Pastoralism in the uncertainty of war and exile: insights from Jordan

By Mathilde Gingembre (Independent researcher, PASTRES affiliate)

An uncertain future

What can we learn from the way pastoralists deal with uncertainty?  This powerful question, at the heart of PASTRES’ work, immediately resonated with me. Observing pastoral dynamics here in Jordan, where I currently live, I began asking myself: What are the conditions for pastoralists’ continuous adaptiveness? Is there not a point where we can say that there is simply no more space for adaptability?

This question came to me after a discussion I had with Professor Abu-Zanat.  “If things don’t change”, he said, “in 30-40 years, there won’t be any more pastoralists in Jordan”. This assertion came as a big shock.  In the Middle East, pastoralism has a history of nearly 9,000 years! And as a professor who has been carrying out extensive research on rangeland and livestock in Jordan and the Middle East, Mahfouz Abu-Zanat knows what he’s talking about.

Pic 2 Jordanian shepards in the region of Um Qais.jpg

(Jordanian shepherds in the region of Um Qais. Credits: Mathilde Gingembre)

Shrinking spaces of adaptability?

The Levant region provides a compelling illustration of the resilience of pastoral populations in contexts of uncertainty. Besides the water scarcity caused by the hot and arid weather,  with average annual rainfall between 50 and 150 mm, the region experiences strong annual climatic variations.  Pastoral nomadism, which has been traced back to the 7th millennium BCE, has been an essential ingredient of adaptation to the spatio-temporal changes in vegetation and water availability. With water scarcity, rangeland degradation, poor biomass production and climate shocks having worsened in the past decades, pastoral mobility remains critical. Yet moving around in search of natural pastures has become increasingly difficult. Below I outline some of the drivers influencing pastoralists’ shrinking space of adaptability.

Pic 3 Syrian Pastoralist in Mafraq, north of Jordan.JPG

(Syrian pastoralist in Mafraq, north of Jordan. Credits: Mathilde Gingembre)

Land privatisation

Although rangelands are said to account for 80 to 90% of the country’s landscape, significant portions of this “open-rangeland” have been enclosed for speculative or private ventures.  Jordan’s population has doubled in the space of 15 years, a demographic growth accelerated by the flow of refugees from neighbouring countries: Syria and Iraq mainly, but also from Yemen, Sudan and Somalia. Combined with the rapid development of agribusiness, industry and construction sectors, the sprawling urbanisation that has ensued has triggered a sharp increase in land prices and resulted in decreased availability of rangeland for livestock grazing.   Most of the water used in farming is also in private hands, with rich businessmen acquiring or renting wells and reservoirs and then selling the water to agropastoralists.

Pic 4 Al Himma Hot springs.Prior to their privatisation,the springs were used by local farmers.jpg

(Al Himma Hot Springs. Prior to their privatisation, the springs were used by local farmers. Credits: Mathilde Gingembre)

Inconsistent agricultural policies

Severely degraded, today Jordanian rangelands hardly provide 15% of animal feed. With the nationalisation of land in Jordan, traditional ‘tribal’ systems of land control have been eroded, leading to problems of uncontrolled early grazing . The increasing use of trucks to bring water to the herds further decreased incentives for seasonal transhumance, concentrating animals and accelerating the degradation of natural pastures.

Pic 5 Pastoral settlement,airport road, Amman.jpg


(Pastoral settlement, Airport road, Amman. Credits: Mathilde Gingembre)

Agricultural policies have also been encouraging Bedouin pastoralists to keep large numbers of animals. Significant state subsidies on animal manufactured feeds have long been provided to livestock owners. Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, the government of Jordan suddenly stopped feed subsidies in 1986, a shock to which Jordanian pastoralists responded to in a variety of innovative ways. Subsidies have since then resumed, but their uncertainty makes it hard for livestock owners to make stable economic predictions.

Pic 6 Manufactured feeds are a mix of low quality barley and other cereals.jpg

(Manufactured feeds are a mix of low quality barley and other cereals. Credits: Anas Amarneh)

International competition

Neoliberal policies have also resulted in challenging international competition for Jordanian pastoralists.  Jordan is importing roughly 700,000 head of live animals per year. Most of them come from Romania, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil. This is a tough competition for Jordanian livestock owners. On local markets, a 25 kg Baladi (local) sheep is sold for 160Jd, whilst a 35 kg Romanian sheep is sold for 130Jd.  This can be explained by the fact that a major company holds a strong monopoly on live animal transportation and imports to Jordan. These imports are sometimes framed as filling a gap, with regards to Jordan’s low ratio of self-sufficiency for meat products (34%).

What this number obscures is the fact that the country is simultaneously exporting 500,000 live animals to Saudi Arabia and the UAE per year, where high sale prices can be realised. Whilst livestock international trade business owners may be benefiting from this, poorer pastoralists who sell on the Jordanian markets are forced to lower their sale prices to compete.

Pic 7 Goats and sheep being trucked to Saudi Arabia for sale.jpg

(Goats and sheep being trucked to Saudi Arabia for sale. Credits: Mathilde Gingembre)

Regional insecurity

Of all the causes of unpredictability for pastoralists in the Levant, regional insecurity certainly features highly. In the past thirty years, Jordan has been neighbour to many wars: from the Gulf war in the 1990s,  to the current war in Syria,  the Iraqi war that followed the American invasion (2003-2011), the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war and the Iraqi war with ISIS (2014-2018). And this not mentioning the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict and recurring clashes in the Egyptian Sinai. Although the Hashemite kingdom has remarkably remained spared from all the violent turmoil, this regional context is so pregnant that it shapes pretty much every aspect of Jordan’s history, economy, politics and diplomacy and affects the everyday life of its people in significant ways.

Pic 8 Jordanian livestock owner and his son, part-time military, part-time shepard.JPG

(Jordanian livestock owner and his son, part-time military, part-time shepherd. Credits: Mathilde Gingembre)

As far as the Syrian crisis is concerned, Jordan is one of the most affected country with the second highest share of Syrian refugees compared to its population (nearly 10% of its population). Despite the camp policy implemented by the Jordanian state, 80% of Syrians live in “host communities”, in the north of Jordan mainly. With the war in Syria now entering its eighth year, the government of Jordan and humanitarian agencies have shifted their focus from emergency response to longer-term interventions, with a strong emphasis on promoting livelihoods and enhancing resilience. With Jordan’s fast-paced urbanisation and industrialisation, agrarian livelihoods are not at the top of people’s agenda however. Despite the fact that small ruminants are often the sole source of income and food security for many rural households, very few agencies are supporting those who are living from livestock. Lack of information might be to blame.

For pastoralists, this context of regional insecurity translates into varying challenges. There is the pressure that the successive waves of refugees have put on public services and on natural resources. Additionally, Jordanian pastoralists suffer from the closure of seasonal migration routes, hindrances to international trade in agricultural and livestock products and, critically, from the arrival of new animal diseases. For those pastoralists who have settled in Jordan to escape war-torn countries, it means finding the strength and resilience to reinvent new livelihoods, with the scars of violence, trauma and loss, and without knowing when or whether, they will be able to return to home. Livestock is sometimes part of this new story.

Contexts of uncertainty

Pastoralists’ pathways of adaptability and resilience are being challenged in several ways. There is intense competition for land, as it is privatised and as rangelands are encroached and fragmented; subsidies for animal feed have reduced incentives to manage rangelands through careful movement; there is high competition in markets from cheap imports, while only some gain access to lucrative Middle Eastern markets; and, above all, regional insecurity and the flow of refugees – many former pastoralists – has had major impacts on Jordanian pastoral systems.

The research project I’m working on with PASTRES explores how those contexts of uncertainty are currently being experienced and shaped by Jordanian and Syrian pastoralists. Building on the work of Professor Abu-Zanat, I will highlight the lessons that can be learned from pastoralists’ practices of adaptation to this context of acute competition and uncertainty. In future blog posts, I will share the stories of some of the Syrian and Jordanian pastoralists that are facing these challenges.

Pic 9 Research trip in Subha, Mafraq.jpeg

(Research trip, Mathilde Gingembre and Anas Amarneh (Research assistant) in Subha, Mafraq. Credits: Mohammed Zuhlof)


2 thoughts

  1. Anything like expressing a reservation about your post will seem gratuitous on my part in light of the undoubted hardship and hardscrabble conditions you describe and picture.

    So, to be clear, what follows is a question and explanation you and your colleagues may be the only ones positioned to answer—a question which I don’t know the answer to but a question whose answer, I do know, must be very policy-relevant.

    After reading your post, a reader might well ask: “What to do?” or “Where to start making things better?”

    Neither question, though, is the first to ask. The logically and empirically prior question of your argument is this: Is what is happening there now worse than what has happened before for herders?

    Yes, what is happening now is unique—a unique confluence of regional insecurity, neoliberal policies, restricted mobility, and the many other factors you name—but the unique happens all the time in a world of high-variability pastoralisms.

    Answering the question, “Has equivalent hardship periodically happened before to pastoralists there?” is a priority because your point in the blog is I think this: After a long history of adaptation, pastoralism there is reaching its limits in terms of resilience, flexibility and adaptation in the face of an unprecedented set of hardships. But if equally worse conditions have been encountered before, then we would have to ask, Are there identifiable practices herders routinely undertake when “resilience is at its limits” in order to cope with if not actually manage better as pastoralists?

    Again to be clear, current conditions could well be leading to unprecedented hardships. But the reason I ask the preceding question is because of your blog’s excellent links to other material.

    One link took me to research arguing that the long history of pastoralism in the research area has been a history of dynamic change—grazing and water areas developed, then abandoned, then reused; addition of new activities like “dairying”; evidence of trade networks and flint mining (read: “non-farm employment”) along with evidence of: (“non-pastoralist”) remnant hunting-and-gathering; subsistence (“rainfed”) agriculture; and what we would now call town/urban (read: “off-farm activities”) activities. Am I wrong in reading some of this history as intermittency (in some cases, rupture) akin to the way the present is described in your blog?

    The upshot is this: When hardships associated with rain-fed agriculture, and trading, and flint mining, and town activities, and more “displaced” what had already been difficult livestock activities, were these displacements also forms of depastoralization like those I take you to be describing?

    If not, then what’s so new about the (re)newed plights and hardships of herders—today’s marketization, range degradation, increased livestock numbers—which again your great links suggest have been going on for, what, three decades with little end in sight?

    Such considerations mean that, yes, restricting access to a water point that has recently become privatized is a true, pressing hardship; but involuntary restricting herder access to water points is nothing new—right?—in your pastoralist environment (e.g., due to lack of rainfall at the sites, which in turn historically affected water-harvesting there, which in turn affected….).

    To repeat: I am very willing to accept that conditions there have never been worse—after all, there are more people and more livestock than ever before—right?—so in the sheer aggregate sense, misery is larger.

    Even then, though, I would have to revert to that other link you gave for the exceptional IFAD project, which I quote in part: “With this new project, access to financial services will also be provided to vulnerable women, men and youth from Jordanian host communities and highly vulnerable Syrian refugees, as well as to individual entrepreneurs in need of loans for their enterprises and for on-farm and off-farm activities, including loans for the purchase of small ruminants for breed improvement and feed supply.”

    In short, when hasn’t pastoralism been about the “off-farm”—importantly and strategically? Pastoralisms as they have evolved have gone—can I say, persistently?—beyond a conventionalized focus on the search for pasture and water only—or am I wrong about your specific case? But that is another question whose answers deserve another time.

    I hope you do not see this comment as in any way dismissive of your blog and the plights you describe.


  2. Thank you for this excellent set of questions and the opportunity it gives me to better stress the question mark after the quoted statement on the “chronicle of a death foretold” regarding pastoralists in Jordan. The last few weeks spent discussing with Jordanian and Syrian pastoralists would certainly make me want to question any definitive statement about pastoralism reaching its limit in terms of resilience. To answer your question, I think that what is new about the current plight is the extent and pace of land fragmentation and privatisation, as well as the demographic growth caused by the Syrian crisis but otherwise many of the challenging conditions I describe have indeed been there for several decades. And as excellent anthropologists such as Alan Rowe have described, pastoralists have found many innovative ways to adapt in the past. With strategies including on and off-farm work indeed and more generally, urban-rural networks of trade and support. What the people I have talked to have stressed as a new challenge and source of suffering is the disinterest shown by both state, international NGOs and the general public about pastoralists’ livelihoods and contribution to the local economy. So whilst I am conscious of how narratives of rangeland degradation (and maybe of imminent threats to pastoralists’ way of life) are and can be instrumentalised by governments and rent-seeking states in general, I am also keen to get the voices of these people out. Stress the lessons that can be learnt from some of the ways that many Syrian pastoralists have managed to rebuild livelihoods from scratch and without any support, and how Jordanians who also live off livestock have also adapted (and what it may have meant for those who have failed to); but also emphasise those shrinking spaces of adaptability in which they find themselves to ask whether other policy and aid programming contexts are not possible. Again thank you for these great questions, which should keep me busy for a while and have further stressed the importance of following up on this first blog with posts on people’s inspiring responses to this context.


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