Nomadic alarm bells

Nomadic herders who move their cattle ceaselessly across some of the harshest environments in the world in search of grazing land are vital for Africa’s economic prosperity.

However, their way of life is being undermined by governments, conservationists and large-scale farmers, says a study.

Millions of hectares of land traditionally used by pastoralists in Ethiopia, Senegal, Mali, Chad, Kenya and other sub-Saharan countries have been lost to sedentary farming and conservation in the past 50 years, say the authors of Modern and Mobile, published by the International Institute for Environment and Development.

By encouraging a move to a more Westernised model of farming, governments are mistakenly assuming that animal production — for export as well as for local consumption — will increase.

“The slow but inexorable advance of family farms, combined with large-scale farming, is swallowing up vast areas. In East Africa the loss of land to national parks, game reserves, hunting blocks and conservation severely restricts mobility. Lands that have traditionally been used are no longer available,” the study says.

Restrictions on mobility is leading to conflict between pastoralists and farmers, says the book. “Moving is a serious problem. Access to water and markets is increasingly difficult, and the profitability of keeping livestock is being critically undermined. Poverty, resource degradation and conflict are increasing.”

But the study finds Africa’s nearly 50-million pastoralists adapting ­rapidly to the modern world.

“[They] download the latest market prices for cattle on their mobile phones, use cheap Chinese motorbikes to reach distant herds or lost camels, and trek their livestock thousands of kilometres by foot, truck or ship to trade them internationally,” says co-author Cedd Hesse.

The report also says the nomadic cattle of West Africa, Ethiopia and Kenya produce more and better-quality meat, and generate more cash per hectare than “modern” Australian and American ranches, where animals remain in one place.

Unlike other farmers in sub-Saharan Africa who are challenged by frequent droughts, they are proving more resilient to climate change and creating big economic benefits.

“Harsh, arid and unpredictable environments are not obstacles to pastoralists as they would almost inevitably be to other farmers,” says co-author Saverio Kratli.

The authors urge governments and foreign donors to reassess and protect pastoralism.

“The financial inputs are minimal, but the benefits rapidly extend beyond the herders and their communities to enrich the lives of millions of people,” says Hesse. —

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