Pastoral territories constitute about two thirds of total land area in the Maghreb, a region in North Africa that includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya and (parts of) Mauritania. Small stock rearing remains a pervasive strategy for most rural communities in the region. Although the land for pastoral use has been shrinking (see graph below), pastoralism continues to be an important source of livelihood in the region. The share of livestock in agricultural GDP ranges from 26 percent in Morocco to 70 percent in Mauritania. The biggest pastoral countries in terms of rangelands areas are Morocco and Algeria, with approximately 40% of their territory classified as steppe. Egypt, Libya and Mauritania are mostly desert countries where rangelands represent a very tiny percentage of the national territory.
The variety of ecosystems found in the region (mountain ranges, coastal areas, the pre-Saharan belt and hyper-arid microclimates) provides a natural background for diverse pastoral systems that respond differently to external pressures. Nevertheless, we can still identify crosscutting trends of the pressures that have been shifting contexts for pastoralists in the last four decades in the Maghreb.
New interconnections and networks
While areas of pasture may have shrunk, pastoral territories have also expanded and reconfigured, through new interconnections and networks. This has been promoted by technological developments: specifically in modern means of communication and transportation.
Remittances are essential in pastoral areas, creating new networks. Today, many pastoral communities count on members that have emigrated to coastal regions, urban areas or to another country for earning remittances. Recently the drop in remittances value due to the war in Libya, exchange rate depreciation with other countries, and recent tightening of EU immigration rules is changing this trend, possibly a reason behind pastoralists turning to illicit activities to support their households.
Household sedentarisation, a widespread policy objective in the region since the early 1900s, has been accompanied by an increasing ‘mechanisation’ of rangelands. Pastoral mobility has changed accordingly, as herds are moved with trucks, or fodder and water are moved to the animals. These patterns, together with intense investments in boreholes and changes in market networks, have drastically reshaped the use of livestock resources.
The intensification of livestock rearing and the growing wage labour market have indirectly resulted in new social dynamics with implications on rangeland health. Examples include the hiring of herders from sub-Saharan countries on Libyan rangelands, and the increasing role women assume in livestock breeding in Morocco, as men have emigrated for work, with implications for livestock mobility and rangelands management.
As urban areas increasingly demand animal protein for food, new social groups, including commercial livestock entrepreneurs, absentee livestock owners, petty traders and destitute nomads have contributed to the emergence of new social and economic tissues. Mobile technology has reinforced these social connections, expanding networks with markets and traders, hired herders, and authorities. New interconnections and networks have developed, and a new social and economic fabric has evolved, extending the territories and the resources available to pastoral livelihoods.
Not everyone has been able to tap into and benefit from these new networks equally. With changes in patterns of livestock ownership, such as greater absentee livestock ownership, there are impacts on natural resource use. For example, in Mauritania, this has been an important phenomenon where, living in urban centres, well-off traders, politicians and possibly traffickers become involved in pastoralism by investing in large herds; acting for some as a form of money laundering. The result has been crowding out of resources for small-scale pastoralists.
Major socio-economic restructuring, following the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, coupled with high rates of outmigration to urban areas, triggered important policy reforms to incentivise rural development. Following neo-liberal paradigms, public intervention and investments were refocused on areas with higher agricultural and tourist potential, crowding out natural resources used by pastoralists. In ‘lower potential’ areas, policies focused on expanding the market for livestock, their products, as well as for their inputs (animal feeding represents today about one third of food imports in MENA). The state assisted this process through subsidised schemes for animal feeds and health services. In order to articulate with state services and market opportunities, new producers’ associations or cooperatives were formed.
For example, in Tunisia the conversion of the most fertile rangelands to cereal, olive oil or almond production (largely induced by national subsidy schemes) has drastically reduced rangelands. As a result the contribution of rangelands to livestock feed has decreased by about 20-25% in 25 years. Artificial support through the import of feed, feed subsidies and feed transfer from favourable areas have become essential.
Another reason for the reduction of rangelands has been the process of collective land privatisation. Reshaping of land structures and shifts in ownership rights meant that many parcels lost their rangeland function as they were converted into crop land. This reduction in collective rangelands has thus encouraged the emergence of more formal local structures, such as the Groupements de Développement Agricole (GDA), to coordinate the remaining, over-used collective rangelands. GDAs have now replaced traditional tribal institutions governed by the rules of intra- and inter-tribal social contracts called the “Miâad”, and in some areas, the role of the GDA is very much criticised. Taken together, the institutional restructuring and the increasing pressure from state structures has contributed to altering pastoral practices and rangeland management.
Regional and global exposure
As pastoral systems have changed, the perimeter of pastoral livelihoods has expanded beyond national and regional borders, with important implications for livestock and other movements (see earlier PASTRES blog). Most pastoral communities are connected to other family members who have moved to coastal regions, urban areas or to another country. In addition, tourism is generating new income opportunities in mountainous areas and enhancing the exposure to different cultures.
At the interface between the Sahara and the Mediterranean, connected to the Sahel, Maghreb rangelands are increasingly crossed by flows of people, animals, trucks, migrants, trade, smugglers, information networks and political agendas. National borders in the region have sometimes hardened and elsewhere collapsed, as a result of political tensions and civil strife. This has, as in Algeria, Libya and Tunisia, increased restrictions to access livestock resources, while creating opportunities for trade, trafficking and insurgent militias.
Pastoral territories are also changing from within. The Mediterranean is reportedly the second most exposed region in the world to climate change, with 25% rainfall reduction projected along its southern rim in forthcoming decades. Furthermore, the region has witnessed rapid population growth, which is only recently reaching demographic transition rates.
While pastoral production systems seem better equipped to tackle hotter and drier environments, shrinking land resources and increasing competition for water contribute to amplifying the vulnerability of pastoral livelihoods. Today, mosaics of over- and under-utilised grazing resources exist throughout the region, together with localised processes of degradation of the natural resource base.
Uncertainties and insecurities
Uncertainties and insecurities have shifted in nature as well as in scale in the Maghreb, with major changes in patterns of mobility of both people and livestock. The landscapes available and the resources accessible to pastoralists are being continuously reshaped by processes unfolding outside the realm of animal production, and very often also outside regional boundaries.
Pastoral livelihoods have responded to these new complexities, changes and stresses by diversifying. Today, most pastoral households in the Maghreb live in a pluralised economy, with a multiplicity of activities undertaken by the different members, often split between the traditional tent or farm, and the village, city, and/or Europe. Traditional mechanisms aimed at redistributing resources, risks, roles, rights and responsibilities that once sustained some form of resilient pastoral systems, have faded, contributing to the generation of tensions.
Authors: Michele Nori and Linda Pappagallo
Image credit: Martina de Angeli