Pastoralism is under threat – from climate change, shifting global markets and increased competition for land and other natural resources – even though it generates substantial income in areas where conventional farming is not possible.
Those who believe that pastoralism - based primarily on raising livestock in arid and semi-arid lands (ASAL) – can last into the 21st century, argue that increased urbanisation will mean a greater demand for livestock products – and hence, a greater role for pastoralists.
Those who do not regard pastoralism as a viable long-term lifestyle argue that globalisation, increasing competition for land resources due to population growth, and climatic factors such as desertification and prolonged droughts in ASAL areas, mitigate against its survival.
Either way, at least 40 percent of Africa's land mass is dedicated to pastoralism, with significant variations among countries. In Kenya, for example, government statistics indicate that pastoral areas occupy at least 80 percent of the land mass, home to about 10 million people and 90 percent of the country's wildlife.
It is also not in doubt that pastoralists inhabit some of the most fragile and harsh environments in Africa, their existence often characterised by a high degree of mobility, without regard to official borders.
In many African countries, efforts to accommodate pastoralists when developing new forms of government have not always succeeded. Investment in infrastructure, education, health and other vital services for pastoralists is comparatively low, resulting in a tendency towards a dependence on emergency aid while failing to address the root causes of pastoralists' distress.
African Union and UN experts on pastoralism say reducing pastoral poverty is crucial for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as pastoralists form large parts of the population in many African countries.
Representatives of pastoralists from 15 African countries, who met on 9-11 July in the town of Isiolo, eastern Kenya, discussed the way forward for pastoralism in Africa during deliberations aimed at laying the groundwork for the formulation of a continental pastoral policy framework.
The workshop, and a series of others planned, will culminate the possible adoption of a policy on pastoralism in Africa during an AU heads of state summit next year.
The key issues that emerged from the discussions included: governance; land; education; markets and financial services; conflicts; and poverty risk and vulnerability. Another point was the ‘biological dimension’ - feed resources and animal genetic resources.
Daoud Tari Abkula, an adviser on pastoralism with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs-Pastoralist Communication Initiative (OCHA-PCI), said no other land-use system was possible in ASAL lands.
"I don't see pastoralism perishing; what we need to do is to further develop the skills that pastoralists already have," he said. "In the next 20 years, Africa will witness rapid urbanisation and this will increase the demand for livestock products."
According to Abkula, some adverse climate-change effects benefited pastoralists, giving the example of extensive floods in late 2006 in northern Kenya and neighbouring countries in the Horn of Africa.
"The unprecedented long rains, some of which caused flooding, were a blessing in disguise for pastoralists for they replenished our water reservoirs and deposited the much-needed fertile soil on pasture lands," he said. "Therefore, climate change may not always be negative."
Misconceptions about pastoralism
Abkula said OCHA-PCI facilitated the exchange of experiences between pastoralists and other stakeholders to demystify pastoralism and promote sustainable livestock development.
"Some people don't hate pastoralism; they just don't understand it," Abkula said. "There are positive and negative aspects to every activity, unfortunately, few people understand the positive aspects of pastoralism.”
Ali Wario, an assistant minister in the Kenyan Ministry of Special Programmes in the Office of the President, said: "Pastoralism is not just a question of one animal [human being] following another [livestock]; people need to know that the pastoralist is a hero who has overcome adverse conditions of nature to make a viable livelihood."
A large percentage of land in pastoral areas is not suitable for crop agriculture, making livestock the lifeline of pastoral people in Africa, providing food, income, inputs, means of transport and fulfilling other socio-cultural needs.
A concept note prepared by the AU and OCHA-PCI on the continental policy framework quotes UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2005 figures, which indicate that the continent has 235 million cattle, 472 million goats, 21 million pigs and 1.3 billion poultry, all valued at US$65 billion.
Based on 2005 statistics, the briefing stated that of the 314 million poor people who lived on less than $1 a day in Africa, half were highly dependent upon livestock for their livelihoods, 80 percent of whom were in pastoral areas.
"These people do not have adequate access to water and pasture for their livestock and often find it difficult to sell livestock in order to purchase other household needs," it stated. "Occasionally, they face famine, incidents of disease, and high levels of poverty."
Pastoralists across Africa remain largely marginalised because they live in remote areas, far from political and economic centres. They continue to be left out of decision-making processes affecting their livelihoods; hence they continue to be vulnerable to drought, famine, civil strife and ecological challenges.
Pascal Corbe, communication adviser for the AU’s Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources (IBAR), said pastoral development efforts must embrace innovative ideas around sustainable natural resource management, effective governance and integration of livelihoods with expanding market opportunities.
The AU is backing efforts towards the formulation of an Africa-wide pastoral policy framework through its Department of Rural Economy and Agriculture, as well as IBAR. The AU's mandate entails promoting policies and strategies to develop rural economies and improve livelihoods by increasing agricultural productivity, enhancing food security and working to achieve sustainable use and management of Africa's natural resources.
The AU is working with pastoralist organisations across Africa as well as with OCHA-PCI on developing a policy framework.
When in place, such a policy will serve as a vision and practical framework to achieve development objectives in pastoral areas. Moreover, such a policy would collate collective efforts to define principles, guidelines and practical approaches, including those of pastoral communities. This would ensure the recognition of the needs of pastoral people in national policy and planning frameworks.
The policy would also provide a coherent basis for inter-state and continent-wide agreements to promote pastoral development and define the practical approaches aimed at improving ability of pastoralist societies to manage extreme environmental variability, reducing the vulnerability to climate shock and conflict.
Ahunna Eziakonwa, the chief of Africa II Section at OCHA, New York, said because pastoralism remained much misunderstood, OCHA-PCI's efforts were aimed at convincing African governments to commit to efforts to promote pastoralism.
"We are taking an integrated approach to pastoralism - encompassing both political and financial aspects," she said. "What we are looking at is the long-term sustainable approach rather than just emergency response."
She said extensive debate, dialogue and advocacy were necessary for pastoralism to be understood, even by governments.
"Pastoralists don't live in a vacuum; they interact with other communities," she said. "Pastoralists are saying they are not immune to change, we just need to make pastoralism more viable."
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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions