Misconceptions surrounding pastoralism

1: "Nomadic pastoralism is an archaic form of production, whose time has passed."
2 : "Mobility is inherently backward, unnecessary, chaotic and disruptive."
3 : "Most rangelands are degraded as a result of pastoral over-grazing."
4 : "Pastoralists do not take care of the land because of the Tragedy of the Commons."
5 : "African pastoralists do not sell their animals; they prefer to hoard them, admire them and compose poems to them."
6 : "Pastoralists contribute little to national economic activity."
7 : "Pastoralism has very low productivity. Sedentary cattle raising is more productive than mobile systems."
8 : "Pastoral techniques are archaic: modern scientific methods need to be introduced."
9 : "Pastoralists need to settle to benefit from services."
10 : "All pastoralists are rich; alternatively, all pastoralists are poor and food insecure."

WISP European Pastoral Landscape Photo: WISP

MISCONCEPTION 1: "Nomadic pastoralism is an archaic form of production, whose time has passed." A century ago it was believed that nomadic pastoralism was an intermediate development stage between mobile hunting and gathering on one hand, and settled agriculture on the other. Nomadic pastoralism was considered a historical anomaly, practiced by people who were not modern and who had been left behind by evolution. Modern archaeological research shows this is untrue. Animal domestication took place at the same time as, or later than, the domestication of plants. Nomadic pastoralism developed as a specialised form of production, almost certainly initially based in early agricultural settlements, to allow the productive use of extensive seasonal rangelands in arid and semi-arid lands. Pastoralism is no more archaic than agriculture itself, and mobility was a feature from the beginning, allowing herders to use rich resources away from the early settlements.

MISCONCEPTION 2 : "Mobility is inherently backward, unnecessary, chaotic and disruptive." Pastoral mobility is a rational response to the scattered and uncertain distribution of natural resources. Most pastoral groups are found in environments with low and highly seasonal rainfall, where it is impossible to graze animals all year on the same pasture. Movement allows herders to use a variety of pastures, water points and other resources such as salt licks, and is a sophisticated adaptation to the challenges of risky environments. Movement also has economic and social reasons: to take products to distant markets, join with kin for a seasonal festivity, acquire or share information. Movement often follows precise patterns, and in most cases has developed clear rules about rights and duties. Until recently, pastoral movements were well synchronised with neighbouring herding and farming peoples, although many of these arrangements are now under stress, often as a result of inappropriate government action and agricultural population growth.

MISCONCEPTION 3 : "Most rangelands are degraded as a result of pastoral over-grazing." Grazing, like other uses, may cause a change in the plant species composition of rangelands, but evidence of widespread rangeland degradation under pastoral grazing is shaky. Contemporary ecological research shows that dry lands follow a different logic from wetter lands. In dry areas, vegetation growth is mainly determined by the rainfall that year, not by the grazing pressure of the previous year, as standard range management theory and practice suggest. Where rainfall is highly variable from year to year, vegetation production will vary also. In such situations, and especially where annual grasses dominate the sward, the definition of a precise carrying capacity becomes impossible. Grazing pressure is a less important determinant of species composition and biomass production than the amount of rain and available soil moisture. Snow plays a similar role in central Asian pastoral economies (Source: West Asia Region Resource Paper see www.undp.org/drylands go to drylands policy/challenge papers). Although the danger of damage by concentrations of livestock to soil structure and vegetation must not be ignored, and is clearly apparent at places where livestock concentrate - such as wells, markets, or trekking routes - there is little evidence that dryland pastures as a whole are over-stocked and overgrazed. Indeed, in large areas of East Africa and the Horn the opposite is true: because of insecurity due to conflict, and in some cases a reduction in livestock numbers due to drought, formerly productive pastures have been invaded by unpalatable shrubs and trees, closing them to grazing.

MISCONCEPTION 4 : "Pastoralists do not take care of the land because of the Tragedy of the Commons." The 'tragedy of the commons' supposes that land held in common will inevitably be overgrazed. The argument is that there will be no incentive for a herder to limit the number of animals he puts on the commons in situations where any other herder could increase his animals. But the tragedy of the commons rests on a misunderstanding. It supposes that all commons are open access, and that anyone can use them. In such circumstances competitive grazing leading to environmental damage could indeed occur. However, most collectively grazed pastures are not open access but are, or have traditionally been, collectively managed by identified groups of users. In this case it is entirely feasible for rights holders to agree to rules and enforce them. It has been government insistence that all pasture land belongs to the state, and that no group of users can make and enforce rules that has undermined traditional collective action and created open access and overgrazing.

MISCONCEPTION 5 : "African pastoralists do not sell their animals; they prefer to hoard them, admire them and compose poems to them." It is widely believed that herders in Africa do not sell animals, but prefer to hold onto them, and accumulate large herds merely for the pleasure of the sight of them. Policy-makers commonly talk about the need to persuade African herders to sell animals. This myth is clearly nonsensical. If no animals are sold, (and unless large numbers of one sex are being slaughtered in the household, for which there is no evidence), herds will contain equal numbers of males and females. Every survey of herd structure among nomadic pastoralists shows the contrary: above the age of maturity, often the only males in the herd are those needed for reproduction. The others have been sold, and appear in large numbers in national and international trade. Since livestock are working capital for herders, it is entirely rational to build up herds, and even to withhold animals from the market if prices are unfavourable. This is very different from irrational hoarding of animals. Nevertheless the myth persists, fuelled perhaps by the well-documented fact that some African herders do indeed admire individual animals, and sometimes have a favourite ox, whose beauty they boast about and to which they dedicate poems. Herders in other parts of the world have always sold animals to meet their needs, and their problem is more often an absence of markets than a reluctance to sell.

MISCONCEPTION 6 : “Pastoralists contribute little to national economic activity.” This myth is easily demolished. The economic contribution of extensive nomadic pastoral livelihood systems to GDP and exports is high, and is at least partially captured by national economic statistics. For example, in Mongolia pastoral livestock are responsible for one third of GDP and are the second largest source of export earnings (32 percent) after minerals (41 percent). In Ethiopia, the livestock sector (of which nomadic pastoral production is a key component) is 16 percent of GDP, one third of agricultural GDP and 8 percent of export earnings. The conclusion is that in the drylands, pastoral livelihoods make a major contribution to national economic activity, although often these contributions are not documented properly.

MISCONCEPTION 7 : “Pastoralism has very low productivity. Sedentary cattle raising is more productive than mobile systems.” Research shows that mobile pastoral systems have higher economic returns per hectare than ranching systems under similar conditions. The difference ranges from two or three times higher to ten times higher. Productivity per unit of labour and per animal is generally lower, although in Uganda, economic returns per animal in a pastoral setting were one third higher than in local ranches. Mobile cattle raising has also been shown to be more productive than sedentary husbandry under the same environmental conditions. In the Sahelian droughts of the 1980s, herders who moved their cattle long distances to find pasture fared much better than those who stayed. In Sudan and Mali, sedentary cattle producers have lower productivity than the nomads.

MISCONCEPTION 8 : "Pastoral techniques are archaic: modern scientific methods need to be introduced." There is considerable experience of trying to introduce new animal husbandry techniques and new genetic material into pastoral systems. Most experiments have failed. Replacing local breeds or cross-breeding with high productivity stock, introducing new management systems which try to eliminate the need for nomadism, cultivation of fodder crops, introduction of mixed farming, and many other interventions have rarely brought benefits to herders. More often they have caused land degradation or become unsustainable, and have been abandoned. On the other hand, we now better understand the extensive knowledge and skills of herders, the genetic qualities of local breeds, and the rationality of local pastoral livelihood systems. Improvements can certainly be made, but the starting point should be existing livestock management systems, knowledge and skills, not an imported model.

MISCONCEPTION 9 : "Pastoralists need to settle to benefit from services." A common argument advanced by policy-makers is that it is impossible, or anyway too expensive, to deliver satisfactory services to nomadic pastoralists, that it is the duty of the state to provide services to all citizens, and that therefore nomads should settle. Governments provide facilities for settlement on this basis. This argument can be turned on its head: if it is the duty of state to provide services to all citizens, and some citizens are mobile for logical reasons, then it is the duty of the state to provide services to nomadic people.

MISCONCEPTION 10 : "All pastoralists are rich; alternatively, all pastoralists are poor and food insecure." Farmers or urban people, whose main investment may be a single cow or three sheep, see herders with what seem like large herds, and may think that they are immensely rich. This ignores the fact that the herd is working capital; animals cannot simply be sold at will if the pastoral enterprise is to survive and prosper. At the opposite end of the scale, the droughts and famines of the last three decades have created a media image of pastoralists as destitute, too poor to survive other than on food aid. Neither picture is wholly true. Within pastoral society, like any other, there are rich and poor households. Recent economic events, especially famines from which some people benefit, have created a few rich households and many poor ones in most pastoral societies. Policies for nomadic pastoralism need to design and target interventions accordingly. In fact, because of the need for a substantial capital investment in the form of a household herd, pastoralism is not a good route out of poverty. Historically, poor pastoral households often moved out of herding into other economic sectors. Today many impoverished households may be kept on the edge of pastoralism by food aid, when a better use of the same help might be to create jobs for such people outside pastoralism, although not ruling out their return if conditions change fundamentally.

Source: Pastoralism and mobility in the drylands. The Global Drylands Imperative. UNDP (June, 2003).

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