Ethiopia + 1 more

Pastoralists: moving with the times

Originally published

3 April 2011 - Hussein Abdullahi Mahmoud and Abdirizak A. Nunow

Frequently depicted as in crisis, pastoralists are changing the way they live and work in response to new opportunities and threats revealing the resilience that pastoralists have demonstrated for millennia. Accessing new markets and innovating solutions to safeguard incomes, this often misunderstood and marginalised community is re-positioning itself to make the most of the East African economy.

Low levels of rain currently affecting many dryland areas in the Horn of Africa have renewed the warnings that pastoralist livelihoods are in crisis. The impact of continuing unpredictable climatic conditions follows the devastating drought in 2009 and a year of unusually good rains across the region in 2010. However, although insecure livelihoods and vulnerability in pastoralist areas are of real concern, depictions of pastoralists as victims of forces beyond their control, and dependent on relief handouts, fail to tell the whole story.

Adaptation and Resilience

The pastoralist way of life - synonymous with irreversible decline, 'crises' and aid rescues - is poorly understood. And while the words 'pastoralism' and 'crisis' have become fused in the minds of many, there are positive signs of vibrant pastoralist livelihoods that debunk the usual reportage of pastoralists depicted as insecure, vulnerable and destitute.

New evidence and analysis of how pastoralists are continuing to adapt to changes in their environment was presented at an international conference on the 'Future of Pastoralism' in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia recently. The conference shed new light on longstanding assumptions that pastoralism is in irreversible decline and highlighted the dynamics of change happening in pastoralist areas.

Evidence that livestock based livelihoods offer real potentials was highlighted by a number of researchers. For example, Ethiopia, Africa's richest country in terms of livestock numbers, has a burgeoning export market, with government plans to support even greater levels of livestock exports in the near future. As Yacob Akilu of the Feinstein International Center in Addis Ababa explained, this positive trend is 'having an encouraging impact on other parts of the region, with cross-border pastoralist trade in camels from Kenya to Ethiopia also increasing'.

Other research demonstrates that pastoralism is the most productive use of highly variable rangelands, contributing to between 10 and 44 per cent of GDP for many African nations. In the Ethiopian context, the Minister of Federal Affairs, Dr. Shiferaw Teklemariam noted how pastoralism contributes 16 per cent of Ethiopia's national GDP and that livestock reared by pastoralists in otherwise marginalised rangelands are clearly contributing to national development.

However pastoralist grazing lands are often under threat. 'Land grabs' by external investors - for irrigation schemes, wildlife and tourism businesses and large dam developments - are ousting pastoralists from their traditional grazing lands, and particularly from access to riverine areas, essential for dry season grazing and watering of animals as described by Dr. Abebe Haile Gabriel from the African Union. A key policy question remains: how can pastoralists secure their rights to land and water, and ensure continued access to the resources that pastoralists need in order to contribute to economic prosperity?

Policy challenges

Despite pastoralist innovations to access new markets and safeguard incomes, generations of unsuccessful state development plans and aid strategies, have let down pastoralists because the real problems and issues they face have not been taken into account. A more accurate understanding of the processes of change happening within pastoralist areas, which are significant and complex, is obscured by the perpetuated myths of pastoralism in crisis.

Understanding the complexity and potential for pastoralism is crucial to informing policies for securing the future of this age-old and resilient sector in sub-Saharan Africa. With much of the current effort to boost agriculture in Africa focused on crop farming, the conference urged the African Union's CAADP representative to take pastoralism seriously, as a resilient and productive part of Africa's future.

Hussein Abdullahi Mahmoud (Pwani University College, Kilifi, Kenya) and Abdirizak A. Nunow (Moi University, School of Environmental Studies, Eldoret, Kenya) are both Kenyan researchers working with the IDS based Future Agricultures Consortium.