Institutional flexibility: A pastoral resource for living with socio-ecological uncertainty

Written by Francesco Staro

Water management and access plays a pivotal role for mobile livestock keepers living in semi-arid and high variable environments. Watering rights for livestock consumption during drought periods is crucial for the organisation of seasonal movements; these are deeply embedded in social organisation, identities dynamics and regional alliances to access pastoral resources.

The institutional systems that serve to govern and manage access rights to pastoral wells in a context of socio-ecological uncertainty are grounded in flexibility. This means that water arrangements do not vary only according to irregular rainfall patterns, seasonality and environmental variability. Other factors are at stake, as pastoral water management is part of the socio-economic relations between pastoralists and other resource users. The importance of these relationships and arrangements are critical for understanding pastoral and nomadic societies; these have been for a long time misconceived by a “water scarcity” narrative, which disconnected water (conceived as a “natural” resource) from social and economic processes, as part of a wider political marginalisation of mobile groups.

Re-socialize pastoral resources

In order to “re-socialise” pastoral waters, it is thus important to acknowledge the dynamic character of social institutions in regulating access to water and other pastoral resources, which reflects both social and ecological processes. Consider for example the pasture/water nexus in semi-arid environments. If pasture depends mainly on rains, during dry seasons its potential use depends on access to nearby water points. In areas far away from annual water streams, one might say that rangelands becomes accessible thanks to existing relations between herders who constructed or manage a water point together.

As to a Somali saying “while it is true the people cannot survive in drylands during dry seasons without camels, and their milk – the reverse applies as well, as camels could not survive alike, as they need people to get water for them”.

Looking at pastoral practices from the point of view of water rights helps thus to conceive pastoral mobility as grounded in this complementarity between ecological variability and social organisation – targeted movements allowing herders to go where good pasture can be found and water can be accessed easily. From this perspective, if seasonal mobility is a key strategy to live in environments characterised by patchy rainfall patterns, institutional flexibility represents a complementary “pastoral resource”, as it must change and adapt to regulate and secure the use of a variable resource.

Flexible institutions, ambiguous concepts

To put things into practice, among nomadic groups in Ethiopian Somali Region, the concept of reer indicates a lineage of the members of the same nomadic camp, who may belong to different agnatic groups. Watering rights based on reer membership may refer to the patrilineal descent line, or to contextual collaborations among herders who keep livestock and move together during seasonal migrations. In this way, both agnatic/patrilinear ties and alliances beyond kinship may be valued in organising access to shared resources.

The ambiguity of reer and other kinship-related concepts turns out to be a resource for the reconfiguration of solidarity groups, as this allows to meet specific and contextual needs related to the ecology and the politics of pastoral production. This confirms the importance of flexibility in institutional arrangements among resource users, which should not be considered as fixed groups within the tribal system. Indeed, the very notion of “users group” (or “beneficiary group”, to use the development jargon) seems inadequate to acknowledge a wide and changing set of relationships pastoralists may use to secure access to wells.

Think about the impact of the monetisation of water access within pastoral economies – a process ongoing in many African drylands. On one side, this process risks harming the poorest households and seems at odds with the customary arrangements that regulate common resources. On the other side, shifting property regimes and monetised access may reflect the reconfiguration of productive practices and economic networks in a changing economic context.

Through the perspective of institutional flexibility regulating access to shared resources we might therefore understand socio-economic change taking place among pastoral communities beyond environmental or cultural determinism. This helps discard any idealised representation of “indigenous knowledge” or “local traditions” for resource management, and might, as well, provide deeper insights in the adaptive mechanisms pastoralists display when integrating their economies in market dynamics. Water rights represent a strategic domain in this perspective, as explored in a recent issue of the Nomadic People journal.

Francesco Staro is an anthropologist (PhD at University Paris 8 Saint Denis, France, and University Milano Bicocca, Italy) and freelance consultant. In his work he focuses on the study of socio-economic change in rural environments and political anthropology of international aid. 

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