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DFID research: Pastoralists: moving with the times

Pastoralists are changing the way they live and work in response to new opportunities and threats.

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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 proverbial 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, fails to tell the whole story.

The pastoralist way of life - synonymous with irreversible decline, ‘crises’ and aid rescues - is poorly understood. And whilst 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 will be presented at an International Conference on the “Future of Pastoralism” in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during 21-23 March, 2011 co-sponsored by the Future Agricultures Consortium and the Feinstein International Center of Tufts University. The conference will shed new light on longstanding assumptions that pastoralism is in irreversible decline and will highlight the dynamics of change happening in pastoralist areas. The policy, legal and aid support required to improve the situation of the most vulnerable pastoralists will be outlined and discussed.

Evidence presented at the conference will include recent studies from pastoralist 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. 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 16 percent to Ethiopia’s national GDP. Livestock reared by pastoralists in otherwise marginalised rangelands very clearly add to national development and contributions can be strengthened even more with improved pastoralist access to rivers and grazing.

New livelihood options

New market niches are also being developed by pastoralists. In Gode town, the former capital of the Somali Region in Ethiopia, the sale of camel milk originated from the modest efforts of a former pastoralist who wanted to sell a she-camel to pay local medical fees. Twenty years later, large camel herds are supplying the Gode milk market in so-called ‘milk villages’ on the outskirts of Gode. This alternative livelihood option is proving lucrative for ‘town pastoralists’, who use their income to purchase plots in town and build houses. Furthermore, keeping camels in towns has created new income for women, who are the predominant buyers of camel’s milk for selling in the market, as well as to restaurants.

During the 2009 drought, pastoralists in Laikipia, Kenya responded to the lack of grazing with a mix of traditional coping techniques to secure access to critical grazing resources. Pastoralists approached commercial ranchers as well as Meru and Kikuyu smallholder farmers living adjacent to the Mt. Kenya forest to graze their livestock to withstand the drought further north.

Failed by generations of unsuccessful state development plans and aid strategies, pastoralists have been let down 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, has been 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.

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Published 16 March 2011