Missing the point in the Horn: Pastoralism is the answer, not the question

In the current food crisis context in the Horn of Africa, media and economic experts are accusing pastoralism of being an ineffective livelihood that is periodically subjected to similar crises. But all evidence points to mobile pastoralism as being part of the solution – not part of the problem – to a crisis that was predictable and predicted. Investments in drylands by government and international aid have to be reoriented, taking into account local ecological conditions as well as local capacities.

wisp_24082011.jpg Photo: Jonathan Davies

The current food crisis battering the Horn of Africa is often seen as just another crisis in drylands. Many, including decision makers, depict pastoralists as having a livelihood that is prone to suffering this type of crisis and advocate for a shift into other less ‘risky activities’, such as irrigated agriculture. The argument repeats itself every time a food crisis occurs in the dry areas of Africa. But this analysis does not take into account the broad range of ecological, economic and social factors that make pastoralism a highly sustainable livelihood in drylands throughout the world.

A more sustainable solution to the famine cycle and food crisis in the Horn of Africa would be to support and strengthen existing livelihood strategies, not to replace them with new ones. Irrigated crop farming is not the panacea to food security problems in the Horn of Africa drylands. This region, as with many other semiarid regions globally, is subject to frequent drought periods that can spoil harvests, as well as frequent humid periods which come with pests that spoil crops. Livestock mobility allows exploiting rangeland resources that are patchy in space and time. Pastoralists have successfully used mobility for millennia and, if allowed, they move to their optimal environment at any given time. This is what makes pastoralism so much more effective than the alternatives for land use in drylands that have been tried in the past. Mobility is a critical tool for climate change adaptation, where rainfall is forecasted to become even more unpredictable.

Pastures are usually classified by Horn of Africa pastoralists as wet season, dry season and drought reserve grounds. Drought reserve grounds, usually close to riverine areas, are the areas most affected by land grabbing, land use change or conflict over land rights. They are often developed for agriculture or suffer the consequences from water extraction upstream. The consequences of the loss of these strategic pasture and water reserves are most visible in drought years, and their importance is often overlooked by short-termed land planning.

Proposed irrigation schemes for drylands poses great risk of exacerbating the problem of overuse of water resources and the conflicts over them. In the words of Richard Hogg, a former scholar of the University of Manchester, “they have failed disastrously, encouraged further marginalization of already poor pastoralists and increased pressure on areas of vital importance in times of drought”. Securing land rights is fundamental to welfare; David Western, Chairman of the African Conservation Centre in Nairobi, states that “property rights will give back to pastoralists the security of tenure needed to conserve resources against outsiders, to counter droughts, to invest in the land and to leverage capital inputs for development”.

Political boundaries in Africa were often decided without taking into account existing ecological or cultural boundaries. In the Horn of Africa, not a single border runs along cultural or ecological lines, thus separating wet, dry and drought reserve pastures and posing a hurdle to the much needed pastoral mobility. Simon Levine, Research Fellow at the Overseas Department Institute in London, says that “long term strategies from the humanitarian system are needed that must build on the cross-border mobility needed by pastoralists, not suppress them”. Experiences in the West African Sahel, published by the Réseau Billital Maroobe pastoral network, indicate that transboundary movements were key in preventing a more severe food crisis during 2009.

According to both Levine and Western, the present crisis was predicted as early as November 2010, and may have been averted if transboundary movements were considered and supported as an adaptation strategy. However, this requires an enabling political environment, as food insecurity appears to be much more closely correlated with political turmoil than with rainfall. Although rainfall has clearly been far below the mean this year, the areas of greatest food insecurity include parts of Somalia where rainfall has been above the mean. Again quoting Levine, “famines don’t occur in pastoral areas when rains fail unless they have other problems.”

Many consultations have been carried out with pastoralists, and there is strong consensus on the types of investments that will strengthen their resilience in the long-term. Infrastructure is needed to export milk and other products out of the pastoralist communities. Financial services associated with mobile telephones are the in-house solution to bring banking to remote areas and are essential to build up economic capacities for coping with periodic droughts. Pastoralists need on-site access to high-quality, locally adapted education, and investing in skill development to give them with the tools for development and the capacity to advocate for themselves. Pastoralist land rights need to be secured, with support to adapt their traditional institutions to modern legal frameworks. Traditional management and institutions guarantee a sustainable way of natural resources management and take advantage of the resilience of pastoralism as a livelihood.

For more information about this topic, or to schedule an interview with Pablo Manzano, Global Coordinator of the World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism, a programme of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, write to wisp@iucn.org or call at +34 679 12 4040.

Work area: 
East and Southern Africa
West and Central Africa
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