement of the Toposa from southern Sudan to dry-season grazing in Kaabong district, northern Uganda. Within Kaabong District, Dodoth pastoralists have also lost critical wet-season grazing in the north-eastern Timu forest when it was declared a forest reserve in 2000, according to research by Michael Godwin Wantsusi of the Karamoja Agro-Pastoral Development Programme. Yet a lot of evidence suggests that pastoralism is far more compatible with wildlife than other forms of land use, particularly crop farming.

Both non-pastoralists and pastoralists are enclosing the rangelands. From the Borana in southern Ethiopia, to the Fulani in Niger and Burkina Faso and Somali groups in Somaliland, a territory in the Horn of Africa, pastoral families are fencing grazing land. Poverty, due to shrinking herd sizes, is driving thousands of pastoral families throughout east and west Africa to fence off the rangelands to practice rain-fed agriculture and, where water is available, dry-season gardening. Others are enclosing land from a fear of losing out as more and more land is taken or are seeking to protect the rangeland from farming or the cutting of trees for charcoal.

It is not known how much former pastoralist-grazing land has been lost overall but much of it is in the form of wheat farms, sugar farms, irrigated tobacco, cotton and sorghum schemes, flower and vegetable farms, game and cattle ranches, national parks and forest reserves. And it is not just the sheer extent of the lost land that is so important; it is the nature of that lost land that is critical. Much of the alienation concerns strategic areas such as wetlands or riverine forests. Here, because of higher and more stable moisture, pastures of higher nutritional content can be found, particularly in the dry season when the surrounding range is dry and poor.

These areas represent “islands” of high-quality pasture where livestock feed until the arrival of new, fresh grass with the next rainy season. The loss of these areas undermines the profitability and resilience of the whole pastoral system. Little research has been carried out to calculate the economic and environmental impacts the loss of these areas has had on national economies, and whether the expected benefits from the new land-use systems are greater than the benefits lost as a result of displacing pastoralism.

Conflicts are also a major block to mobility, altering grazing patterns, reducing productivity and increasing environmental degradation. The enduring conflicts in Chad and Sudan mean pastoralists move together in larger groups for security but have subsequently found it more difficult to access high quality pasture and water. Sudan’s conflict with Egypt also reduced access to key grazing areas for Beja pastoralists in Red Sea state, north-west Sudan. Where grazing areas cannot be accessed, the under-utilisation of pasture leads to bush encroachment. Where pastoralists become squeezed into smaller grazing areas, competition for a dwindling resource increases and conflict becomes inevitable and self-perpetuating.

Across the drylands inappropriate policies are blocking livestock mobility. Enduring perceptions of pastoralism as an outdated, economically inefficient and environmentally destructive land-use system continue to drive rangeland and livestock policy in much of Africa. Yet, none of these perceptions are evidence-based, informed by past failure or reflect current scientific knowledge of the dynamics in dryland environments and livelihood systems. Nor are they designed with the participation of pastoral communities. These persistent beliefs must be left behind in the twentieth century.

Ced Hesse is principal researcher in the climate-change group at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). Co-authors of this piece were Saverio Kratli, Izzy Birch and Magda Nassef.

An earlier version of this article was published in book form by the IIED as “Modern and mobile: The future of livestock production in Africa’s drylands”, edited by Helen de Jode. It is summarised and used here with permission.

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