Learning from pastoralism in a time of uncertainty

Author: Tom Campbell, MU Dept. of International Development

Although the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis is dominating the headlines, the global climate emergency has not gone away. The uncertainties brought about by climate change are nowhere more keenly felt that in the drylands of the Horn of Africa, where rising temperatures are leading to more frequent and intense droughts and floods, and exacerbating environmental health risks. Compounded by the worst outbreak of desert locusts in 70 years, the recurrence of Rift Valley Fever , a disease which impacts both livestock and humans, alongside the restrictions and curfews imposed as governments respond to COVID-19, it is fair to say that 2020 has been a particularly challenging year for dryland communities -especially for nomadic pastoralists who depend on mobility of their herds as a primary livelihood strategy.

Nonetheless, the role of pastoralists in relation to climate change is very often misunderstood. For decades, dominant dryland narratives of ‘tragedy of the commons’,  ‘desertification’, and ‘overgrazing’, underpinned conventional pastoral development policies, and did little to strengthen pastoralist livelihoods.  More recently a view has emerged amongst ruling national elites that mobile pastoralism is somehow ‘doomed by climate change’. In other words, no longer viable in the context of the kinds of rapid climatic, demographic, and other changes underway in dryland areas.  The media and humanitarian organisations feed into this narrative, portraying pastoralists as among the groups most ‘vulnerable’ to climate change and as disproportionately dependent on food-aid.  Pastoralists are reported as engaging in ‘negative coping strategies’ that are harmful to others – such as cattle raiding, or illegal ‘land invasions’ of areas set aside for wildlife conservation.   Hence the need for externally directed and managed ‘climate resilience’ interventions that seek to transform the pastoralist way of life, or convert pastoral rangelands to other more ‘productive uses’ – irrigated cropping, resource extraction, renewable energy, or wildlife tourism.

Yet such simplistic narratives obscure a more complex relationship between pastoralism and climate change. Pastoralists in the Horn of Africa have been managing environmental variability and climate risk for millennia.  Pastoralists balance herd size, species and breed composition, grazing patterns, as well as other livelihood options, with an eye to managing climate and other risks. Movement with their animals allows pastoralists to not only mitigate against a drought or flood, or a livestock disease outbreak, but to harness environmental and rainfall variability and enhance livestock production. Pastoralism out-performs intensive livestock keeping and ranching in similar environments and has lower greenhouse gas emissions.  By generating economic and ecological value from dryland environments, pastoralists also make an important contribution to national and regional economic growth. As demand for livestock products grows across the region, many pastoralists have benefitted from the vibrant in-country and cross-border livestock trade and commercial networks that have emerged from pastoral areas in recent years.

Nonetheless, pastoralist strategies are increasingly under pressure from non-climatic factors, not least the loss of pastoral land to other forms of land-use.  Areas selected for appropriation and crop cultivation are invariably the more fertile and strategic lands, such as those close to rivers and other water sources, or areas offering potential for resource extraction (minerals and oil) and infrastructure development. Once the most valuable pockets of land are taken out of the system the wider functionality of pastoralist production – which depends on mobility and access to seasonal grazing – is undermined.

Ironically, even some investments designed to address climate change are adding to these pressures. With countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya embracing ambitious green economy strategies, pastoral areas are being targeted for the potential to generate solar, geothermal and wind energy projects. One such project is Lake Turkana Wind Power (LTWP), the largest wind-power project in Africa, and one of a number of flagship infrastructure investments designed to ‘transform’ Kenya’s northern counties.  While providing a welcome source of green energy, the development of LTWP has been accompanied by accusations of ‘land grabbing’, and concerns over infringements of customary land rights of local pastoralists. A recent report points to the fact that large-scale renewable energy projects, such as LTWP, or the Gibe III hydro-power project on the Omo river in Ethiopia, can be beset by the same negative social and environmental impacts as oil and extractive industries.

Another domain where the prescriptions that flow from climate policy narratives have implications for pastoralist livelihoods is ‘climate smart agriculture’ (CSA). The Government of Kenya has recently developed a CSA Strategy 2017-2026, with substantive funding provided by the World Bank and other donors. The focus is very much on crop cultivation, with little attention given to livestock. As with narratives of ‘climate resilience’, or ‘the green economy’, ‘CSA’ proves an attractive fit for the Kenyan governments’ ambitions to tackle the twin challenge of climate change and food security without constraining economic growth. Sizable new ‘land banks’ as a means to ensure future food security, are also being proposed in dryland counties, where land is still considered plentiful.  One such scheme is the (one million acre) Galana-Kulalu irrigation and food security scheme in Tana River County, which has dispossessed lands previously used by local agro-pastoralists, and which – according to national media reports – has largely proved to be an expensive failure.  

Although pastoralists existing strategies are not perfect, pastoralists have much to teach us about living in a world of variability and multiple uncertainties. Pastoralists continue to adapt to their circumstances in innovatory ways. Sharing knowledge through mobile technologies, taking advantage of ‘niche’ markets – such as the rising demand for camel milk in urban centres – or using trucks to transport livestock to markets when necessary, are just some examples. As a recent blog by Ian Scoones and Michelle Nori explains:

Moments of surprise can expose deep uncertainties and even ignorance. They also uncover issues of contested politics, unequal social relations and the capacities of states and citizens. The unfolding coronavirus pandemic is one such moment….But for many people, living in highly variable environments, where shocks of drought, flood, snowfall, locust swarms, or human and animal disease are regular occurrences, uncertainties are always part of everyday life.

The authors add that:  ‘uncertainties are not only lived with, but lived off’, as variability, mobility, and flexibility are a central part of pastoralist livelihood systems.

Far from the picture of ‘doom and gloom’ that is frequently associated with the pastoralist way of life, there is clearly another side to pastoralism – one that perhaps we can learn from in this age of uncertainty.  Nonetheless, the ability to which pastoralist communities can continue to adapt to, and anticipate, change – in other words, to be ‘resilient’ – as well as take advantage of new opportunities that arise, depends on multiple factors – not least a favourable policy environment. One that supports land rights and recognises the value of pastoralism, that safeguards pastoralists access to critical resources such as water and pasture, and which enhances rather than restricts mobility – pastoralists key strategic means of managing variability.

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Published by deptintdevmu

International Development is an important vehicle for just transformation in our world. As one of the top 100 Young Universities in the world, Maynooth University offers unique opportunities for critical learning for global change. With over 40 years of experience, through the Kimmage Development Studies Centre, our work at the Department of International Development is underpinned by a commitment to inclusivity, diversity, equality and justice. Focusing on local and global development issues, we support skills development and critical engagement at personal, local, national and international levels. Our courses reflect a combination of formal and non-formal educational methodologies. We facilitate learners to understand the causes of poverty, inequality and injustice around the world, while supporting them to question understandings and responses to the international development challenges we all face. Our MA in International Development offers flexible learning options to study part-time, full-time, or remotely, online. Studying international development prepares people for careers in local and national government, transnational organisations, non-government organisations and activist groups. Our graduates work in community development, global education, development policy, project management and in humanitarian and conflict contexts, and on issues such as human rights, gender, climate action, justice, migration and empowerment.

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