Pastoral livestock development in the Horn: Where the centre cannot (should not) hold

Pastoralism and Development in Africa

Who eats better, pastoral children in mobile herding or settled communities? (answer: mobile). Which kind of tropical lands are among those most at risk of being grabbed by outsiders for development? (rangelands). Are pastoral women benefitting at all from recent changes in pastoral livelihoods? (yes). Which region in the world has the largest concentration of camel herds in the the world? (Horn of Africa). Where are camel export opportunities the greatest? (Kenya/Ethiopa borderlands). Is the growth of ‘town camels and milk villages’ in the Somali region of Ethiopia largely the result of one man’s (desperate) innovation? (yes). Which is the more productive dryland livestock system, ranching or pastoralism? (pastoralism). Is irrigation involving pastoralists new? (no). Are we missing opportunities to make irrigated agriculture a valuable alternative or additional livelihoods to pastoralism? (perhaps).

The answers to these and other fascinating questions most of us will never have thought to even ask are found in a new book, Pastoralism and Development in Africa: Dynamic Change at the Margins, edited by Andy Catley, of the Feinstein International Center, at Tufts University; Jeremy Lind, of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex and Future Agricultures Consortium; and Ian Scoones, of the Institute of Development Studies, the STEPS Centre and the Future Agricultures Consortium. Published in 2012, it includes a chapter by scientists at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI): Climate change in sub-Saharan Africa: What consequences for pastoralism?

Thirty-six experts in pastoral development update us on what’s so in pastoral development in the Greater Horn of Africa, highlighting innovation and entrepreneurialism, cooperation and networking and diverse approaches rarely in line with standard development prescriptions. The book highlights diverse pathways of development, going beyond the standard ‘aid’ and ‘disaster’ narratives. The book’s editors argue that ‘by making the margins the centre of our thinking, a different view of future pathways emerges’. Contributions to the book were originally presented at an international conference on The Future of Pastoralism in Africa, held at ILRI’s campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in Mar 2011.

Here are a few of the book’s ‘unstandard’ ways of looking at pastoralism.

‘Overall, mainstream pastoral development is a litany of failure. . . . Pastoral borderlands are . . . beyond the reach of the state, and so the development industry.  ·  Perhaps no other livelihood system has suffered more from biased language and narratives than pastoralism. . . . Hidden in these narratives also are political agendas that perceive mobile pastoralism as a security and political threat to the state, and, therefore, in need of controlling or eliminating.  ·  To avoid the Malthusian label, or simply out of ignorance, many social scientists have neglected the important implications of demographic trends in pastoral areas. . . . Some of the fastest growing towns in Kenya are in pastoralist districts.  ·  Local demand for education is consistently high among pastoralists, a pattern that was not the case even 10–15 years ago.  ·   It seems feasible . . . to propose a pastoral livestock and meat trade value approaching US$1 billion for the Horn in 2010.  ·  The past dominant livestock practice characterized as traditional mobile pastoralism” is increasingly rare. . . . The creation of a relatively elite commercial class within pastoral societies is occurring at a rapid pace in some areas.  ·  . . . [P]astoral lands are vulnerable to being grabbed. On a scale never before envisioned, the most valued pastoral lands are being acquired through state allocation or purchase . . . . The Tana Delta sits at the precipice of an unprecedented transformation as a range of investors seek to acquire large tracts of land to produce food and biofuels and extract minerals, often at the expense of pastoralists’ access to key resources. . . . A notable facet of changing livelihoods in the Tana Delta is the increasingly important role of women in the diversifying economy, a trend seen elsewhere in the region. . . . Until now, pastoralists have been mostly unsuccessful at challenging proposed land deals through the Kenyan courts.  ·  The shift from a breeding herd to a trading herd is perhaps the biggest shift in Maasai pastoralism.  ·  Although drought is a perennial risk to pastoralist livelihoods, an emerging concern is securing access to high value fodder and other resources to support herds, in areas where rangelands are becoming increasingly fragmented due to capture of key resource sites.  ·  During the 2009–2011 drought in the Horn of Africa, several hundred pastoralists who participated in an Index-Based Livestock Insurance (IBLI) scheme in northern Kenya received cash payments.  ·  Despite its many challenges, mobile pastoralism will continue in low-rainfall rangelands throughout the Horn for the simple reason that a more viable, alternative land use system for these areas has not been found. . . . But the nature of pastoralism in 2030 will be very different than today in 2012. . . .’

One of the book’s chapters is on Climate change in sub-Saharan Africa: What consequences for pastoralism? It was written by ILRI’s Polly Ericksen (USA), whose broad expertise includes food systems, ecosystem services and adaptations to climate change by poor agricultural and pastoral societies; and her ILRI colleagues Jan de Leeuw (Netherlands), an ecologist specializing in rangelands (who has since moved to ILRI’s sister Nairobi CGIAR centre, the World Agroforestry Centre); Mohammed Said (Kenyan), an ecologist specializing in remote sensing and community mapping; Philip Thornton (UK) and Mario Herrero (Costa Rica), agricultural systems analysts who focus on the impacts of climate and other changes on the world’s poor countries and communities; and An Notenbaert (Belgium), a land use planner and spatial analyst.

The ILRI scientists argue that if we’re going to find ways to adapt to climate change, we’re going to need to learn from pastoralists — who, after all, are demonstrably supreme managers of highly variable climates in addition to rapidly changing social, economic and political contexts — about how to make sustainable and profitable, if cyclical and opportunistic, use of increasingly scarce, temporally erratic and spatially scattered water, land, forage and other natural resources.

In important respects, pastoral people are at the forefront of responses to climate change, given their experience managing high climate variability over the centuries. Insights from pastoral systems are critical for generating wider lessons for climate adaptation responses.’

What scientists don’t know about climate change in these and other drylands, they warn, is much, much greater than what we do know. So:

The key question is how to make choices today given uncertainties of the future.’

Because ‘the more arid a pastoral environment, the less predictable the rainfall’, and because ‘vegetation growth closely follows rainfall amount, frequency and duration, . . . the primary production of rangelands is variable in time and space’, with the primary driver of this variability in livestock production in pastoral areas being the availability or scarcity of forages for feeding herds of ruminant animals (e.g., cattle, sheep, goats, camels). In severe or prolonged droughts, forage and water scarcity become a lethal combination, killing animals en masse. The authors quote former ILRI scientist David Ndedianye, a Maasai from the Kitengela rangelands in Nairobi’s backyard, and other ILRI colleagues who report in a 2011 paper on pastoral mobility that pastoral livestock losses in a 2005 drought in the Horn were between 14 and 43% in southern Kenya and as high as 80% in a drought devastating the same region in 2009. It may take four or five years for a herd to recover after a major drought.

Map of flip in temperatures above and below 30 degrees C
Maps of a flip in temperatures above 30 degrees C. Left: Threshold 4 — maximum temperature flips to greater than 30°C. Right: Threshold 5 — maximum temperature in the growing season flips to greater than 30°C. Map credit: Polly Ericksen et al., Mapping hotspots of climate change and food insecurity in the global tropics, CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), 2011.

Evidence from a range of modelling efforts was used by the authors to calculate places in the global tropics where maximum temperatures are predicted to flip from less than 30 degrees C to greater than 30 degrees C by 2050. This temperature threshold is a limit for a number of staple crops, including maize beans and groundnut. Heat stress also affects grass and livestock productivity. Large areas in East African may undergo this flip, according to these models, although the authors warn that these predictions remain highly uncertain.

Thornton and Herrero in a background paper to the World Bank’s 2010 World Development Report investigated the impacts of increased drought frequency on livestock herd dynamics in Kenya’s Kajiado District. ‘Their results indicate that drought every five years keeps the herds stable as it allows sufficient time for the herds to re-establish. A once in three year drought interval by contrast drives livestock density to lower levels . . . . Hence, if there is a greater frequency of drought under climate change, this might have a lasting impact on stocking density, and the productivity of pastoral livestock systems.

The results were extrapolated to all arid and semi-arid districts in Kenya and estimated that 1.8 million animals could be lost by 2030 due to increased drought frequency, with a combined value of US$630 million due to losses in animals, milk and meat production. . . .’

In the face of changes in climate (historical and current), many pastoralists will change the species of animals they keep, or change the composition of the species in their herds. In the space of three decades (between 1997/8 and 2005–10) in Kenya, for example, the ratio of shoats (sheep and goats) to cattle kept increased significantly. Goats, as well as camels, are more drought tolerant than cattle, and also prefer browse to grasses.

Such changes in species mix and distribution will have important implications for overall livestock productivity and nutrition, as well as milk production.’

While change is and always has been fundamental to pastoralist livelihood strategies, much more—and much more rapid and diverse—change is now sweeping the Horn and many of the other drylands of the world, with local population explosions and increasing rangeland fragmentation and civil conflicts coming on top of climate and other global changes whose nature remains highly uncertain. New threats are appearing, as well as new opportunities.

While the ILRI team argues that we can and should look to pastoralist cultures, strategies and innovations for insights into how the wider world can adapt better to climate change, they also say that ‘development at the margins’ is going to be successful only where pastoralists, climate modellers and other scientists  work together:

. . . [A]daptation and response strategies in increasingly variable environments must emerge from grounded local experience and knowledge, as well as be informed by increasingly sophisticated [climate] modeling efforts.’

Support for the conference and book came from the UK Department for International Development, the United States Agency for International Development in Ethiopia, and CORDAID. Purchase the book from Routledge (USD44.96 for the paperback edition): Pastoralism and Development in Africa: Dynamic Change at the Margins, first issued in paperback 2012, edited by Andy Catley, Jeremy Lind and Ian Scoones, Oxon, UK, and New York: Routledge and Earthscan, 328 pages. You’ll find parts of the book available on Google books here.

To read the ILRI chapter—Climate change in sub-Saharan Africa: What consequences for pastoralism?, by Polly Ericksen, Jan de Leeuw, Philip Thornton, Mohammed Said, Mario Herrero and An Notenbaert—contact ILRI communications officer Jane Gitau at j.w.gitau [at]

Punctuated equilibrium: Pastoralist timelines of past and future

On the last day (23 March 2011) of a ‘Future of Pastoralism in Africa’ Conference, organized by the Future Agricultures Consortium and the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University and held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), pastoralist experts took the conference participants through timelines that they had drawn up for selected pastoralist areas.

These hand-drawn timelines—with their famous place names and (in)famous droughts, wars and other major events variously, simply and affectingly sketched lightly on flipchart papers pasted to the walls of the conference hall—must have evoked memories, some of them heart-breaking, all of them heartfelt, in all but the youngest academic in the room. This was Africa’s pastoralist past—laid out in its crudest essentials on linear temporal bars punctuated by shorthand notes denoting big, often cataclysmic, events. This was an exercise meant to make room for rethinking the future of African pastoralism.

Examples of the kinds of statements made about the timelines (their baldness often matching the events they described) by the pastoralist ‘gurus’ who stood, one by one, to highlight a handful of major events depicted in each, follow.

Pastoralist Timelines

Niger Delta
‘A Tuareg rebellion arising in colonial times continues to this day. . . . Conflicts are a worse threat than climate change.’

Future of Pastoralism in Africa Conference

Afar/Middle Awash
‘Critical dry-season grazing lands have been completely taken up by state farms. . . . More than 90,000 hectares of grazing land in Afar has been converted to sugar cane. . . . A 1973/4 drought is called the “gun drought” because the massive stock deaths led to massive sales of guns and other household assets to buy food. . . . Since a 1970s drought, people have begun keeping more goats than camels and cattle, and sugar cane is now taking over.’

Future of Pastoralism in Africa Conference

Southern Somalia/Northeastern Kenya
‘The 1891 rinderpest calamity started the rural-to-urban migration. . . . Shifta conflicts in the 1960s began to isolate and stigmatize the area. . . . An outbreak of Rift Valley fever in the 1990s crushed the livestock trade. . . . The economic vibrancy in this stateless region outstrips its politics. . . . There is an on-going and robust cross-border boom in livestock and other trade. . . . Garissa is the fastest-growing town in Kenya; livestock remain critically important there. . . . The whole area is a kind of duty-free zone for electronics and other goods. . . . Piracy is a kind of livelihood diversification into the sea.’

Future of Pastoralism in Africa Conference

Northern Kenya
‘Boundaries were first fixed and herding ranges squeezed in the colonial era. . . . In the post-colonial era, 1960–70, shifta started as legitimate rebels before becoming, and being seen as, bandits. . . . Starting in the 1990s, non-governmental organizations set up permanent offices, around which towns began to grow up. . . . A paved road built from Isiolo to Moyale will drive some pastoralists further away. . . . Land insecurity remains the biggest problem. . . . Roads and education bring with them new opportunities. . . . There is already much anticipation (and business deals being made) about the pipeline and railroad being planned from Lamu through Isiolo to Sudan. . . . Those who have resources have taken over the cattle economy of the area.’

Future of Pastoralism in Africa Conference

‘In some areas and periods, there are no droughts because there are no rains at all. . . . Long-term marginalization and militarization have both been rapidly accelerating in recent years. . . . The future looks bleak. . . . The only good news is that there is widespread acknowledgement that international peace processes have failed.’

Future of Pastoralism in Africa Conference

Southern Kenya/Maasai
‘Considerable inter-Maasai conflicts occurred from 1850 to 1900. . . . Early on, the Maasai ceded much of the Rift Valley to the colonialists. . . . In the 1940s, the colonialists created sectional divisions that remain problematical today. . . . The formation of group ranches led to catastrophic land losses. . . . Droughts of 1984, 1997/8, 2000, 2005, 2008/9; the last affected all areas, with no one escaping. . . . Major non-drought events include the 1945 establishment of national parks and the 1980s establishment of group ranches. . . . Since the 1990s, Christianity has swept across Maasailand, bringing with it great changes.’

Future of Pastoralism in Africa Conference

Northern Tanzania/Maasailand
‘Kenya and Tanzania took very different paths regarding land and ethnicity. . . . Security of land and resources will be critical over next five years.’

Future of Pastoralism in Africa Conference

‘From colonial times to today, the Karamajong herders are not allowed to move. . . . A challenging national policy environment in Uganda makes promoting pastoralist livelihoods in Karamoja difficult.’

Southern Ethiopia/Borana
‘The 1972 and 1984 droughts were key events. . . . Education and services have both been improving in the region since 1991.’

Future of Pastoralism in Africa Conference

Timeline keyword commonalities
Conflicts, diseases, droughts, geopolitical influences, land and land-use issues, national policies.

Keywords about the future of pastoralism
International issues, mobile phones, political representation, small towns, terrorism (and its impacts on aid).

Summing Up the Conference
After the timelines were described, some participants were asked to sum up the conference. The following are some of the things they said.

Dorothy Hodgson, Rutgers University, USA
‘Is there really such a thing as “pastoralist systems”? . . . Are we talking about pastoralism as a livelihood or as an identity? . . . Some are saying that pastoral women will drive pastoral futures. . . . We have to stop adding gender as a footnote. . . . It’s time to mainstream gender into pastoralist issues instead of “siloing” gender work’.

Peter Little, Emory University, USA
‘Population matters, politics matter, education matters to the future of pastoralism. . . . Diversification of pastoral livelihoods matter—especially as key resources are rapidly being lost. . . .Ecology matters as pastoral orbits become increasingly restricted. . . . And language matters—we should keep the word “innovation”, for example, about innovations.’

Orto Tumal, Pastoralist Shade Initiative, Kenya
‘Our future challenges are great. . . . We will, and must, march on.’

Paul Goldsmith, Develop Management Policy Forum, Kenya
‘Pastoralism has produced some very seductive literature.’

Luka Deng, Government of Sudan
‘There is a huge amount of information on pastoralists, but the real question is about what to do with it.’

Two of the conference organizers then closed the proceedings by making some acknowledgements, of which the following were included.

Future of Pastoralism in Africa Conference

Andy Catley, Tufts University
‘In the early 1980s, pastoral groups were weak and arguments for pastoral rights appeared nostalgic in tone and character. . . . A tremendous intellectual contribution to pastoralism in the years since has helped to transform pastoralist discourse at all levels. . . .  Some of the “masters” of this discourse are here in this room today. . . . Stephen Sandford (private), Jeremy Swift (freelance), Ian Scoones (Future Agricultures Consortium) and Roy Behnke (Odessa Centre) have altered the intellectual foundations of our understanding of pastoralism. . . .

‘The central importance of livestock disease, particularly the great rinderpest epidemic in East Africa at the turn of the 20th century, was mentioned by several of our timeline developers. . . . The global eradication of rinderpest was announced earlier this year. . . . Three of those who contributed significantly to this great achievement (only the human disease smallpox has been similarly eradicated from the face of the earth) are in this room and I take the privilege of acknowledging them now: Solomom Hailemarium, African Union; Darlington Akabwai, Tufts University; and Berhanu Admassu, Tufts University.’

Future of Pastoralism in Africa Conference

Ian Scoones, Future Agricultures Consortium
‘As we have heard this week, there is not one but multiple futures of pastoralism in Africa. . . . We have a new generation of African scholars contributing to African pastoralism. . . . We have an extraordinary body of scholarship now coming from this new generation. . . .’

See previous postings on the ILRI News Blog:

The future of pastoralism in Africa debated in Addis: Irreversible decline or vibrant future?, 21 March 2011.

Climate change impacts on pastoralists in the Horn: Transforming the ‘crisis narrative’, 22 March 2011.

The case for index-based livestock insurance and cash payments for northern Kenya’s pastoralists, 23 March 2011

Or visit the Future Agricultures Consortium website conference page or blog.

Climate change impacts on pastoralists in the Horn: Transforming the ‘crisis narrative’

Shiferaw Teklemariam, Ethiopian Minister of Federal Affairs, opened a ‘Future of Pastoralism in Africa’ Conference yesterday (21 March 2011), which is organized by Tufts University and Future Agricultures Consortium and being held on the Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, campus of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). The Minister’s talk was followed by that of Abebe Haile Gabriel, director of the African Union Department of Rural Economy and Agriculture who reminded his audience that ‘Pastoralism is nothing new but is continually forgotten.’

Ian Scoones, of the Future Agricultures Consortium and the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University, then set the scene for the conference with remarks such as the following. ‘There is a moment now, with renewed interest in pastoralism in the Africa Union, regional bodies and national governments, for evidence-based research to inform policy. Even a decade ago, we would have been urging governments and the Africa Union to give pastoralism attention. They are now taking pastoralism seriously, as a driver of growth. . . . This meeting comes in a long lineage of meetings discussing the future of pastoralism in Africa. (A meeting in 1951 in Niamey was an early one.) But recently, there has been massive change and dynamism in this continent’s pastoral areas. . . . Popular reports on pastoralism are dominated by crisis narratives. While the popular discourse continues with doom and gloom scenarios, we see dynamic change with growth—as in the livestock trade booms in the borderlands—with both winners and losers. . . .

‘The research on pastoralism in Africa has a rich tradition. Among the more classic works are the optimism displayed in the 1960s and 1970s about the transformation of pastoralism; 1980s work done by ILRI’s predecessor, ILCA (International Livestock Centre for Africa), on the Borana pastoralists of Ethiopia; the 1990s’ focus on land tenure issues and ‘disequilibrium’ in rangelands; the attention given by CRSP (Collaborative Research Support Program) and others to pastoralist poverty and livelihoods; recent emphasis on the marketing and commercialization of pastoralist livestock products; and today’s attention to the impacts of climate change, conflict and insecurity on pastoral communities. . . .

‘We want in this workshop to build on this huge body of work, to reflect on it, and to judge how robust were those findings. We want to know what new insights are suggested by today’s research and what they suggest for policymaking. . . . We want to offer possible scenarios for pastoralist areas and to do so we want to try out a simple approach. This simplistic diagram categorizes pastoralists according to whether their access to markets and resources is good or poor, as in the following.

  1. Where pastoralist access to both markets and resources is good, there is potential for commercialization and export trade.
  2. Where pastoralist access to both markets and resources is poor, communities should seek alternative livelihood strategies and ways to exit pastoralism.
  3. Where pastoralist access to resources is good but to markets is poor, traditional mobile pastoralism should continue to dominate.
  4. And where pastoralist access to markets is good but to resources is poor, ways of diversifying livelihoods and adding value to livestock products is needed.’

Impacts of climate change on pastoralist communities
Several ILRI scientists participated in a session after lunch on the impacts of climate change on pastoralism. These included Polly Ericksen, who made a presentation, Shirley Tarawali, Jan de Leeuw, Andrew Mude and David Nkedianye. The latter, a Maasai who worked with ILRI while doing his doctoral research, also made a presentation.

Polly Ericksen, of ILRI, reminded her audience that managing climate variability and climate risk is at the very heart of pastoralism. The consequences and implications of climate change are therefore of paramount importance to pastoral livelihoods, production systems and landscapes. The paper developed by Ericksen—along with her ILRI colleagues Phil Thornton, Augustine Ayantunde, Mario Herrero, Mohamed Said and Jan de Leeuw—explores what we do and do not know about how climate change will unfold in pastoral areas of sub-Saharan Africa. And it stresses the importance of successful strategies for adapting to climate change at local as well as higher governance levels for the future of pastoralism.

Among other remarks from Ericksen were the following. ‘Pastoralists of course manage well the considerable changes in climate that they experience. Pastoralism is a supreme adaption to managing climatic variability. . . . The 2009 drought in Kenya killed up to 80% of the livestock kept by the country’s pastoralists. . . . Many crop farmers in Africa’s drying regions will start to incorporate more livestock, a trend that has been occurring in West Africa for the last 2 to 3 decades. . . . New research shows that, contrary to IPCC estimates, the Kenya highlands have been getting drier and are likely to continue to dry. There is fundamental uncertainty regarding the impacts of climate change—not least because we don’t even know how we humans will manage ourselves in the face of climate change.’

Remarks by Gufu Oba, of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences: ‘The variability of Africa’s drylands—season to season, year to year, place to place—makes nonsense of theories of “carrying capacity”. . . . Pastoralists do not run away from risks: they face them straight on. And communities and individuals differ greatly in how they cope with threats. . . . Pastoralism will be less mobile in future, but pastoralism will survive: herders will not exchange their lava rocks and other dryland features for anything.’

David Nkedianye, heading a non-governmental organization called ‘Reto-o-Reto’ (‘I help you, you help me’ in the Maa language) in Kenya’s Kitengela rangeland region, in his presentation said that lack of land tenure and land use policies, increasing demographic pressure, growing rural-to-urban migration, insecurity and lack of a cross-bornder migration framework are some of the key issues to be tackled soon if pastoralism is to survive into the future. Lessons from southern Kenya indicate that trends in land fragmentation and radical policies on land use have been difficult to change. Going by the going rates and direction,  pastoralism is headed for harder times in the future. Nkedianye also said the following: ‘Lands in Kajiado are being privatized and fragmented much faster than those in Narok, with huge land speculation going on. . . . In Kajiado in the great drought of 2008/9, only herders able to move to the wetter north were able to save some of their stock. . . .

‘The irony is that as we open up more and more rangelands by providing roads and other basic infrastructure, more people will move in, which will reduce pastoral mobility even more. . . . We need to be consistent and relentless in our policy messages and to promote our women and our adolescents. Two things that are making a big difference in my part of Kenyan Maasailand [Kajiado] are education and Christianity. . . . Pastoralists have “exited” pastoral livelihoods since time immemorial but the present inability of many herders who have lost their animals to go back into pastoral ways of life once they have rebuilt their herds is perhaps new. . . . We have to come to terms with longer term pressures, particularly demographic. . . . Cell phones have changed pastoralism a lot. But more important are that rich people have richer connections.’

Terry McCabe, of the University of Colorado, reminded the group that the biggest shock to East Africa’s pastoralists in more than one hundred years was not climate change but disease—specifically the great rinderpest plague of the end of the 19th and beginning of 20th centuries, which killed whole populations of wild and domesticated animals and led to the starvation of many herding communities.’

The Future Agricultures Consortium and the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University jointly organized this conference to assess ongoing change and innovation in Africa’s pastoral areas. Researchers, policymakers, field practitioners and donor representatives at this conference are assessing the present and future challenges to African pastoralism to define new research and policy agendas.

View the presentation of Polly Ericksen

For more information, visit the Future Agricultures Consortium website conference page or blog and revisit this ILRI News blog.

The future of pastoralism in Africa debated in Addis: Irreversible decline or vibrant future?

Maasai man takes his goats out for a day's grazing

A Maasai man takes his goats out in the early morning for a day’s grazing in northern Tanzania (photo credit: ILRI/Mann).

An international conference deliberating the future of pastoralists in Africa is taking place this week (21–23 March  2011) at the Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, campus of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

Big changes are occurring in, and to, Africa’s vast pastoral regions. Livestock herders’ access to resources, options for mobility and opportunities for marketing are all evolving fast. Is there, the organizers of this conference ask, opportunity for a productive, vibrant, market-oriented livelihood system or will pastoralist areas remain a backwater of underdevelopment, marginalization and severe poverty?

The Future Agricultures Consortium, an alliance of agricultural development researchers and practitioners that facilitates policy dialogues and debates on the role of agriculture in broad-based African growth, and the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, which also has a mixed staff of development researchers and practitioners, have jointly organized this conference to share new learning about ongoing change and innovation in Africa’s pastoral areas.

One of the aims of the conference organizers is to shift the crisis narrative that so often dominates news and discussions of pastoralists in Africa. As noted on the Future Agricultures Consortium website: ‘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. . . .

‘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. . . .

‘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.’

Hot topics
The new research and practical experiences being shared at this conference are on the following hot topics in academic and development research.
Regional pastoralist policies (and the politics of pastoralist policy)
Mobility and the sustainability of pastoralist production systems
Impacts of climate change on pastoralism
Commercializing pastoralism through better markets and trade
Delivering basic health, education and veterinary services to pastoralists
New approaches for strengthening pastoralist livelihoods and social protection systems
Alternative livelihoods and exit strategies for pastoralists
Pastoralist views of land grabbing and land tenure
Pastoralist innovations
How conflicts are affecting pastoralist development in the Horn of Africa
The place, and potential, of youth and women in pastoralist societies

Researchers, policymakers, field practitioners and donor representatives at this conference are assessing the present and future challenges to African pastoralism so as to begin to define new research and policy agendas.

For more information, visit the Future Agricultures Consortium website conference page or blog and revisit this ILRI News blog.