PASTORALIST move their livestock with the seasons, in search of good pasture across the drylands. Recent droughts in Africa are making decision makers question the viability of pastoralism, particularly in the face of future climate variability and change. But their fears are founded on misconceptions.
Governments fear collapse
Governments are concerned pastoralism will collapse, driving millions of people into destitution at huge cost to national economies. Collapse would also make pastoral areas more insecure, with ramifications for political and economic stability. So policies to settle pastoralists and introduce them to modern cropping and livestock production, or to choose different livelihoods, are thus once again on the agenda.
Ever since colonial times, policy makers have viewed pastoralism as backward, uneconomic and environmentally destructive; responsible for fuelling conflict and needing to be brought into line with ‘progressive and modern’ development. Policies have consistently sought to settle pastoral communities and turn them into ‘modern’ livestock keepers, in the image of Australian and American cattle breeders. Privatising the commons, land titling, introducing ranches with non-indigenous breeds and providing plenty of permanent water are some of the investments used to increase cattle productivity and ‘modernise’ pastoral people. The vast majority of these actions have proved ineffective as well as costly in environmental, social and economic terms.
Such policies are ill-conceived; and pastoralists, their advocates and scientific knowledge on pastoral systems challenge this view. Historically, settlement approaches have failed, undermining pastoral production, exacerbating poverty, and causing environmental degradation and conflict in many pastoral areas of Africa.
With appropriate support, pastoralism is actually the most cost-effective and climate resilient livelihood system for the drylands. Even with a legacy of antagonistic policies, pastoralists are not just surviving but are creating substantial economic value. The statistics are fragmentary, but the evidence is growing. Pastoralism directly supports around 20 million people in eastern Africa, produces 80% of the total annual milk supply in Ethiopia, provides 90% of the meat consumed in East Africa, and contributes 19%, 13% and 8% of GDP in Ethiopia, Kenya  and Uganda, respectively. In Ethiopia, annual returns to capital from livestock are around 2.1-2.6 billion USD.  When measured per hectare, pastoralism also out-performs ranching and sedentary livestock keeping in similar environments.
Pastoralism is not only economically effective, but also ecologically efficient and sustainable. Its mobile production strategies are a crucial way of harnessing variably-distributed nutritious pastures to increase livestock productivity while also adapting to extreme events, such as drought, that will increase with climate change. The recent SCOPE report Livestock in a Changing Landscape (2010) finds pastoralism performs better than intensive livestock in relation to overall green house gas emissions.
Pastoralism’s strategies for success
Pastoralists use tried and tested strategies and institutions to exploit climatic variability in drylands and maintain relatively high long term production despite periodic losses. These strategies include mobility (to reach both pastures and markets); animals bred to selectively feed on the most nutritious pastures; designated wet and dry season grazing; mixed livestock herds, and complex (and sometimes reciprocal) tenure rules.
So what is causing the problem?
Yet pastoral systems are increasingly failing to provide sustainable livelihoods. This is largely a direct result of inappropriate policy and development interventions. Government failure to understand pastoralism leads to poor policies that undermine pastoral strategies, making them vulnerable to climate variability and extreme events like drought. This creates and perpetuates poverty and contributes to conflict that, in a vicious circle, reinforces misconceptions about drylands.
Pastoralist’s strategically important grasslands are lost to:
• other land uses such as wildlife conservation, private and government ranches, irrigated and rain-fed agriculture. Ruling national elites and powerful global economic players use the image of degraded drylands to promote large-scale appropriation, fragmentation and conversion of rangelands. Yet the alternatives they favour often cause environmental degradation. Large-scale agricultural irrigation and mechanisation schemes, ranching or export-oriented agribusiness all have a track record of short-lived returns but a heavy ecological footprint.
• development of permanent settlements in once prime grazing areas and;
• failure of nation states to recognize customary pastoral institutions.
In Africa, four major trends have resulted from this inappropriate policy environment.
• Rangeland degradation has made pastures less productive and resilient, so they support fewer livestock.
• Poorer households, less able to withstand drought because they have fewer livestock, are becoming more common. This brings a disproportionate impact on women and children.
• Fragmentation of rangelands also makes pastoralists less able to use their traditional coping strategies.
• Conflict is becoming increasingly frequent and violent in pastoral areas due to a complex mix of factors: loss of livelihood security, land fragmentation and alienation, a proliferation of automatic weapons, disempowerment of traditional institutions and a growing sense of disillusionment by an increasingly disenfranchised youth with few social or economic prospects.
As pressures increase, many in the next generation of pastoralists will need to look beyond livestock to secure viable livelihoods.
A future for pastoralism
The future of African drylands, and their people, lies in securing pastoralism for those who wish to remain pastoralists, and providing alternative, but complementary, livelihoods options for those who do not (or cannot). TheAfrican Union policy framework for pastoralism offers a real opportunity to make pastoralism a mainstream part of national and regional policies. Pastoral people, and their institutions, must be central to this. Designing supportive national policy and investments cannot be left to governments alone.
Improving policy makers’ understanding of what makes drylands work — their ecology, economics and society — is a pre-requisite, but is not enough. Political leverage is also necessary, and it must be driven by ‘pastoral citizens’. To address this dual challenge, IIED is researching the Total Economic Value of pastoralism, running a training programme on the policy implications of supporting resilient dryland economies and societies, and working with local and national governments to improve climate resilient planning in dryland areas.
*Pix: Dry lands are ephemeral but resilient resources, not deserts. Photo: Stephen Anderson