Thursday, July 21, 2011

What we can learn from African pastoralists

The most severe drought in decades is taking a terrible toll on even the rugged cattle breeds of southern Ethiopia. Despite the harsh environment, the pastoralist way of life endures. Photo by Peter Little.

By Carol Clark

Emory anthropologist Peter Little was in southern Ethiopia last February, during the height of a major drought that continues to scorch the Horn of Africa. He is researching how climate change is affecting livestock herders in the region. During the past year, drought has killed about 20 percent of the cattle, or about 225,000 animals, within Ethiopia’s Borana pastoralist community.

At a watering hole, Little watched herders bring their animals in from northeastern Kenya and Somalia, where the effects of the drought are compounded by armed conflict. “I was amazed by the skill and discipline of these herders,” Little says. “They got thousands of thirsty animals to line up like schoolchildren. Some of the camels hadn’t had water for seven days.”

First the herders themselves approached the water’s edge with buckets and canteens. Then the goats were sent in an orderly procession to drink, followed by the cattle, and finally the camels.

Double click on the photo, below, to get the panoramic view:
Calm amid the crisis: Despite drought, herders and their animals from Somalia and Kenya converge on an Ethiopian watering hole in a systematic order. Photo by Peter Little.

“We could learn a lot from African pastoralists about how to collectively manage resources,” Little says. He contrasts their cooperative use of extremely limited water supplies to the inter-state battles fought over Atlanta’s Lake Lanier reservoir, and the ever-shrinking Colorado River.

Related: Check out this satellite animation of the ongoing drought on

Pastoralists occupy about half of Africa, herding goats, camels, sheep and cattle through the semi-arid rangeland and savannah edging the continent’s deserts and tropical forests. Often garbed in striking traditional dress, pastoralists can be a boon to tourism, but a bane to governments that want to control the movements of people.

“If God wanted us to farm,” a Borana elder told one researcher, “He would have put four legs on a farm so we could move it.”

Pastoralists are the ultimate survivors, making a livelihood in harsh environments for millennia. At first glance they may seem like people subsisting on the margins of society, but the reality is much more complex. Pastoralists are on the vanguard of many of the biggest issues facing Africa: from the effects of climate change to disputes over land to wildlife conservation.

“There are a lot of misunderstandings about pastoralists, even among other Africans,” Little says.

In Ethiopia, pastoralists have developed an elaborate system of deep wells and covered cisterns – some of them 500 years old (see photo, at left).

Zoologists are intrigued by African pastoralist animal breeds, hardy enough to get by on less water and survive extreme heat. Cognitive psychologists are interested in the thought processes enabling pastoralists to continuously make life and death decisions on the fly. Ecologists can learn how grasslands are created and maintained over time by studying the practices of pastoralists.

Little is fascinated by the social networks and relationships that help give pastoralists their resiliency. His latest book, co-authored with John McPeak and Cheryl Doss is called "Risk and Social Change in an African Rural Economy: Livelihoods in Pastoralist Communities."

During the early 1980s, Little was one of the first anthropologists to do in-depth studies of the political aspects of environmental and food problems, a field now known as political ecology. In 2003, he published “Somalia: Economy without a State,” which refuted the conventional wisdom that Somalia’s economy, which is heavily dependent on pastoralism, deteriorated into chaos after the state’s collapse in 1991.

Certain sectors of Somali society, including pastoral communities, remained vibrant and dynamic, Little says. “The people showed incredible innovation. They learned to develop a unique set of informal finance, trade and banking institutions in order to survive and make a living.”
Afar herders of Ethiopia with their goats and camels.

Top five myths about African pastoralists

Myth #1: The pastoralist lifestyle and land use are bad for the environment.

Pastoral traditions often play an intrinsic role in wildlife conservation, Emory anthropologist Peter Little says. “For instance, the Maasai, who raise cattle near national parks in Kenya and Tanzania, maintain grasslands and prevent the encroachment of invasive bush species in the parks, which are bordered by dense forests. Pastoral grazing systems tend to fit well with migratory herd species and other forms of biodiversity. In contrast, wildlife doesn’t do as well with fenced farming and more settled human populations.”

Myth #2: Pastoralists have little connection to the global economy.

Pastoralists play a vital role in many African economies, and hold the potential to drive more growth, Little says. Overland trucking routes and boats transport their livestock to supermarkets throughout northern Africa and the Middle East.

Pastoralism accounts for about 25 percent of gross national product (GNP) in Ethiopia and closer to 30 percent in Sudan. About 80 percent of foreign earnings for Somalia come from livestock. Somalia is one of the world’s top exporters of live animals, annually supplying as many as three million animals to the Gulf Arab states in the run-up to the annual haj.

Myth #3: Pastoralists are traditionalists who resist change, wander constantly, and are ruled by the sacred bond they have to their animals.

“Just because you don’t dress like everyone else doesn’t mean you’re opposed to modern technology,” Little says. “Many pastoralists use cell phones now to get information on rainfall, grazing or market prices.”

Or maybe they are just phoning home, since not every member of a pastoral system is necessarily mobile, Little adds. Some family members may have settled in towns where they attend school, own shops or sell livestock products, such as milk.

A Maasai herder, left, in traditional dress, carrying his cell phone.

The movements of mobile pastoralists are dictated not by whim, he adds, but complex systems of land-use rights and changes in the seasons and weather.

And while animals may serve as powerful symbols in the religion and rituals of pastoralists, livestock are primarily a source of food and income. “They also value their animals as commodities,” Little says.

Myth #4: Large swaths of land in Africa are unclaimed and worthless.

Virtually no land in Africa is unclaimed or unused, Little says. What looks like barren wilderness to a casual observer is more likely a community’s source of forest products, like wood and meat, or part of a seasonal grazing area.

“Moving animals to follow rainfall patterns and pastures often makes good use of lands that can’t be cropped without expensive irrigation,” Little says.

Increasingly, however, foreign investors are willing to pay for that irrigation, he adds. Spurred by rising food prices, water shortages in their own countries, and interest in bio-fuels, investors from Europe, the Middle East and India have been buying and leasing hundreds of thousands of hectares in Africa in recent years to create large-scale, commercial farms, Little says. “Much of this land is being carved out of customary pastoralist grazing lands,” he notes.

Myth #5: Pastoralism is a disappearing way of life.

“Pastoralists have been an important fixture for millennia,” Little says, noting that they include many of the revered figures in the Bible and Koran. Consider the origins of the word “pastor.”

“Pastoralists may adapt and change, but as long as people eat meat, there will be some version of them around.”

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