Modern and mobile (2)

African pastoralism has been dismissed as outdated and inefficient. But awareness of its social and environmental benefits is growing, says Ced Hesse.

In many parts of dryland Africa, national governments are beginning to value pastoralism and the importance of mobility for productivity. Innovative policies now recognise and reflect pastoralism’s crucial role within local, national and regional economies, and new activities put these policies into practice.

Recognising that pastoralism frequently needs to cross international borders, and that regional trade needs support, several international institutions are formalising cross-border pastoral mobility. This provides nation states with a benchmark to design their own policy and legislation. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has led the way, providing an institutional framework to facilitate cross-border livestock mobility. Cross-border movement is authorised by granting a certificate that controls the departure of pastoralists from their home countries and assures the health of local herds.

Over the past 15 years, the pace of policy reform in west Africa has been considerable. The governments of Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Niger have all passed specific pastoral laws to protect pastoral land and to facilitate livestock mobility both within countries and across international borders. In eastern Africa, too, there is some progress. The Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers of Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania all recognise pastoralism as a livelihood system deserving of support. East Africa has also established influential pastoral parliamentary groups that offer oversight of government policy. Pastoralists’ Day in Ethiopia and Pastoralists’ Week in Kenya are now regular features on these countries’ political calendars.

Decentralisation throughout the Sahel has introduced a radical new agenda involving civil society in areas traditionally controlled by government. The devolution of authority for the management of local affairs including land and the provision of key services such as water, health and education through local government reforms, decentralisation and regionalisation in Mali, Niger, Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Burkina Faso offer hope for the more active involvement of pastoral communities in the implementation of policies that affect their lives in many countries. These reforms vindicate pastoral indigenous knowledge and practice, as well as the scientific research that confirms the critical role of livestock mobility in maximising productivity and preserving the environment from degradation.

In west Africa the Wodaabe (Fulani) of Niger are increasingly internet-aware. These groups develop their own websites in French and English and, more recently, Spanish to reach out to a wider public, to defend their way of life and to explain the key role of mobility. The Wodaabe have adapted their traditional gathering of clans and created an internationally-renowned General Assembly. Donors, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and tourists are all invited to attend what has become a cultural festival, further raising the political visibility of these emerging new forms of social organisation.

These innovations are assisted by new thinking among development agencies, who, after decades of development failure, now facilitate more holistic interventions in pastoral areas. Projects that focussed solely on water development, animal health or range management have been replaced with concern about social, institutional and governance issues. Peace building is on the increase, as are experiments with ways to protect key pastoral assets in the event of drought or disease. And the importance of markets has finally been recognised with innovations ranging from pastoral credit provision to drought insurance.

Much attention is paid to addressing land tenure and establishing appropriate institutional mechanisms at the outset to reconcile the competing interests over resources often found in Africa’s rangelands. These rangelands are part of what is broadly called the “commons” – natural resources that are owned, managed and used collectively by different users, either simultaneously or sequentially often under different tenure arrangements. Through experience, projects now acknowledge that rules for the management of these areas must recognise and secure these multiple interests.

Millions and millions of US dollars have been spent in pastoral-drought relief in dryland Africa since the 1970s. Nearly all of this money has gone on buying food aid, which while saving pastoral lives has failed to save their livelihoods. For many pastoral communities, the return of the rains after the drought has not allowed them to return to mobile-livestock keeping. Having lost their animals during the drought, they either remain in or around the towns from which they received the food aid that saved their lives, sometimes succeeding in a new livelihood, or they try their hand at agriculture, charcoal making or, in extreme cases, adopting a violent lifestyle.

Groundbreaking work by a consortium of agencies including Save the Children in eastern Africa has been experimenting with market-based approaches to protect the key livelihood assets of pastoral communities. By providing cash for work, as opposed to food for work, or by facilitating controlled de-stocking of pastoral livestock through the market with private traders, pastoralists in Ethiopia and Kenya managed to save their core breeding herd though the drought of 2006. These initiatives take a livelihoods approach to emergency response, which not only helps to harmonise relief and development interventions, so often contradictory, but also strengthens pastoralists’ resilience to drought.

Global challenges

Unlike other land uses, pastoralism is uniquely capable of adapting to climate change. Although climatic variability is the norm in Africa’s drylands, human-induced climate change is beginning to pose a serious challenge. Climate is becoming more variable and less predictable. Successive poor rains, shifts in the beginning and end of the rainy seasons, increased rainfall intensity – which often runs off in floods and damages crops and infrastructure – increases and decreases in rainfall in varying parts of the continent and increases in drought-related shocks, are all current trends observed across the continent. These trends are likely to continue over the short to medium term.

Pastoralists that are mobile are in a better position to quickly and successfully adapt to a changing climate than those tied to sedentary land uses. For 7,000 years pastoralists have used mobility to respond quickly to variations in the drylands’ climate, and used specialist risk-spreading strategies as an insurance against the potential loss of their stock. Whether pastoralists will successfully adapt to the current climate change will depend on how the environmental and developmental challenges are tackled and whether mobility is secured. To continue to adapt, pastoralist communities need to be informed of changes to come and be involved in planning for the future.

The livestock sector, and by implication pastoralism, has been accused of contributing to global warming through methane emissions. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations’s high-profile report, “Livestock’s Long Shadow”, found livestock to be responsible for 18% of greenhouse-gas emissions measured in carbon dioxide equivalent, a higher share than transport. When the data is unravelled, however, it becomes clear that livestock have been globally aggregated, with European intensive-milk production, south-east Asian high-intensity pig farming, US beef burger feedlots and ranching and African pastoralism all lumped together. Until we have a better understanding of the environmental impacts of the different livestock sectors, it is a mistake to conclude that mobile-livestock keeping in Africa’s drylands does more harm through its contribution to global warming than good through its contribution to national food security, economic growth and carbon sequestration.

There is now increasing interest in exploring the value of pastoralism in mitigating the impact of climate change, with the carbon sequestration capability of Africa’s pastures emerging as a real opportunity for the drylands. Thirteen million square kilometres of grasslands are found in Africa. Grasslands store approximately 34% of the global stock of carbon dioxide – a service worth US$7 (47.8 yuan) for every 10,000 square metres, according to research by Robert Constanza, director of the Gund Institute of Ecological Economics, and others. What is important to note is that grasslands’ capacity to store carbon is significantly reduced in heavily degraded areas, or where rangelands are converted to croplands.

Rangelands, and pastoralism in general, are increasingly seen as having positive environmental impacts. The grazing action of livestock is recognised as having helped maintain healthy populations of wildlife – the cornerstone of much of Africa’s tourism industry. East African savannah landscapes have been largely shaped over the course of the past 3,000 to 4,000 years by pastoralist land-management practices. Well-managed grazing opens up pastures, stimulates vegetation growth, contributes to seed dispersal and pasture diversity and enhances nutrient cycling through the ecosystem. Where mobility is reduced and pastoralists are confined to limited spaces, evidence of overgrazing becomes apparent.

Where mobility is secured, pastoralism has massive environmental benefits, can adapt to climate change, and presents African governments with the very real possibility of grasslands generating revenues as carbon sinks. When their livelihoods are secure, pastoralists freely patrol inhospitable and remote border regions and can help reduce conflict. And when their herding strategies and practices are secured, pastoralism allows the economic independence of millions of people in the drylands, who would otherwise have little alternative but to fuel urban poverty and undesired social dynamics.

Future policy decisions need to take into account the many valuable benefits and services provided by pastoralism. If the pastoral system is allowed to flip into irreversible destitution, there is a real danger that all these benefits and services will be lost. Losing pastoralism is not in the public interest.

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.

Homepage image by Andy Catley