Pastoralist groups have controlled the savannahs of East Africa for centuries. These are arid and semi-arid lands that cannot easily be used for agriculture, but do sustain grazing. Besides, until the early XX century, the population of the region was small, allowing for great swathe of land to remain unoccupied. Demographic changes and the process of nation making have changed all that. Today pastoralists have to compete for land with other ethnic groups. Furthermore, societal changes brought in by the interaction with other ethnic groups, the advent of universal education and globalization, have influenced greatly pastoral societies.
Already in the late 1970s, new techniques opened grazing land to monoculture. It is the case of the Mara region in southern Kenya, where thousands of acres of land are now producing wheat, encroaching with grazing rights of the local Maasai. Furthermore, the fencing of private land blocks the traditional transhumance paths and many a grazing land kept as a reservoir for drought spell have now been occupied by agriculturalists. These factors provoked changes in the structure of pastoralist societies; changes that are now accelerating.
Women are playing a key role in pastoralists’ diversification, according to a recent report published by the Regional Learning and Advocacy Programme (REGLAP). The report says that in the past, men tended to have more roles in and responsibility over livestock and women over household tasks and childcare. Today, some key changes can be seen with women taking up agricultural activities, or migrating to work as domestic servants, in restaurants and breweries, for example in Uganda’s Karamoja region, leaving the men to work in the homestead plots.
According to the coordinator of Kenyan Narok’s Ewaso Community Development Organization (ECDO), Paul ole Lenges, dwindling livelihood opportunities are forcing many people, in particular pastoralist women to be innovative. “Pastoralist communities love their culture but if there is one thing that will make them adapt to changing realities, it is climate change,” said ole Lenges. “Drought means one has not enough pasture for huge herds of livestock and one has to reduce the herd size or move into something else. As these communities adapt, they need to be guided and helped to have sustainable livelihoods”. ECDO trained some 1,000 women on good soil management, seedling management and crop handling. “Getting into crop production is one thing and getting something better out of it is important,” ole Lenges said.
Alternative livelihood sources could help reduce resource-based conflicts in pastoral areas. Pastoralists are always on the move, but because resources that they used to share are reducing they constantly fight over them because people are becoming more individualistic as opposed to communal. Many people are now using their farms for agricultural production. According to ole Lenges, women can help to improve food security and the economic situation of pastoralist communities if they are trained. “If climate and other factors will upset the traditional source of food for these pastoralist communities – he claims – then women can, with adequate training on agricultural production, lead their families out of perennial food insecurity. Women change and adapt more quickly and I believe they will transform agricultural production among their people over time”.
The issue is how policy can support pastoral strategies that allow them to continue producing high value protein foods in areas that cannot be used sustainably by other food-producing systems like irrigation farming. Pastoralism remains the most sustainable economic system for arid and semi-arid lands in which it thrives; the economic contribution of pastoralism to countries’ economies has been significantly underestimated because it was believed to be backward.
Pastoralism directly supports an estimated 20 million people in eastern Africa. In Ethiopia, for example, it provides 80 percent of the country’s annual milk supply, and 90 percent of the meat consumed in east Africa. According to Enoch Mwani, who teaches agriculture at the University of Nairobi, most government policies across the region have failed to focus on putting measures in place to ensure better livelihood outcomes for pastoralists, choosing instead to preoccupy themselves with how to eradicate it. “Many government policies view pastoralism as a problem and are more preoccupied with changing it or replacing it, instead of striving to put measures in place to make it better”, said Mwani.
Focusing on eradicating pastoralism, many governments continue to underestimate its economic contribution to their economies. It is politically expedient to under-value something you wish to change and whose land you want to alienate for private profit or for other reasons. In a region where conflicts between pastoralists and agriculturalists are on the increase, governments have to rethink their policies. Both ways of life can coexist and support mutually. Yet, this would be possible only when a better management of the land, animal impact and duration of grazing periods are in place. This would be the only way to improving rangeland ecosystems through the use of livestock as a solution to the problem of land degradation. It would also be the chance to improve the life of the people of the savannahs supporting them in contributing more to the life and economy of their countries.
William ole Ntele