The productivity of ‘nomadic farming’ over the long term

Africa Everyday

Bao game, on loan from Gary K. Clarke, Cowabunga Safaris (photo on Flickr by Topeka and Shawnee Country Public Library).

Jan de Leeuw, a Dutch ecologist who leads research on pastoral and agro-pastoral production systems at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in Nairobi, Kenya, likens investments in livestock herding systems to investments in the stock market.

‘Both have their ups and downs,’ he says, ‘but in spite of the current crisis many pastoralists are facing in the Horn of Africa, most of those who invest in livestock herding here as elsewhere make a good profit over the longer term.’

‘The ongoing drought and hunger and famine crisis in the Horn is a terrible “depression,” de Leeuw says, ‘but some of the worst impacts of the drought could have been avoided if the region’s dryland livestock systems had been well regulated, just as the recent financial meltdown of some rich countries could have been avoided if the stock market and sub-prime mortgage investments had been better regulated.’

This idea that pastoral livestock herding actually works well much of the time, and that that is one reason why pastoralists continue to engage in it, is echoed in an article by Curtis Abraham published in the Nairobi Star earlier this year, who reminds us that although a current drought has devastated pastoralists in Kenya’s arid Northeastern Province, ‘other herders in Kenya are fighting back by adopting new ways of dealing with issues of water management, herding strategies, livestock health, conflict resolution/ security issues and land fragmentation—due to land purchases by foreign countries and companies.

‘Additionally, new markets are opening up, helping to improve livelihoods and generate substantial new wealth for local and national economies. New technologies such as mobile phones as well as improvements in roads are opening up pastoral areas to greater movements of people, goods, and ideas.

In Kenya, mobile pastoral farming accounts for 50 per cent of the country’s annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP). According to an IUCN study “Economic Importance of Goods and Services Derived from Dryland Ecosystems in the IGAD Region”, the estimated Potential Value of Livestock in Kenya amounts to $2.5 billion (Sh212.5 billion) annually, while natural products that might be derived from dry-land ecosystems is $3.6 billion (Sh306 billion)—a total of $6.1  billion (Sh518.5 billion).

Yet pastoralism has been criticised as a backward mode of production that ties its workers to poverty as well as leading to desertification and the decline of wild animal species. But the plight of pastoralists usually stems from ineffective government policies that have tried (or are trying) to change effective and viable production systems into something inferior such as ranching or settled agriculture.

‘Recent studies have shown that nomadic farming is 20% more productive than ranching in terms of annual calf and milk production. This has been widely documented in scientific literature. In 1995, for example, Ian Scoones, of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the UK, published Living with Uncertainty where he demonstrated that pastoralism is not only viable, but is by far the best option for drylands, and that African livestock systems can produce more energy, protein and cash per hectare than Australian and US ranches.

‘“The trouble has always been that administrators and service providers don’t like mobility, and in many cases neither do neighbouring communities,” says Dr Jonathan Davies, regional drylands co-ordinator for Eastern and Southern Africa at the IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Nairobi, Kenya. “So everything possible has been tried to settle pastoralists. This restricts the opportunistic strategy of pastoralism and undermines its viability, leading to the images that sometimes appear on TV.”

What the colonial and post-independence African governments failed to understand was that pastoralist communities have from time immemorial depended on their natural surroundings for survival and, precisely for that reason; they have devised ways of sustaining their environment in the long run. . . .

Read the whole article at the Nairobi Star: Pastoralists innovate in the face of adversity, 19 May 2011.

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