The traditional way of life that centers around livestock herding for food, clothing, materials, and trade, known as pastoralism, has been developed over many centuries as a sustainable livelihood in the world’s arid and semi-arid regions. The pastoral lifestyle was found to be the best way to sustain society in these often harsh areas.
As noted in the African Union’s Policy Framework for Pastoralism in Africa: “Pastoralism is found in all regions of Africa and in some regions, is the dominant livelihoods system… pastoral areas occupy about 40 percent of Africa’s land mass , albeit with significant variations between countries.” The policy framework also highlights that approximately 268 million pastoralists live all over the African continent, making the lifestyle a central part of Africa’s culture, history and heritage.
During the colonial period, populations in Africa that did not solely depend on cultivation for their livelihoods were labeled “savage” and backward”. Policies of colonial governments were purely attempts to force pastoralists to ‘civilize’ and become sedentary. Post-colonial governments haven’t done much different. Actually, the loss of pastoral lands accelerated in the post-independence era.
Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, was well known for insulting Ethiopia’s pastoralist communities, in a 2011 speech at the 13th annual Pastoralist Day in Jinka, the main town of South Omo, he stated the pastoral region is: “known as backward in terms of civilization” and that “we want our people to have a modern life and won’t allow them to be a case study of ancient living for scientists and researchers.” He also went on to denounce international environmental and human rights groups in opposition to planned development projects in pastoral areas as “best friends of backwardness and poverty.”
Struggles over land have been increasing across the continent, especially the land traditionally used or occupied by pastoralist communities. This is exacerbated by the current land grab rush all over Africa. Although most pastoral rangeland is unsuitable for large-scale agriculture, governments and regional authorities are encouraging sedentary farming, constricting and displacing pastoral groups.
In a joint report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review of Cameroon the Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Association (MBOSCUDA) stated that the pastoral Mbororo-Fulani “face serious threats to their existence as a people.” The Mobororo-Fulani have been in conflict with one of Cameroon’s wealthiest men for decades. Baba Ahmadou Danpullo owns a massive ranch that has been heavily encroaching on pastoral grazing lands. There are also charges that the millionaire has stolen cattle and women in addition to land. His money and influence over politicians has kept him from being held responsible.
On the other side of the continent, in Tanzania, a Barabaig pastoralist has told Think Africa Press:
The government tells us we are all Tanzanians, yet we see the rich people from Dar es Salaam entering the areas we have been for decades and buying large swathes of land, forcing us to move away into areas with no water or insufficient grass and then the government commands us to reduce herds. Who tells the city people to reduce their cars.
For decades pastoral communities of Tanzania have been forced to leave their ancestral lands to make way for other land uses, including large-scale crop cultivation, creation of Wildlife Protected Areas such as Game Reserves and the expansion of National Parks, mining, construction of military barracks, as well as sports hunting.
In North-East Uganda, the Karamojong pastoralist people, like most pastoralists and other Indigenous Peoples, prefer to regulate and govern themselves. Not able to tolerate diversity, the State is uncomfortable with this, and has been actively involved in asserting control over them.
Utilizing the post 9/11 international fear of terrorism, the Ugandan government has been supported by the international community for years in brutally forcing the Karamojong to disarm their guns collected mainly for protection from cattle rustling. As one Karamojong informed a BBC reporter, “We wanted to protect ourselves because no government security agency has ever provided security for us and our cows.”
The media has played a crucial role in advancing negative ideas about pastoralists, influencing the public’s opinion as well as policy development. A recent study by the International Institute for Environment and Development has found that most stories featuring pastoralists in Kenya are considered ‘bad news’ stories, 93% analyzed in the study featured conflict, drought and poverty. The voices of pastoralists in stories that feature pastoralism in Kenya are included in only about 41%, less than half the time. Focusing on the negative stereotypes, media portrayals of pastoralism do not take into account the economic value and environmental benefits of pastoralism.
Since colonial times, policy makers, media, and the wider society have viewed pastoralists as ‘backward’, ‘uneconomic’, and ‘environmentally destructive’. However, it has been the ill-conceived forced settlement policies that have forced many pastoral communities into poverty, causing conflict and environmental degradation. In the harsh arid and semi-arid lands occupied and used by pastoralists, they actually do prove to be the most cost-effective and climate resilient livelihood system.
In fact, another study from the International Institute for Environment and Development found that in Ethiopia revenues per hectare are higher in areas devoted to pastoral livestock than in areas devoted to either sugar or cotton. The higher revenues of pastoralism are coupled with the avoided environmental costs of damaging soils and creating weed infestations (expensive to rehabilitate) associated with the large-scale irrigation and agricultural schemes being developed in Ethiopia.
Governments have proven unable to understand pastoralism, leading to poor policies that are undermining pastoral livelihood strategies. Pastoralism is a traditional system devoted to the protection of the environment, and growing evidence is showing its necessity. It produces 80% of total annual milk supply in Ethiopia as well as 90% of the meat consumed in East Africa. Without a better understanding of the economic value of pastoralism as well as the environmental benefits herding brings to rangelands, and without equity at the center of policy making, the current and historical discrimination against pastoralism will lead pastoral communities further into poverty and conflict.