Herders for hire

All over pastoral regions, an increasing presence of hired herders or shepherds is reported. Hiring herding labour to take care of the livestock of wealthier households is not new; this phenomenon is, however, intensifying across pastoral settings. The shift from household labour to an external, salaried workforce in herding activities is reshaping pastoralists’ responses to uncertainties.

This is part of a wider process of commoditisation of pastoral resources as, after land and livestock, even labour can be rented and hired. It results also from the social stratification and differentiation that has affected rural societies, resulting in a degree of proletarianization of some pastoral groups. Selling herding labour represents an opportunity for members of impoverished pastoral households to generate an income through the sale of their skills, time and services.

The cases of many Fulani cattle herders in the Sahelian region or Somali camel herders in the Horn exemplify this. Cases are reported as well in India, where members of pastoral castes not owning livestock sell their services by looking after and grazing the animals belonging to others.

Livestock owners hiring herders can be absent landlords, remotely based or just living nearby and checking on herd management through mobile phone. Absentee ownership is particularly reported in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia. Purchasing livestock and hiring herders might represent a form of commercial investment from wealthy individuals from non-pastoral settings, who are then able to exploit rangeland resources for their own profit.

Cases exist whereby absentee owners are speculative investors. They keep their herds for profit, investment or just as a secure asset. At times payment is not entirely monetised, and herders enjoy rights over the milk from the herd. In other cases, the herd’s offspring can also be part of the deal. In MENA region, absentee ownership can result from the emigration of male members of pastoral households, and the phenomenon of ‘substitutional’ pastoralism (nomadisme par bergers interposés), whereby the emigrants’ herd is taken care of through salaried herders paid with remittance money.

This phenomenon is indicative of wider social and cultural shifts. Like in any other domain of the agrarian world, some local youth are not necessarily interested in following their family’s footsteps. Younger members of pastoral households may prefer looking into alternative livelihoods for their future, yet still retaining a connection to their pastoral homes. In some areas, such out-migration takes place at a high rate , giving rise to difficulties in finding skilled and motivated shepherds. As labour is a main input for this extensive production system, this results in a major problem of generational renewal for certain pastoral areas/groups.

Hired herders may also be migrants. There are cases of sub-Saharan African herders working in Maghreb countries; in Mediterranean Europe an important component of the shepherding workforce comes from abroad. Often shepherds originate from Romania, Albania, Macedonia and Romania, bringing with them direct experience with extensive livestock production systems.

Economic and administrative problems for migrant hired herders are substantial. Remaining in their new countries and integrating into the sector – and so eventually evolving from workers/shepherds to livestock owners in their own right – is frequently difficult. However, the remittances sent back by migrant shepherds often contribute to the reconstitution or expansion of flocks in the origin community, often in association with other relatives.

A skilled, immigrant workforce, which often provides labour at low costs, is part of a shift in strategy as pastoralists face new uncertainties. Mobilising labour means that marginal resources are used and pastoral territories remain recognised. As an approach to navigating marginal contexts and as a way to live with and through surrounding uncertainties, hired herders in pastoral areas are increasingly important.

Main image: Migrant shepherds in Veneto (Italy). Credit: Valentina de Marchi

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