Written by Sergio Magnani
The need for pastoralists to be mobile in order to cope with environmental variability has always puzzled development interventionists in Africa’s drylands. Increasingly, this is also perceived as a main trigger/driver of conflict in the continent.
In Western Africa, conflict over resources in dryland settings is often caricaturized by the simplification of sedentary farmers coming into contact with mobile herders. This perception is still widely spread, despite the Declarations of Ndjamena (2013) and that of Nouakchott (2013) that reaffirm the strategic role of pastoralism in making rangelands secure and reiterating the rights of herders to implement their mobility in order to pursue their livelihoods. Aversion towards pastoral mobility is rooted in a political desire for social control, which also reflects many scientists’ concerns for analysing stable systems. Such an approach posits the need to reduce livestock interactions with the environment, seek more and more artificial conditions in order to overcome the major climatic and environmental variability of semi-arid habitats and thereby “secure” and increase pastoral production.
Ending pastoral mobility implies drastic changes: the settlement of pastoralists around permanent water points, the progressive replacement of pasture with fodder crops and industrial animal feeds and the “improvement” of herds genetics through the introduction of non-indigenous breeds selected for their efficiency in transforming inputs into outputs. These are the visible trends in some pastoral regions of the world, as analysed in a recent PASTRES paper.
In the last few decade, a considerable volume of scientific literature has shown that this model is not workable because it fails to take into account the ecology of semi-arid climates and the characteristics of their production systems. A number of multidisciplinary studies have shown that such habitats, characterised by rainfall patterns with systematic spatial, inter- and intra-annual variability, cannot be considered as stable or in equilibrium. In these environments, the extreme variability of rainfall patterns has a much wider influence on the vegetation than animals’ grazing. These studies have shown the shortcomings of the concepts underpinning the models of ‘rational pasture management’ in these environments, starting with ‘carrying capacity’ and its corollary of ‘overgrazing’, and the role they play in the desertification narrative .
Imposed stability that generates turbulence
In Western African drylands, recent research that examines livestock husbandry practices and local cattle breeds has undertaken a more innovative perspective (Schareika, 2003; Krätli, 2007; Krätli and Schareika, 2010; Krätli, 2015), demonstrating how environmental diversity and climatic variability can be an opportunity to be exploited rather than a risk to be minimised. Variable rainfall and the diversity of soil types, topographies and vegetation allow mobile pastoralists to exploit a range of different pastures at the optimum stage of their growth and over a longer period than in stable and homogenous climatic conditions. This capacity to exploit the short-term effects of environmental variability on the nutritional value of plants is key to ensuring high-quality animal nutrition. Local breeds perform better in such demanding conditions as they have been selected on the basis of their ability to increase mobility and to withstand periods of undernutrition without danger.
Stability reduces the internal flexibility by which pastoral systems manage variability and thus produces increasing turbulence in pastoral production. So, if such models and interventions structurally contradict their primary goals of producing stability, why are they, along with their theoretical basis, so persistent in the policy patterns for development in the drylands?
Insights from the Middle Valley of the Senegal River
A case-study analysis from the Middle Valley of the Senegal River provides some answers to this question. Fifty years of development interventions have seen pastoralists excluded from the Valley, which was steered towards irrigated agriculture. Having been thus ‘stabilised’ in the hinterland, where they settled around boreholes, pastoralists have lost access to the differentiated habitats that they used during the seasonal transhumance in the Valley and have come to rely only on the resources of the drier areas that used to be their wet-season rangelands. Today, mobility takes place in the dry season, when the pastures around nearby settlements and boreholes are progressively exhausted. Pastoralists then follow unpredictable itineraries at the time of the year when livestock-feeding options are limited.
In an attempt to compensate for low-quality resources and frequent scarcity, pastoralists are forced to turn to expensive industrial cattle feeds, facing difficult decisions about which of their animals to prioritise. These changes have accentuated the seasonal character of dairy production, led to the loss of valuable economic exchanges with farmers (milk, cereal and manure) and increased inequality within pastoralist social groups.
Within this context, an industrial dairy business (https://lalaiterieduberger.wordpress.com) was established in 2006 to collect pastoral milk within the area surrounding the city of Richard Toll. The industrial dairy provides feed inputs on credit (agro-industrial sugarcane residues and industrial cattle feeds) to stabilise the dairy cow herds throughout the year, so as to limit the variation in volumes collected.
The system proves unviable for pastoralists during the dry season, as revenues from milk sales cannot cover the cost of both sugarcane residues and industrial cattle feeds. Nevertheless, pastoralists maintain their participation in milk collection during this period, as this allows them to secure milk sales during the rainy season, when there is surplus milk, with the dairy prioritising its most loyal suppliers. Selling milk during the dry season is also a means of obtaining feed inputs on credit, a major advantage especially during droughts. This system also enables seasonal community splitting, by settling the most fragile members of both the families and the herds (the elderly, children, dairy cows and calves) in the camp for the dry season. This spares them the difficulties of the transhumance while supporting a differentiated form of mobility.
This conceptual discrepancy is relatively well understood by both parties, each using the other for their own ends. The measures implemented by the industrial dairy thus function only when they are compatible with the strategies of the pastoralists, as they result in making their systems more flexible and increasing their options to better manage their operations in a difficult context.
The political economy of development interventions
The role played by the techno-scientific model of intensification is extremely political: social business is useful to promote a positive image of the company, as well as to bring together a range of diverse actors (foundations and investment funds, a multinational enterprise, NGOs, international cooperation agencies and research institutions). The model pools expertise from strategic domains and ensures favourable access to public as well as private funding, minimising the economic investment and risk for the company. Locally, intensification allows the dairy to forge a strategic partnership with the sugar industry, a major actor in the local politics of land and water. This indirectly supports historical and ongoing patterns of land grabbing processes which are increasing widely in the Valley. Overall, this helps to legitimise the interests of agribusiness within development decision-making circles and depoliticise the appropriation of pastoral resources.
The persistence of classic development orientations despite their practical inconsistency becomes thus clearer if/when we focus on the institutional and power dimensions underpinning international development and cooperation.
Sergio Magnani has a PhD in Social Anthropology from the French School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences. His work focuses on the dynamics of the social and economic change of pastoralists in semi-arid Sahelian environments. He is currently an independent researcher in Anthropology and an advisor in pastoral development. He has recently undertaken a research project on the circulation of knowledge within development arenas in the Sahel and the reconfiguration of development policy according to security agendas.
Photo Credit: Sergio Magnani